BBS allowed text-based information to be shared between individuals and groups: you needed a modem, a functioning telephone line and a computer. Once these tools were distributed to people, our natural tendency to improvise took over and BBS became a simplistic sort of social media, being used to create some of the first internet-based messaging systems, forums and (for our focus) games. These games were extremely primitive and text-based, a world away from the enormous AAA projects we know today. Nonetheless, they represent the birth of a community that would grow and grow into the 2.5 billion gamers in the world today. One of these original BBSes for games was The Keep.
The Keep was launched in 1983 in Beaverton, Oregon and is one of 373 BBSes still online and working today http://www.thekeep.net/; it is accessible through Telnet using the modem 503-852-3170. The Keep was a BBS mainly for multiplayer games and, although it was technically accessible to anyone anywhere in the world, the high cost of dialing in from far away meant it primarily attracted local callers in Oregon. For a better sense of the kind of community The Keep attracted as a BBS for games, it makes sense to take a look at one of its most popular and widely-recognized games: Legend of the Red Dragon.
Legend of the Red Dragon (LORD) was created in 1989 by 14-year-old Seth Robinson to – unsuccessfully – attract more callers to his Darkside BBS. Although text-based, lord actually shares many similarities with modern Role-Playing Games (RPGs). In the game, multiple players competed over several weeks to fight monsters, “flirt” (ranging from “shy wink” to “sex”) with other players, and eventually slay the dragon terrorizing the town. Its mechanics of levelling up one’s character, socialization/competition with fellow players and permanent digital consequences for one’s actions remain in most modern RPGs today.
It is hard to gauge the exact type of caller who participated in The Keep during the 80s, since it has been updated constantly and today’s accessible site only has archives stretching back to 2015. Therefore, a degree of imagination is required to guess what the community was like back in its heyday.
I believe the most common caller to The Keep is likely the type of person who enjoys playing RPG games and living vicariously through their digital character. Given the limited interface and graphics of computer games in the 1980s and 90s, we can infer its regular callers would be the hardcore gaming fans looking for the escapism and adventurism offered by games developed by individuals who weren’t doing it for the money (although LORD, for example, did eventually sell over 30,000 copies) but more for a sense of community, connectivity and shared passion.
Writing in her 1993 article in the Oregonian “Plugging into the Net”, Brenda Shaw details how a local Oregonian named Sue Matthews originally joined bulletin boards to connect with fellow Star Trek fans, but eventually developed her own “COM-DAT BBS, a board specializing in software used to access online games”, using this to meet “hundreds of people from New York to Germany to North Korea to China…including her husband, Mike Jordan”.
On top of this, the negative stigma associated with being a gamer was significantly stronger in the 80s and 90s, so the somewhat anonymous nature of many of The Keep’s games provided a degree of security. This meant people could freely discuss mutual interests absent the judgment of those who looked down on them as “computer nerds”; indeed it is only recently that multiplayer games have become accepted widely as an appropriate form of digital socialization.
This new sense of connectivity via games particularly extended to those who were disabled or were otherwise disadvantaged from playing social games. Writing in the article “Computer Bulletin Boards alive and well – users play games, chat, sometimes even find marriage partners (https://search.proquest.com/usnews/docview/394804137/fulltext/66F62079817C4C5BPQ/17?accountid=11752) Kim Barker described in 1996 in the Spokesman Review how Henry Stevenson used gaming BBSes to “fight monsters and dodge slime in a fantasy world”, even though in his words, “I have one leg…half my face is paralyzed, and I have a cleft palate…I don’t go out very much. This is my entertainment.” This capacity for socialization among people who struggled to associate with others for physical reasons was grounded in the equality that comes with being a faceless online player. In this case it eventually transitioned into in-person meetings, where Stevenson’s online friends “tossed him the best birthday he ever had”.
BBSes like The Keep served both as entertainment and as one of the original forms of digital social networking, as their text-based format and encouragement of player interactivity worked hand-in-hand to form a virtuous community cycle, particularly for those who previously had little sense of community in their lives at all. The ability to connect game players who aren’t in the same room as each other particularly set off a snowball effect that has reached the hundreds of millions of daily game players across the world today.