Month of building dangerously

January 15, 1999

In a Soho-sized cyber city, trouble was always a possibility. Tony Durham tells how community spirit triumphed

During December a city was built in cyberspace, with art galleries, bars and night clubs, spacious mansions, an enigmatic pyramid, a sinister watchtower and a network of roads. Open to anyone with a suitable PC and internet connection, the virtual city has seen an outpouring of architectural creativity and community spirit which helped it survive an outbreak of vandalism.

The 30-day experiment was initiated by Andy Smith, a PhD student at University College London's centre for advanced spatial analysis. It took place in Active Worlds, a universe of three-dimensional worlds, most of which are hosted at a website in the United States (

Anyone can explore the worlds as a "tourist" but a payment of $19.95 buys citizenship and the right to own land and erect permanent buildings.

The oldest and most popular world is Alphaworld, densely developed with citizen-built structures. Smith says his world, hosted on a small server at UCL, is "about the size of Soho in London. Alphaworld covers the size of Southern California."

There are more than 440 worlds in the Active Worlds universe, but many do not allow general building and most are planned, at least to the extent of having a road grid and square plots. Smith, who has a master's degree in city and regional planning from the University of Wales, Cardiff, wanted to see what happened in an initially blank world where anyone could build freely, using a supply of parts. As "Smithee" he spent hours in the world himself, chatting with visitors and watching as they built Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State building or whatever took their fancy. Their dedication was phenomenal: some worked on their structures for nine hours a day.

Vandalism was always a possibility and it happened almost immediately.

Someone started placing objects indiscriminately, damaging buildings. Smith changed the rules so that no one could build where someone else had already placed an object. On day four the vandal returned. Within four hours 85,000 objects were strewn across the world. Normally a day's conventional building would add about 500 objects to the world. The perpetrator probably used an automatic building program, Robobuilder.

By day nine a community spirit had emerged. A builder called Stick was ready to leave, having lost a building to vandalism and another when the server crashed. Betty B, an Active Worlds citizen, offered Stick free citizenship and persuaded him to carry on.

The vandal reappeared on day nine, claiming to be the high commander of the Active Worlds Terrorist Group and threatening a full-scale hack on the server. This never materialised, but Smith was temporarily deprived of email and internet access after the hacker made an entry through his personal web server.

The company which owns Active Worlds, Circle of Fire Studios, traced the incident to a 15-year-old boy in Canada. It is considering legal action.

This incident was qualitatively different from the good-natured clashes which occur in any online community. A strip of unclaimed land within Lorca's plot was used by Tom Huxton to erect a billboard. Everyone had a good laugh at this creative use of space. Likewise when traditionalist Stick objected to the "party house" built by CyberHar on a neighbouring plot and erected a sign: "CyberHar - Yuk! Don't ever decorate my house!"

Personal tastes and free speech are things the community takes in its stride.

The friends - and by now they were friends - gathered in the town square on January 7 to hear the result of the building competition. The winner was Brenda, a Florida resident who built a curvaceous house with panoramic windows. Andy Smith, delighted with the 30-day experiment, is going to invite the builders back, this time for a whole year.

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