I crawled out of bed exactly 5:30 on Saturday morning, made a cup of coffee, and got ready to become Ambassador Lwaxana Troi — daughter of the Fifth House, holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed. Lwaxana is undoubtedly the most flamboyant personality in Star Trek history: a woman of ambiguous middle age, a principled hedonist, and an incorrigible flirt. But it wasn’t enough that I just role-play her. I was also playing an awkward 17-year-old kid named Taylor, username: momageatroi, whose small teenage life revolved around a Star Trek digital role-playing community on a server called RPfreak.net.
It was still dark out as I cued up all the Lwaxana-centric episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation on my iPad. I logged onto “The Holodeck” Discord server and dutifully changed my Discord avatar to a picture of Lwaxana beaming in a lavish dress. It’d been decades since my last excursion through a chat room like this; it was 2020, but I was ready to head back to 1999, thanks to a curious digital role-playing game called Strangers on the ‘Net.
Many people confronted with their early internet lives might think of the lies they told. As a 13-year-old in the 90s, I adopted a 16-year-old persona because I loved the song “Sixteen” by No Doubt and didn’t want teenagers to think I was a baby. Those three added years didn’t mean a lot back then. There was so little chance of people actually meeting that nobody gave a shit, anyway. There were no guidelines on what to say, or how much information to disclose. Everything and anything was possible.
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Strangers on the ‘Net was created by the Soft Chaos game collective for the online e-Volver Festival in June 2020. It took place entirely on Discord — a stand-in for mIRC and text-based chat programs of old. You could sign up for different sessions themed around specific fandoms: Sailor Moon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Final Fantasy, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The idea was to revisit your own youth as a fictional 90s teen through your favorite fandom on a fictional server called RPFreak.net. The game would take place across two sessions over two weekends.
I filled out a character sheet to sum up my early internet experience. That meant strict parents, controlled access, and the chaotic drive to explore my identity. I’d never been prompted to define these memories in concrete terms, much less by a bunch of strangers. The sheet also mapped out my relationships to other players. My most intense friendship was with mrsdata83, who played Data; we spent a lot of time together, but knew little about each other’s real lives. We were also scheduled to do an improvised in-character scene based on a simple question.
“Would mrsdata83 ever be more open with me?”
Going into the game, I mulled over the vast gulf of personalities between me, Taylor, and Lwaxana. It was time to regress. After the GMs explained the rules and safety guidelines, we were pointed to various channels, including a Ten Forward out-of-character channel for us to mingle in our teen personae, plus an in-character channel for us to perform the shared scenes.
Things started with talk of the impending disaster known as Y2K. “My friend says it’s going to be like the Heaven’s Gate cult, but with computers,” I typed as momageatroi. Soon, we’d all gotten the rhythm of jumping between channels and DMs, gliding past never-ending scrolls of text. It was a beautiful morning to be in 1999 all over again.
TACKYON_PULSE (Geordi Laforge) and o0oWarpSpeedxXx (Commander Riker) kicked off the first shared scene. It was an awkward examination of their Trek characters’ different personalities. The question driving the scene revolved around the friction of the “real” teen friendship that simmered beneath it; Riker was more open to experimentation, whereas Geordi tended to be more serious. In Ten Forward, we, as teenagers, squirmed in admiration and discomfort as Geordi and Riker sniped at each other at a stellar cartography conference. After it was over, seeing our quasi-concerned commentary in Ten Forward, TACKYON_PULSE posted “it was all for dramatic flair,” with a winky face.
After exchanging some practical DMs, mrsdata83 and I agreed to set our scene in Ten Forward itself (for those who aren’t Trek savvy, it’s the bar on the starship Enterprise). Our characters were supposed to talk about Data’s controversial emotion chip — something he’d been forced to give up — while low-key prodding at the stunted dynamics of mrsdata83 and momageatroi’s online friendship.
Naturally, Lwaxana decided to have a drink to set the mood. “Perhaps you might try simulating a little tipsyness,” I typed. “Maybe that might help you feel close to loosening up.” To their credit, mrsdata83 played an absolutely pitch-perfect Data and, lacking all nuance, went straight from buzzed to shitfaced.
