Active Worlds: An Exploration

The Tax Collector Man
9 min readDec 16, 2021

There is a cliché inherent to the discussion of any abandoned digital world — a sort of unspoken Godwin’s Law on how long it takes before someone uses the word “creepy” to describe the oh-so-many abandoned houses which line their oh-so-many quiet streets. An empty house is inextricably tangled into our idea of the horror genre, and so when one is noticed, one cannot help but wonder if the house only looks empty. People start to think of these empty houses as haunted. Unease is gained by wondering what we might not see. Sorrow is gained when you notice what’s really there: nothing. Nothing, and never anything ever again.

There is no grand mystery to uncover. There are no foreboding secrets or hidden and vengeful ghosts in the machine. There are no secret cults or horrific discoveries to be found. The house is as it appears.

Empty.

As I write this, I have been exploring Active Worlds for several days. It is a sort of internet archaeologist heaven, where player-created structures stretch out for what can seem like hundreds of virtual miles. There are many worlds to explore — all of which are anything but active — but this main one, AW, has been running since the mid 90s. By right-clicking on any object, I can see who placed it and when. A sign, itself older than me, tells me that a nearby road network is one of the oldest structures in all of Active Worlds. I am shocked to find out that it was laid down in 1995. The road is not just older than me: it is nearly a decade older than me.

As I sit in a Discord call outlining just how old this road is, even my friends who are in their 20s sit in disbelief. There is a sort of intangible power to this place that defeats the sense of time. Here is an MMO that predates every commonly-cited formative digital space from RuneScape to Second Life by over five years. Here is it, quietly maintained with client updates and running uninterrupted since the 90s. Here is a digital road, paved by someone who might have been 14 or 20 in 1995; they’re over 40 now.

this sign, warning players that the area ahead is a barren wasteland, was placed in the year 2000. the McMansion directly behind it was built in 2019, as if to complete an elaborate punchline decades in the making

Perhaps the strangest thing about Active Worlds isn’t that it’s still running, but that it’s still being maintained. When I connected to the tutorial world, one of the first things I saw was a bot message wishing me a happy 2022. Then, as if to maintain the essential paradox that permeates all of it, the bot posts a Lenny face right after.

People still play Active Worlds, and I’ve even exchanged brief pleasantries with a few of its remaining users. As far as I can tell, the game doesn’t seem to experience “peak hours,” at least not in the traditional sense. The people who still remain to play it just… don’t log off, merely idling while they sleep or go to work. No matter what, the same fifteen people are always on.

Visitors seem rare, but not at all unwelcome. I have no doubt that, if I asked, they would all answer a bunch of my questions and then show me where all the cool shit is. That would no doubt make for a more interesting piece of writing, so I’ll definitely do it in the near future. But for now, I can’t stand to break the strange spell this game has over me by asking for answers or a guiding hand. I am, quite honestly, transfixed by the impossible scale of it all.

intangible monuments scatter the landscape

I’ve found… well, a lot. More than I could ever hope to go over. The particular mechanics of building in Active Worlds, which ensure that player structures cannot be modified or griefed by others, have encased 26 years of digital history in amber. Sometimes, vast cities would stand on their own, perfectly marking a few months of effort from the builders to create a sort of reverse Ozymandias, where ye mighty works stand undespaired and yet untouched by time.

Often, buildings would be less ambitious. The landscape is dotted by those aforementioned empty houses, where nobody lives and where nobody will live ever again. Looking through their rooms fulfills a sort of really benign yet deep wish of mine to be a fly on the wall in largely uninteresting circumstances, like in the living room of someone you’ll never meet. But with nobody to listen in on, all you can do is look. It’s impossible to say how many of these houses are attempted recreations of the owner’s real world home, but in many cases, I believe they’re just that.

there’s no great place for this here but i just wanna say: i found this rpg someone tried to make and it had this big dramatic leadup, but when i clicked on the Dark Lord to start the actual game, it opened a page in my browser discussing the least awkward way to have casual sex. i guess the domain it originally pointed to eventually lapsed and was then bought by someone else. the entire website was in french. sometimes digital entropy is very funny

A few are even unfinished, filled with constructions signs and promising upcoming renovations to bedrooms and the construction of entirely new floors. Checking when these signs were placed reveals a sad but expected truth: the houses have sat unfinished for decades, and nobody is coming to finish them.

“Will anyone even look at them again?” I asked out loud to a friend who was exploring with me. The likely answer is no. Even if this article compelled you to explore these places, you could end up walking in a different direction and then find hundreds of structures I never saw. We could both inhabit the map, walking around all over the place, and never come remotely close to finding each other. You could methodically take to walking from one side of the map to the other, documenting all of it, and spend weeks getting only a rough overview of just how much is here.

this is what you will have to conquer to play Minecraft

It’s a tiny bit like the infamous and long-running 2b2t, a Minecraft server that’s been running since 2010 with a world that’s never been reset. Ironically, it’s regarded as one of the worst Minecraft servers; large swaths of it are completely inhospitable — even getting out of the spawn without starving to death is considered a rite of passage — and players are generally regarded as angry and hostile, destroying anything they find and quick to respond to any sort of kindness with racial slurs.

