Telemate Forever

So much time and so few words. How easy it is to look back on old posts and have them seem so pointlessly glib. I'm sure a number of them are, but what really is the point of having a blog? I suppose I could comb endlessly through current events and come up with something insightful to say, but I'm too jaded. The world according to the news is such a complete shit show that it's hard to have any meaningful opinion, especially one that hasn't already been voiced ad nauseum in forums and comments fields by readers the world over. I believe this is fallout from having practically limitless access to information and instant communication as we do today. Things seem cheapened somehow, flavorless; a reality inundated with so much media creates a constant state of sensory overload and adrenal fatigue. Even having grown up in the 80's and 90's ("back in my day...") I can recall a time when technology was more of a limiting factor, when having two phone lines and a 28800 baud modem was absolute bliss and cell phones weighed about five pounds. So this time I'm going to write about 28800 baud modems (and 14400, all the way down to 1200) and about how much of a BBS nerd I was when I was younger. I still find it fascinating and feel some satisfaction at being there at the very inception of the interwebs before it was all Twittered and Facefuckbooked.

I just took one of my first computers to the recycling center (aka, the place that ships all of our e-waste away so that it pollutes groundwater in third-world countries and not ours). Back in the day, the IBM 80386-based computer I just gave away to be melted down for trace amounts of rare earth metals was a mean machine. At 33 MHz (yes, 33; modern chips are now up to almost 4 GHz and have multiple processing cores) the processor was capable of some amazing things, like running games in the new VGA (Video Graphics Array) standard that allowed 256 colors AT ONCE! Compare this to the previous 16-color EGA and CGA display hardware and the difference was astounding:

 Check out these two screenshots from one of my favorite Sierra games, King's Quest V

The new games looked like paintings! Even the old 16-color versions looked great. Of course, since CD-ROM was barely available, the games often came with up to ten 5.25" floppy diskettes:

 Another game I loved dearly: Conquests of Camelot. This is the EGA version with ten installation disks (or four if you use the 3.5" ones)

Many of the VGA games thankfully used the higher density 3.5" "floppy" disks and, in the late 80's, CD's (I think my 386 had a 2x CD-ROM drive; now I doubt you can even buy a CD-ROM drive as DVD-ROM is backwards-compatible). These adventure games, though they have become somewhat of a dying breed, were absolutely the shit back when a DOS prompt was the way we interacted with our computers (or a UNIX prompt). I credit the time I spent playing through them for all I've accomplished in life so far. Ahem.

Really what I meant to dig into in this edition of 'bored at 12:00 AM' was BBSing, but I can't help waxing sentimental about every little nuance of computing 20 years ago. The BBS (Bulletin Board System) was a pre-internet method of filesharing, gaming and communication. The SYSOP (system operator) of a BBS was a person like you or me but with multiple (up to 64 or more) individual phone lines in his house and untold amounts of computer paraphernalia. On average, the BBSs I used probably had 5-10 lines available. If all the lines were full we had to set our modems on redial and wait our turn. Although BBSs still exist in some form or other (usually accessible via Telnet protocol) they can't possibly have the popularity they did even in the mid-90's when I was in my online heyday. To access any BBS back then, one had to have a piece of hardware known as a Modem. Internal or external, a modem allowed the computer to dial out via a phone line and connect to other computers directly or, in the case of the BBS, via server software. When I first used a modem, it was to dial up the Sierra Online BBS for game hints. A 1200 or 2400 BPS modem would print a page (of text) at a slow scroll, maybe a few pages per minute with slower of the two; the later 28800 V.34 modems were astonishingly faster and allowed for graphics and faster file transfer. Dialing in was as simple as obtaining a Terminal program and learning some simple modem commands ("ATDT ^m" for tone dialing, etc.).

My initiation into the world of the BBS was eclectic and fascinating. Numerous text and ANSI BBSs existed. Each would typically have chat rooms, games, a file server and perhaps even some form of Email (although that was usually accomplished via a separate internet provider, which also gave access to IRC chat and FTP file sharing). In any case, the level of communication was staggering at the time. Text based games were often played by dozens of people. From stealing beer for cash in the classic Usurper to challenging sleeping players to duels in LORD (Legend of the Red Dragon) to the esoteric appeal of stat building in Swords of Chaos, anything seemed possible. Chat rooms offered a completely unabashed look at entirely different genres of people than I would have met anywhere else in my 13-year-old life. Perhaps most interesting by far, however, was King of the Cats. KOTC was a radically innovative BBS that used a graphical interface, RIP (Remote Image Protocol) to allow hand-drawn images as screens. Several other BBSs used RIP but none of them required one to log on and assume the character of a cat. Yep. Really. Character creation was much akin to a simple roleplaying game but once completed, a graphical world made up of static, hand-drawn RIPart, was navigated from the perspective of a feline. One could 'level up' via the accumulation of experience points gained by playing a number of quirky games, fighting enemies or by any number of other sources, often unexpected. The focus was on adventure as well as on communicating with other players via chat, much like other more traditional BBSs. 

