Before I Found Geek Improv: My Early Gateway to Online Gaming

By Chris Casselman

Geek improv is a passion I found as an adult; but, ever since they were made easily accessible, I’ve had a pretty strong connection with online video games. I’ve always been a gamer since back in the Atari days; and, as a pretty social person, playing games is an experience I like to share with other people. With Atari, Nintendo, and the other early game consoles of the eighties this was done in the same room with split screens or taking turns; friends and family huddled around a single CRT television.

u.s. robotics sportster 14,400 fax modem (1994)

My love for ‘couch co-op’ as it’s called these days never went away, but something happened in 1994, when at the behest of some school friends I got my first modem. It was a U.S. Robotics Sportster 14.4 Fax Modem, and it ushered me into a world of playing games with friends (and strangers) whenever and wherever they were.

Like many things that illicit nostalgia and like geek improv, you can’t ever go back to relieve what you felt – and in the case of online games, this isn’t just an emotional metaphor.

With the changes in technology, games and their servers being shut down or gaming communities moving on to something new, you literally can’t go back. Just like with geek improv, when the moment’s passed, it’s passed. The games, servers that ran them, or the communities that made them great sometimes simply don’t exist anymore.

The first thing I did with my brand new modem was connect to a BBS. This was before the World Wide Web (I promise I won’t call it that again, but when it was new, that was its name – I also promise not to use the words ‘Information Superhighway’), so the things you could do with your modem were somewhat limited. If you’re too young to remember, before the internet a modem allowed your PC to dial someone’s phone number and connect to their PC, as long as their modem was waiting to answer. This allowed you to transfer files back and forth and chit chat with text and not too much else. Even with no internet, there were still semi-public spaces to connect to, like the BBS. Short for Bulletin Board System, BBSs were a place you could chat live with other people who were connected, post messages in discussion forums, share files with each other (the BBS was the birthplace of software piracy), and most importantly to me, you could play games that were hosted by the BBS. The thing about BBSs was that they were text based with no images or graphics as we know them today, unless someone had taken the time to draw out a picture with different coloured text characters.

For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of the first BBS I called home, but I do remember it was run as a hobby by someone with a hefty (for the time) computer and four dedicated phone lines. This meant only four people could be online together at any one time. There were probably a dozen or more regular users and maybe another dozen occasional ones; sometimes I’d have my modem redialling over and over for an hour or more hoping to finally hear a ring instead of a busy signal so I could be online with my buddies.

This BBS hosted several games, but the game that we devoted the most of our time to was a known as a MUD, a multi-user dungeon, called Tele-Arena. It was a medieval hack-and-slash dungeon-crawling adventure game which sounds exciting except when you remember that it was all text. Just like Zork, a single player text adventure that preceded it, everything in the game was described via text: all your commands from fighting and casting spells, to search, and even walking around.

Here is what it looked like:
You are standing in the North Plaza.
There is no one here.
There is nothing on the ground.

Thrilling, isn’t it? Typing “look” would give you a detailed description of the room you were in as well as indicate which directions you could walk to, which was achieved by typing the direction you wanted to go (north, south, etc). Obviously, it was much more fun in a less lonely area with a friend at your side and a monster to fight, which was done by typing ‘attack minotaur’ or ‘cast fireball orc’. You could also speak with other players by typing ‘say’ before whatever you wanted to say. Just like a modern game (or, I suppose a vintage one like D&D), you had a character with various attributes, skills, weapons and armor and the game played out like any RPG you might be used to. It was vast with many areas to explore and, despite being only text, actually felt like it had a sense of space. Having the number pad on my keyboard set to enter in the compass directions helped to visualize the space, and I had the muscle memory to navigate winding forest paths and labyrinthine dungeons that I had passed through many times while questing throughout the realm. This was World of Warcraft before World of Warcraft. Heck, it was WoW before 3D graphics, and we loved it.

This type of gaming also taught me a lot about imagination – a skill that has served me well when performing geek improv

I’ve seen efforts to keep versions of Tele-Arena alive today in other spaces on the internet, but I haven’t gone to check it out because I know it wasn’t just the game I enjoyed; it was that tiny BBS with its tight community of devoted players, some I knew in real life and others only by their usernames, that made it magical. Today, I have that magic in other areas of my life, like tabletop gaming and performing geek improv.

Over time a few other MUDs became our virtual text stomping grounds, Crossroads of the Elements, Swords of Chaos and as the internet became a little more accessible (but still pre-Web) a game called Realms of Despair that was able to host hundreds of players at the same time, all adventuring together, all in text. While writing this, I searched its name and it looks like Realms of Despair is still going, or at least has been revived and, as of this writing, I’m considering whether or not to check it out. Maybe that’s a story for another day.

Do you enjoy online gaming? Let me know your first online gaming memories in the comments!

Want to learn more about what The Dandies do when we’re not performing geek improv? Check out Jason’s favourite geeky TV shows and Andie’s top sci-fi and fantasy book series.

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