Toronto BBS: Dark Realms

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In the 1990s, before the Internet was mainstream, bulletin board systems (BBS) were king. With just a computer and a modem, anyone could access a BBS. They were free of cost and regulation unlike the Internet today. People would link up and connect by sending messages, conversing on message boards, and even playing online games. One such BBS that was able to cultivate a particular community was Dark Realms.

Dark Realms was a role-playing BBS created in 1994 and localized in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada. During its prime days in the 90s, it was a well-known BBS for gamers who were interested in playing games similar to the table-top game, Dungeons & Dragons. People would dial-up to the phone number +1-647-847-2083 with their modem and log on using a username and password to check messages and play games like LORD and Usurper. In these games, people were pretty much able to make characters, equip them with armor & skills, and battle with fellow players; it was similar to table-top games, but without the face to face interaction. Dark Realms still exists today and you can take a look at it by going to the website. Back then, it mainly had connections to Fidonet, but nowadays you can access it with Telnet.

For many of the creators of BBSs, administrating them was just a hobby so they could connect with other people who liked what they were into. No one was getting paid for running them, but the opportunity to be the one that connected people who may not have known anyone in their close proximity into role-playing games was too great to let up. Young adults and teens in Toronto who were growing up in this new era of digital connection were taking their chances at operating BBSs. In 1995, Brandi Jasmine from the Toronto Star wrote an article called “So you’re going to set up a BBS, eh? 12 tips to help avoid common pitfalls”, where she talked about how to make the process of getting your BBS up and running as smooth as possible. She emphasized the importance of keeping a clean interface as to not intimidate new users as well as how to not advertise your BBS. Here’s some notable advice Jasmine gave on this issue:

“ Be careful when advertising on other BBSs. Nothing will earn you ill-will faster than placing a notice in an inappropriate area of a competitor’s BBS.”

I can imagine, as there may have been many gaming BBSs in Toronto due to it being a hot spot for alternative, underground culture, that Dark Realms may have had many competitors. Especially since back then, being a role-playing gamer wasn’t something people talked about in the office due to the negative stigma that came with being a gamer, BBSs such as Dark Realms would have been essential to connecting with other people in the scene. It must have been a place where people could express themselves and talk about their interests without feeling alienated.

All images included in this post are from the Dark Realms BBS.

 The stigma surrounding gamers, something that seems to have lessened nowadays as many people are now able to make gaming their profession, was very prevalent in the 90s. This may have been due to the older generations inherently thinking of BBSs and the newly forming Internet as something foreign to what they grew up knowing, and gamers happened to be very intertwined with this unknown. An article called “Young &Wired: Do your kids spend too much time playing computer games or surfing the Internet? Should you be worried?” written by S.J. Ross and published in Toronto Star in 1997 exemplified teens who were growing up in this digital world and parents who had concerns about this familiarity. Ross quoted one of these teens in his article who said, “The Internet is a natural extension of the BBS…it is really just a worldwide BBS”. Teens were able to take what they knew about BBSs and transfer that info into maneuvering the new Internet. The Toronto teen that was interviewed for this article also had some great insight when it came to the stigma that the older generations had against the digital world:

“People are always saying it is isolating, it gives a false sense of community, and it encourages anti-social behavior, but you could say that about almost anything. I think it just depends on who uses it and how they use it.”

Many parents were concerned about the anonymity that BBSs gave their users, their teens could be talking to dangerous individuals or accessing information that may have been harmful to their young and impressionable minds. But most BBSs, such as Dark Realms, were harmless places where they could actually be more social and comfortable about things they were into like role-play gaming. When Dark Relams was in its prime, I can imagine that many local Toronto teens used this interface as a way to entertain themselves after school and play games without having to go out to an arcade where they may actually physically meet strangers that parents often worried about. I was unable to find any advertisements of Dark Realms online or in newspapers, but I can imagine that it may have been something that was talked about in highschools or college campuses in Toronto among fellow gamers. An underground, alternative digital world where anyone could log on to share their ideas and game without judgment.

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