The Government of LambdaMoo


The Main Page - A Review

Governance Structures Found in Several Different Text-Based Online Communities

Ethical and Social Problems that Arise in Online Communities

Identities and Social Interactions in MUDs

Online Gaming Communities and Their Governance Structures

Many netizens believe that governance should not be imposed on cyberspace from outside, “the real world.”  In his work “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” Perry Barlow states that “Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract” (Ludlow, 28).  Online communities such as The Well and Electric Minds govern by a Social Contract in addition to a benevolent dictatior or other sort of  non-democratic governance structure. One text-based online community, LambdaMOO, has experimented with various other types of governance structures through the years.

Lambda MOO is an online environment created entirely of text in which it’s members can move from room to room, be whatever kind of creature they desire, interact with other members, create rooms and objects, and use those objects.  All of the activities and descriptions of rooms, people, and objects in LambdaMOO are rendered to participants in the form of text on a screen.

LambdaMOO began as a “wizardocracy,” a governance structure in which the programmers had absolute power and responsibility for solving social conflicts. When the community grew too large for this structure to work effectively, the wizards renounced responsibility for governing the community and entrusted it to the community members.

"I believe that there is no longer a place here for wizard mothers, guarding the nest and trying to discipline the chicks for their own good. It is time for the wizards to give up on the “mother” role and to begin relating to this society as a group of adults with independent motivations and goals.

So, as the last social decision we make for you, and whether or not you independent adults wish it, the wizards are pulling out of the discipline/manners/arbitration business; we’re handing the burden and freedom of that role to the society at large…" (Ludlow, 252)

The wizards developed a petition and arbitration system of governance for the community before they handed over responsibility to the members.  Minimal criteria were established that members had to meet in order to be able to initiate a petition.  Petitions can be drafted addressing “any modification that requires technical action to reach a social goal” (253). Once a petition is drafted it must receive at least 10 signatures from other community members to be submitted to the wizards for “vetting,” wizard approval for the modification to be voted on by the community.  The wizard then decides whether or not to “vett” for a petition on the basis “that the petition be:

  1. appropriate subject matter for petition 
  2. sufficiently precise that the wizard can understand how to implement it
  3. technically feasible
  4. not likely to jeopardize the functional integrity of the MOO
  5. not likely to conflict with real-world laws or regulations” (Ludlow, 253)

Once vetted a petition must receive “5 percent of the average total vote count on all ballots” to be presented to the community in the form of an “open ballot” (Ludlow 253).  Community members may vote on a ballot for two weeks, after which the ballot must be passed “by a two to one margin to be implemented” (Ludlow, 253).  This form of governance allows the community to govern themselves by proposing changes to be implemented in the form of code that effects the social interactions possible in the community. In ther words, “politics in LambdaMOO is implemented through technology.  Political conceptions [are] embedded within the technological constructions of the virtual environment … For example, to prevent people from signing petitions without so much as glancing at them, a player may not sign without first scrolling through a petition beginning to end” (Ludlow, 255).

 Through the petition system, the community established a way of dealing with disputes through arbitration.  The arbitration staff is made up of community volunteers that have at least 4 months of experience as a community member.  All of the individuals involved in the dispute must agree on an arbitrator, choosing from the members that volunteer to arbitrate for the case.  Random assignment is used when an agreement cannot be reached. Arbitrators “hear both sides, collect information, and post their decisions” to a mailing list that is set up especially for the dispute case.  Most arbitrators take their job very seriously and seek advice from other community members.  Punishments that can be assigned through the process of arbitration can involve “almost any action within the MOO” (Ludlow,257).  Possible actions are modifying a player’s quota, recycling a player’s objects, reducing a player’s powers, banning players from the MOO for a period of time, sentencing a player to complete community service, or even “toading” a character (essentially deleting the character from the community).

 Many of the issues that have arisen and been dealt with via the petition and arbitration system in LambdaMOO have fallen under the categories of property rights and speech rights and harassment.  
For an example of such a dispute, read Julian Dibble's “A Rape in Cyberspace.” The governance system of LambdaMOO raises many interesting ethical questions such as: should cyberspace be a place of laws or is it “just a game”? Can technical decisions and  social decisions ever really be separate?  Ethical issues surrounding the different ways that people conceptualize their online communities and the way that those conceptions influence the governance style and level of governance that they believe should be present in the community also abound.  The interactions and dilemmas experienced in LambdaMOO also highlight how difficult it is to differentiate between words and actions in online, text-based communities.


Ludlow, Peter. Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias. 2001 USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Other References to Explore:

Dibbell, Julian. "A Rape in Cyberspace." 1993.

LambdaMOO - The community -