I was really into Star Wars when I was younger. Like, really into it. I watched all the movies, I read all the books, and of course I played all the video games.
It’s a little hard to say whether my love of space flight sim games came from my love of Star Wars or if they evolved independently. In any case, there was a game called X-Wing in which players piloted the eponymous craft (among others) through a series of missions approximating the plot of the Star Wars movies. It was a lot of fun, and merited many sequels.
One such sequel was entitled X-Wing: Alliance (abbreviated XWA by those in the know, of course). I loved this game. I played it so much. And it had the ability to play online! A boon for those tired of playing the same solo levels over and over again, but a challenge for those who are the only one of their friend group to enjoy a particular game.
The Internet was…a little different in the late 90s, but it was enough like the World Wide Web we all know and love today that you’ll pretty much get the picture. I went searching for people to play the game with over our blazing fast dial-up connection.
(Although dial-up was the only viable consumer option at the start of my experience with the Internet, by this point many of my friends were getting broadband connections. My parents would have dial-up internet until I was out of college, though.)
My search found a bunch of like-minded nerds who played video games, hung out online, and talked about Star Wars. It was actually a loose affiliation of four-ish different online factions who competed against each other. The one that I joined was called the New Republic.
(For those who know the original trilogy but not much else, the New Republic is what was formed after the defeat of the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. In short, they’re the good guys.)
For an online gaming club made up mostly of kids and young adults, it was surprisingly well-organized. We had ranks, and pilots were divided up into squadrons. There were also ground troops who played a separate game also from the Star Wars universe. There was a messageboard (giving me valuable experience with online messageboards before the saga of The Phorum!) as well as a real-time chat using a protocol called IRC (which stands for Internet Relay Chat…I’ve been having to fight really hard to not get rabbit-holed on this post, since I could launch into a sidebar discussion on many of these topics) and regular emails. We had meetings at a specific time, roll was taken…it was a whole thing!
I was a part of this club for several years. Eventually, I even wound up leading a squadron! I wrote a weekly email newsletter that would go out to the squadron, I reported attendance to the higher-ups…real leadership experience! I also created the website for the squadron, something that I’m glad is no longer around (my executive officer declared that my website wasn’t “cool enough” and redesigned it in a very Geocities-esque fashion). I even attained the rank of Admiral, and at one point I was in charge of several fighter squadrons in the New Republic.
At the same time, the club itself was in decline. The new Star Wars-themed games that were coming out got poorer and poorer reviews, and there were no new space flight games. In the same way, that type of community was also in decline. The Internet was becoming more about walled gardens than open parks, and companies wanted people to participate on their platforms, not using open technologies like web forums and IRC. Fewer people were finding us because fewer people were searching for us; to the upcoming generation, it had not even occurred that there might be something like us out there.
Eventually, I left too. I don’t quite even remember how it happened — whether it was a gradual die-off in attendance or if I declared my departure somewhere or if the whole thing crumbled apart…in any case, it ended.
And that is the story of how I spent several years of my life as a member of an online club for gamers and Star Wars enthusiasts!