I can't even find screenshots of the actual BBS anymore; this is from a manual that every subscriber was sent in the mail after paying the first monthly due and creating a cat charater.

KOTC was much more than a 'game', however; it was about real-life get-togethers where all the 'real' people behind the characters would meet. It wasn't just us 13 and 14-year-old kids; KOTC had a real artistic appeal and the players ran the gamut from the young (10?) to the old (70, perhaps?). My first online girlfriend was from KOTC. Her cat was named Cinnamon. I think in total I met three former girlfriends on BBSs up to when I was 17 and started drinking and smoking weed instead of playing text-based online games and drinking Jolt Cola until 4am. On two separate occasions we were 'dating' before we'd even met each other in 'real' life! The players from KOTC were mostly highly intelligent and interesting people, but like I said: the focus of KOTC wasn't solely the 'game', but more the personal interaction. This was the foundation of any great BBS and the RIP graphics protocol was simply a new and innovative way of catalyzing that interaction.

The Nuthouse and the Mudhole were two other BBSs of note in my world, although they were more traditional text-based protocols. The Nuthouse was especially valuable to me because of the people I met therein.  A good friend of mine from that era, Mako, probably said it best, that there were few other places at age 15 where he would have had the chance to befriend both a wheelchair-bound BBS SYSOP and a Vietnam War vet. I haven't been in touch with Secret Squirrel (the screen name of the Nuthouse SYSOP) for years now, but spending time with him and his family as a 15 year-old was eye-opening and invaluable for me as well. Although eroded by time and callousness, the wisdom imparted was that of acceptance, that people weren't always well-groomed caucasians from North Seattle. I spent countless hours in chat rooms with teachers, hicks, teenage girls, wannabe thugs from Burien, writers, lawyers, etc. Nowhere else have I truly encountered such diversity as I have online when interaction is possible without the visual pretext. Though closed-minded bullshit certainly comes through via text chat as well, everyone is at least on an equal playing field from the outset. 

The demise of the BBS for me was probably when I switched over to gaming exclusively. Though often fun and certainly serious time-sinks, MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, the predecessors to today's MMORPG's like Everquest and World of Warcraft) and MUD-like BBS door games lacked the meaningfulness of chat and the diversity of people was lost in the confines of the games. Then there was the internet and the rest is, for the most part, history. Thank goodness, then, that I never got into Everquest or WoW, because they basically combine both potentially meaningful player interactions with exciting RPG gameplay in attractively modeled online graphical worlds. I always figured that if I let myself play one of those games I probably wouldn't ever stop. Climbing is probably a slightly healthier addiction.

This blog post sucks. It's more of a disjointed survey of the role of computers in my life than anything else. Needless to say, however, that now I find the (modern) online world much less interesting despite the appalling amount of information available to me. It was the character of the whole process, from jumpers on pins and multiple phone lines (so that mom and dad could use the telephone on one while I used the other for BBSing, although I would often monopolize both for hours) to endless gaming and social interaction via real-time text, that was so enthralling. Today's Facedickbook chat is far too casual: it seems like few people intend to spend hours really getting to know each other via Facebook or other networking sites the way we did in BBS chat rooms. We didn't just use them to make 'real life' plans; they were real enough by themselves. Looking back on it, it doesn't seem so strange that I dated girls I met online. With the peculiar ambiance achieved by the BBS chatroom, it was almost like having actual face time with a room full of people and the connections made were absolutely genuine. It's interesting to me how technology can change so much in so short a time. What's happening now with information availability is, I think, somewhat unprecedented in our history and it's impossible to tell where this path may lead us. Personally, I feel somewhat disillusioned about the whole thing. Maybe it's because I've gotten more satisfaction out of less connectivity in the past? Who knows.

No comments:

Post a Comment