My first exposure to a computer was an 8-bit micro called a Commodore 64. At 14, I owned what was considered a state of the art computer. This was no mere collection of wire, silicon and plastic; it was a gateway to another world. My magic box had sound, graphics and communication abilities that set it apart from the green-screened data terminals of its time.
Of course, you could write small programs in BASIC, buy a videogame from Child World or even animate a rudimentary movie. However, it was the unit’s RS232 port that made computing come alive; by attaching a modem to the RS232, I was able to connect to the rest of the world.
The online world of the early 1980s was nothing like the internet of today. There were no web pages, streaming video sites, instant messenger clients or peer-to-peer file sharing. Instead, if you had a friend in the know, you could find your way to what was called an electronic bulletin board system, more commonly known as a BBS.
A BBS was where those in the know came to play. Armed with a 300 baud modem and 1541 disk drive, I was soon calling into computers and intermingling among phone phreaks, hackers, crackers and pirates. Suddenly, I knew people with names like The Improper Bostonian, Dr. Atomic and The Toxic Avenger. Just like the CB users of a decade before, BBS users went by handles.
Handles served a double purpose. By assuming another name, hackers afforded themselves a level of anonymity. After all, many of them participated in activities that fell into legal gray areas. Secondly, the prestige a cool alias could bring was better than anything Charles Atlas could offer in comic book ads.
The BBS of the 1980s was a primitive beast. It could handle just one user’s phone call at a time! A relatively active BBS received 40 or more calls a day and had message boards and a download section.
The download section of many BBSes contained two areas: One for commoners, people who hadn’t yet established themselves; the other for those users considered “elite” (cool) by the SYSOP, the proprietor of the BBS. This second area had all the latest pirated games, utilities for hacking computer systems and text files describing how to break into all sorts of mainframes.
The BBS scene had two major commodities: pirated software (warez) and information. The newer the warez, the more valuable it was as a commodity. It was actually possible to obtain one- or two-day-old software that had already been stripped of its copy protection; we called breaking through a program’s security “cracking.” A person earned his “elite” status by becoming the purveyor of the latest pirated software.
Information could turn a humble BBS citizen into a member of the elite. This information included instructions on how to hack programs and computer systems, guidelines on how to break copy protection schemes, or lists of phone numbers and access codes to other systems. The crown jewels of many download sections were special text files, called “G-Files,” that were occasionally available for download, provided you knew where to look.
G-Files were little text files that taught you how to create bombs from household chemicals, hack UNIX systems and make free long distance calls. Little did I know that these files were often written by fellow adolescents who probably didn’t even have a driver’s license. However, the information contained in G-Files was occasionally legit. In fact, in college, I used UNIX hacks from my BBS days to retrieve passwords on the campus mainframe!
In no time, I was using my new toys to re-enact scenes from the movie WarGames. I wasn’t hacking into top military defense systems; I was dialing phone numbers in sequence, looking for other computers with modems in my area. Before long, I had found the computers for the local donut shop, the supermarket and a rival high school’s heating system. As a power-hungry 14-year-old, I naturally cranked up the other school’s temperature to a balmy 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I couldn’t imagine why the phone number had been disconnected the next day.
Even back then, though, the most thrilling aspect of online life was meeting your friends in person for the first time. One hacker I met, who called himself The Culprit, was an extremely talented guy. He was a jack-of-all-trades type of person, good at pretty much anything he set his mind to.
In the wee hours of the morning, The Culprit and I would head into his car, crank up his favorite Bangles tune and seek out the trash dumpsters of high tech companies, looking for hardware they’d discarded. He and I found all kinds of stuff: floppy disks (which were like gold), discarded hard drives and copies of Lotus 1,2,3. The Culprit ended up turning his dumpster-diving hobby into a thriving business reselling computer parts at trade shows.
When my fellow BBS-scene hackers and I turned 18, we gave up our outlaw ways. However, the skills I developed got me hired by an independent game studio. The company was staffed with the crackers, phone phreaks and hackers who had also learned to apply their skills to design the very games we used to steal. Nearly 15 years later, I was again among my own kind.
Guy Stevens, author of College 101: The Book Your College Does Not Want You To Read, is a working industry professional. He has a degree in computer engineering from a top gun engineering college. He has developed software for the following industries: publishing, telecommunications, mobile gaming, casual gaming and casino gaming.