The Game Archaeologist: Revisiting the BBS


Back in 2010 (2010, really? Wow.) I gave a broad overview of the history and importance of the BBS -- the bulletin board system. BBSes were a sort-of proto-internet, a homebrew networking solution that allowed users to connect online (via phone lines and low-baud modems) to chat, share ideas, and play lots of games. In fact, it's just impossible to think of BBSes without these multiplayer games that ranged from fantasy dungeon crawlers to cutthroat capitalism in space.

Today I'd like to revisit this topic by inviting you to get to know bulletin board systems in a new light. I'm going to share my own experiences with BBSes in the early '90s, a documentary on them that I found fascinating, and a game you can play today to get an eerily accurate feeling of what dialing up BBSes back then felt like.

My fractured history of BBS exploration

Memories being what they were, I can't recall when I first discovered bulletin board systems. Perhaps someone told me, perhaps I saw it on a shareware disk, or perhaps I read about it in a magazine. I don't even remember specific boards I dialed into. However, I do have a few crystal clear recollections of that time, starting with the impressions that BBSes made on me.

I was an extremely lonely teenager in a pre-internet world, and so my geeky interests served to isolate me instead of connect me to others. So it was a mixture of wariness and exaltation when I found that my parents' computer could (after everyone went to sleep, of course) use the phone line to dial up other computers and interact with other people. What we've taken for granted for two decades now was really uncommon at that time -- and it was a heady rush each and every time I logged into a new board to see what was on there.

It seemed very high-tech and futuristic to me, like something out of that WarGames movie. I think that the feeling of the unknown, of exploring through someone else's computer, and of seeing the creativity that was there generated a feeling that I know I'll never experience again. I had no idea at the time that I was taking my first steps into online worlds, but that's how it often is, isn't it?

Of course, downloading files (viruses, what are those?) and trying out online games were of primary interest to me, as I wasn't that aware of message boards and email. I did like the access to all sorts of shareware games that I didn't already have, and I recall sitting there for an hour or two while a program downloaded to a disk that I could then take to my own computer.

I had one bad experience that has stuck with me for the past 21 years, and that's when I discovered this Star Trek: The Next Generation roleplaying message board. Now, in the early '90s, I was just about the biggest Star Trek fan ever, and I was blown away at the thought of this pseudo-game where we could all interact on the Enterprise.

Unfortunately, I knew nothing about roleplaying etiquette and did not see any rules on the boards regarding how I should play. So this 16-year-old me promptly conjured up a total Mary Sue in the form of a Borg-turned-Starfleet officer (Star Trek: Voyager owes me royalties) and started hijacking the story. Well that got promptly shut down by a very irate SysOp who yelled at me and told me (I remember this part quite clearly) that he was a doctor and I was a kid and so I needed to shut up and do as I was told. I don't think I ever logged back onto that particular BBS.

I also sort of lost interest in BBSes during my senior year and the excitement of going to college. I definitely regret that, but what can you do?

BBS: The Documentary

So don't take it from me and my fractured mind; get the first-hand scoop from the people who actually ran BBSes. Jason Scott created a rather extensive film called BBS: The Documentary, and I think it might well be a terrific repository of BBS knowledge for current and future generations. This is just one part of the documentary, and even this is long (and full of talking heads), but humor me and at least watch the first 10 minutes or so.

What I think the subjects did well here is to express how incredible and empowering logging into and running BBSes were. Catch the story around the nine-minute mark where a player talks about the first time he saw someone log into a co-op adventure game and had his world shaken when he realized that he could interact play with this other person online.

Digital: A Love Story

Even though BBSes aren't exactly extinct, their time has certainly come and gone. So you might be thinking that it'd be pretty much impossible to go back and experience what it was like to engage in these, right?

Actually, a few years back, a little indie game came out that managed to recreate the feel of cruising BBSes with eerie accuracy. It was called Digital: A Love Story, and I found myself awash in a foaming lather of nostalgia while I played it.

While Digital: A Love Story is primarily an interactive romance novel, it's told through the unique setting of a pseudo-BBS culture. As the player, you step into the role of a person who just got a new computer circa 1988 that has the amazing ability to modem dial up other computers. You start with just one local number, but from there your world expands when you start to meet characters, grow your library listing of BBSes, download software, explore the different types of boards, and even start to fiddle in somewhat illegal activities.

Apart from the pretty interesting storyline that has a budding romance suddenly terminated due to a mysterious conspiracy, the game simply nails all of the little things about BBSes that should be experienced at least once. Yes, you'll have to manually type in all of the phone numbers, over and over again. We had to. You'll hear that old timey modem connection sound, admire the crazy ANSI graphics, hop from BBS to BBS to check out the different discussions, and be constantly checking out your email. By the end, it actually makes you feel a bit like you're a hacker of yore.

Anyway, the whole game takes about an hour to play, it's free, and it's well worth your time, especially if you have any interest whatsoever in the BBS culture and framework.

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.