But with my own long and exhausting relationship with drinking, this probably wasn’t the right way to claw at the heart of momageatroi and mrsdata83’s cautious friendship. The goal was to try and get my friend to open up. It didn’t seem to be working. Things went nowhere; Lwaxana and Data ended by ordering raktajinos to sober up. I hit momageatroi’s logout line to indicate that the scene was over:
“*~#H4ck th3 pl4n37! H4ck th3 Pl4n37!#~*.”
I hadn’t made much headway in getting closer to mrsdata83, but I was having a voyeuristically delightful time wondering what other people were saying in DMs, as well as how they worked their way toward hidden agendas.
Wrapping up the first session of Strangers on the ‘Net was exhausting and exhilarating. As I crawled back to bed, I dreamed of dial-up modems and clandestine chat sessions while I was supposed to be doing homework. The next session remained shrouded in mystery until I received an (in-universe) email about the RPfreak.net server:
The weekend rolled around. Once again, I got up at dawn, ready to become an awkward teenage boy playing Lwaxana Troi. It wasn’t hard to turn on the melodrama this time. Our beloved server was shutting down! We were all coming back after a decade to get closure, say goodbye, or whatever other personal reasons people had manufactured. The second session kicked off with the unmistakable psychological stench of a high school reunion. Some people had stayed in touch, others hadn’t.
Mrsdata83, my once-good pal, had actually become besties with another player, earlgreyhottie. She’d had a daughter, Kathryn, named after Captain Janeway of Voyager. CaptainQueer, who had played Worf, had come out as trans nonbinary over the fictional years. Using the in-character chat, someone started putting together an away team. We bitched about the new Star Trek shows. I revealed that I was now an adjunct university professor teaching creative writing. o0oWarpSpeedxXx revealed they’d also come out.
“I was pretty into Riker’s playboy persona as a teen — with all the toxic masculinity and inappropriateness that went with it,” they mused.
As Worf and Barclay played out a scene in the in-character channel, the rest of us talked about one day having a better, more inclusive society. It all felt so beautifully sincere and real. Finally, it was time to wrap up my scene with mrsdata83; a little after the events in Ten Forward, Data went to Lwaxana’s quarters to tell her that Captain Picard wouldn’t join her for dinner.
“You would think the captain would make time for an ambassador,” Lwaxana pouted. “This is the 5th time in a row he’s canceled an engagement with me.” Adult Taylor was surely sulking at the revelation that mrsdata83 had formed a stronger bond with someone else. “Perhaps I should just try and learn to be comfortable with myself,” Lwaxana said dramatically, falling back onto a chaise. At this point, as with all good role-plays, the careful mental compartments I’d put up for this game were eroding; the holy trinity of Lwaxana, Taylor, and I was crumbling. Yet I felt like I’d finally unlocked something for Taylor. Or was it for me?
Back in the Ten Forward out-of-character channel, people were excitedly exchanging “real” names and Facebook profiles as the server shutdown loomed closer. Mrsdata83 remarked that the whole experience felt like someone had given them a couple hours of time-travel (a very meta way to describe the game’s time skip).
Things came to a head when o0oWarpSpeedxXx and TACKYON_PULSE stepped up for their scene — the final one for the night, and indeed for the game. With the end of our first online home drawing near, we gently pressed them about their tense, awkward exchange from 1999.
“It’s sort of hard to explain…a lot of history there,“ o0oWarpSpeedxXx said. “But in a nutshell… We were both trying to force each other to be someone we weren’t.” TACKYON_PULSE added, “I’m not sure if we ever really saw eye to eye. The server was something that really brought us together.”
Confessions and compliments began spilling out. Someone did a countdown in the main channel as we said our goodbyes. Of course, I’d never had this kind of closure and support in any of the 90s communities I’d been part of in reality. I’d never archived any of my teen-life chats or taken screenshots. All I have are half-forgotten memories of a feeling, an era, the stark lines of a chat box. But Strangers on the ‘Net gave me the gift of time, sharpened with a very specific flavor of introspection. Best of all, it gave me the knowledge that in another universe, Taylor is finally meeting up with mrsdata83 and earlgreyhottie, and he’s going to be just fine.
If you want to tour the Discord server, and witness the life of role-players like me, you can email Soft Chaos at firstname.lastname@example.org!