Before the rise of social networks people used forums to hang out on the internet, and before the internet as we know it even existed,people used Bulletin Board Systems (or BBSes) to communicate. I was never part of a BBS, but I have read Underground, a book by Suelette Dreyfus and Julian Assange about the birth of hacker culture. The first hackers used BBSes to talk to each other on the web, and hacking and technical differences aside, they hung out on the web in the same way my friends and I did on forums.
Forums and BBSes were systems generally provided by an individual so that people could talk to friends and strangers on the internet. You would post a public message, other community members would answer, and discussions would arise. Your value as a member depended on what you posted: as long as you had your own style and the stuff you shared was interesting, people would converse with you.
Unlike social networks, those communities made it easy to be anonymous, because you only needed a nickname and an email address in order to post. Those communities were also more tightly knit and more tribal. If something about one your virtual communities bothered you, you could file a complaint, go somewhere else, or roll a forum of your own.
Life was rough on my teenage years: there were troubles at home, I was in the closet, my classmates and I never clicked. But when I was on the internet I felt that I could be myself without having to suffer for it. Thanks to internet forums I met people who are still with me to this day, and I learned how to code.
My teenage safe havens, however, are now long gone. I used to worry about new generations not knowing about BBSes, or forums, or about how people interacted on the internet before social networks were a thing. Thanks to Digital: A Love Story (Christine Love, 2010) and Guilded Youth (Jim Munroe, 2012), my worries have been put to rest.
Digital focuses on the technical side of being a BBS member and on the relationships you build with people you’ll never meet in real life. Guilded is about forging relationships with your neighborhood friends when you also get to know their more authentic BBS selves.
Digital presents the player with an operating system (OS), an email client, and a dialer that pops open a browser window whenever the player dials a phone number. The player also receives a ‘welcome email’ that explains how to use the computer and suggests she checks out a BBS number.
What happens afterward is not so different from what you would do on a forum: you read all the messages that you find interesting and sometimes you message back; you send private messages to other users until someone answers and you can have a conversation; and sometimes a user will let you know about a cooler community, you’ll get a new address, and go on exploring.
Hopping from one community to another, the player learns how to use phone cards to access foreign BBSes, learns how to compile code, and even manages to hack The Gibson a hackers’s BBS which owes its name to the author of Neuromancer. Every time the player learns something new, the BBS users reward her with encouragement and a new piece of information.
These interactions are similar to those that happened on internet forums when you learned something new. I remember the time I started hanging out in a free software and GNU/Linux forum. I got so excited about using a non-Windows operating system that I went ahead and installed gentoo, a distro in which you must manually compile every piece of software used by your computer. After three days of compiling I logged into the forum to ask for help with setting up a graphical environment. One of the users cleared my doubts and gave me an ASCII Stalin to cheer me on.
After spending the first half of Digital exploring different BBS boards, the game presents the player with a clear objective: saving a friend she met on the internet. The game’s ending forces the player to apply all the things she’s learned so far in order to wrap up the story.
In Guilded Youth the player takes on the role a teenager who explores an abandoned house about to be demolished. The game’s narrative moves forward each time the player explores the house, finds an item, and shows it to one of her fellow BBS members. This member then joins the player’s party in real life, and will help her unlock new rooms in the old house. Thanks to this mechanic, the two-person exploration party that searches through the house is always different and is always changing.
Guilded sometimes shows interactions between the player and older characters, whom they hang out with by necessity. It shows us that even if you spend a lot of time hanging out with someone, that doesn’t mean you are or ever will be friends. Despite that, Guilded also shows that it’s still more comfortable to hang out with the people you’ve met on the internet than those forced upon you in real life. In Guilded that comfort arises from the possibility that BBSes gave us a glimpse of: the possibility that we could present ourselves as we perceive ourselves and as we want to be perceived, rather than as the self we’ve been shaped into by other people’s prejudices.
Two characters from Guilded — Chris The Paladin, a girl who is not so girly, and Paula The Mage, a trans girl — use their BBS avatars to showcase who they are and how they want to be treated. Like Chris, I also used a gender-neutral nickname in the virtual communities I hung out in. It made people see me as someone who was nice and smart, instead of someone who was nice and smart despite being a girl.
For Paula, the internet is a safe haven where people recognize her gender, it’s a space that allows for her to interact with her peers without having to keep real-world conflicts in check. When the player takes her to explore the old house and they bump into a group of people, she realizes that she only really knows a fragment of Paula’s life. She has no way of helping her solve her issues with these people, so she leaves the house and abandons her. The following day the player talks to Paula on the BBS and apologizes.
Both games reflect the experience of having a virtual space for learning and building your own identity surrounded by people who understand you. A space in which you fit in, something that’s precious and rare as a teenager. Guilded in particular makes it clear that even if this space won’t solve all your issues, it’s still necessary.
They were personal communities put together by individuals that with time were pushed aside by social networks run by corporations. Even if some forums about operating systems, videogame development and interactive fiction have survived until today, they are not about meeting people anymore: they are places made to discuss the technical aspects of a hobby or a craft. I’m glad to know that thanks to Digital and Guilded there’s an interactive record of what it was like to be a part of those communities.