2b2t, like many similar spaces, is unyielding to digital explorers like me: it is a place which sheds far more history than it ever retains, where killing people before they can reach any of what remains is the name of the game for most players. You can assure yourself that most player-built structures will be seen again… by the last people who will ever seen them before razing them to the ground.

this world has truly moved on

Active Worlds, a place where the passage of time simply isn’t reflected in any conventional sense, where the world is choked with evidence of habitation but empty of inhabitants or obstacles, is the antithesis of 2b2t. The result might be idealistic, but who really cares? Reflecting on the inherent sadness of it all, I am at least comforted by the existence of an empty place where time has stopped, and where someone can be alone with their thoughts for as long as they need. I would rather be here than there.

And then I found the memorials.

experiencing exuberant joy at the discovery of 420N 420E

Active Worlds utilizes a simple coordinate system which you can use to freely teleport anywhere. Eventually, I got the idea to try numbers with some sort of cultural relevance, just to see if anything topical had been placed in the area. With stuff like 420N 420E, this bore fruit: an entire monument to marijuana, complete with the shittiest looking bong I’ve ever seen.

When I tried 911N 2001E, I found about what I expected.

Active Worlds was, well… active on September 11th, 2001. The response seems to have been immediate. Several massive memorials dot the landscape, some encompassing a massive amount of land. They are filled with dioramas, pictures, and signs. So, so many signs.

I have never seen a better medium to experience all of the immediate horror, loss, evangelism, conspiracy, and jingoism following the event in one place. Many signs are sorrowful, even memorializing close friends that lost their lives in the towers themselves. Many others express a strong desire to bomb the entire Middle East somewhere into the last century. None of it is remotely surprising, but having it all collected in one place, with many messages dated to September 12th or the day of, is fascinating. It highlights that these virtual worlds aren’t just valuable to weird nerds like me: there’s a lot of surprising historical significance if you know where to look.

i really hate to say it but this diorama made me lose my shit. whoever built this had… the spirit?

But many of these memorials are far smaller. Calling these places “digital graveyards” is common, but is rarely meant to be taken literally. I don’t think people realize just how many graves are actually here, many for long-deceased Active Worlds users and others for bereaved family. I tend to come across at least one grave an hour, but sometimes I find entire graveyards. Many of these graves include real names as well as usernames, and some even contain pictures of the person in question.

Unfortunately, though Active Worlds remains operational, many old image hosting sites do not. Several graves showed harsh static instead of actual pictures, meaning that the links the screens once pointed to are now… well, not up anymore. This contrast, of graves which displayed harsh static above sad eulogies, was an extremely weird fucking sight, like the album cover to a band that plays a genre you’ve never heard of before. I did my best to pay my respects regardless.

this is the only time in my life that i will have been happy to see the word “Sneed”

At one point, I mistyped some coordinates while trying to find a friend and ended up close to a recreation of Sneed’s Feed & Seed from an old Simpsons episode. I investigated this mirage — which is really what it was in the end, because I’m still not sure how I ended up here and I’ll probably never find it again — only to find that it had been built recently. Not the Active Worlds definition of “recently,” but ten actual days ago. Discovering the presence of a modern meme (from an admittedly old thing) in the middle of nowhere caused me to feel almost hilariously like I was being watched, like the realization just hit me that there were still people here, even if the chance of me encountering any of them outside of the spawn was ridiculously low.

But it was also weirdly comforting. The structure was recent and seemed unfinished, which meant that its builder might eventually come back and work on it. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t going to be the last person to look at or care about something out there. It reminded me that Active Worlds won’t truly be dead until it’s taken offline, a process which logically should’ve started a decade ago, but never has. For all I know, it’ll last another decade. Who knows?

there are so many other places to visit that i barely scratched the surface of. my super brief time on Mars led me to an alien race called the Scifoo, ostensibly on the brink of extinction. the Mars community seems to have done their best to preserve the Scifoo way to life. good for you, Mars

I debated leaving a sign, almost did, but then didn’t. I still haven’t placed a single object at all, and have routinely panicked over the brief fear of accidentally moving or deleting something. It feels like… desecration? But not quite as extreme. I just feel innately unwelcome in this place, like a stranger to the true context of its existence, and wish to leave things the way I found them, even if nobody finds them ever again.

I’m going to be exploring Active Worlds for the foreseeable future, seeing as much of it as I can and leaving as little a trace as possible. It occurs to me now that the only real ghost that haunts this empty house is me.

If this article gets you to check out Active Worlds, great! Just please be respectful and Don’t Fuck It Up. Be nice to the regulars, treat every structure with respect, etc. And if you find anything cool, please save the coordinates and message me on Twitter about it!

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The Tax Collector Man

Writing about dreams, nightmares, and the strangeness between them.