Long-Distance Gaming Over Packet Radio

The amateur radio community often gets stereotyped as a hobby with a minimum age requirement around 70, gatekeeping airwaves from those with less experience or simply ignoring unfamiliar beginners. While there is a small amount of truth to this on some local repeaters or specific frequencies, the spectrum is big enough to easily ignore those types and explore the hobby without worry (provided you are properly licensed). One of the best examples of this we’ve seen recently of esoteric radio use is this method of using packet radio to play a game of Colossal Cave Adventure.

Packet radio is a method by which digital information can be sent out over the air to nodes, which are programmed to receive these transmissions and act on them. Typically this involves something like email or SMS messaging, so playing a text-based game over the air is not too much different than its intended use. For this build, [GlassTTY] aka [G6AML] is using a Kenwood TH-D72 which receives the packets from a Mac computer. It broadcasts these packets to his node, which receives these packets and sends them to a PDP-11 running the game. Information is then sent back to the Kenwood and attached Mac in much the same way as a standard Internet connection.

The unique features of packet radio make it both an interesting and useful niche within the ham radio community, allowing for all kinds of uses where data transmission might otherwise be infeasible or impossible. A common use case is APRS, which is often used on VHF bands to send weather and position information out, but there are plenty of other uses for it as well.

25 thoughts on “Long-Distance Gaming Over Packet Radio

  1. Nice! There’s also FX.25 extension that enclipses AX.25 frames and provides forward error correction. It could drastically improve packet performance without losing compatibility. Thus perhaps making it an attractive alternative to LoRa in some applications. 😃

  2. I grew up in the 80s, but didn’t become a Ham until the early 90s. I got into packet radio and oh how I wish I knew about packet radio when it first came out – it would have stopped a lot of arguments with my parents over tying up the phone line with my C64. My friend and I could have done packet radio for a lot of our telecommunication experiments and no doubt we would have written programs for sending files and such. We used to play a game called baudleship (spin on battleship) over the phone. Being able to play a game over the radio would have been so much fun.

    1. Had radio hardware been more affordable and accessible in the ’90s, I would have gotten my license and coerced a friend into getting his (as is, I ended up doing it in 2010, and he has never even thought about it, as far as I am aware), so we could play WarCraft and WarCraft 2 over packet radio. Yes, I did actually think of this back then, because my parents wouldn’t let me use the phone lines to do this (aside from a couple of times when they went on work vacations in my late teens). Unfortunately, we were on a fairly tight budget, so we couldn’t afford the hardware back then (and I knew it and didn’t even ask). I spent some time wishfully thinking about it though.

  3. This is awesome! Just an idea, I don’t know how it could be implemented, same idea, but using the JT-4 protocol. You could have multi-user interactions using fsk to a main game server/host and then it would send responses in the form of short 15 seconds transmissions, that use the local game as a decode and display.

      1. This, exactly. Maybe a bit more advanced than the early descriptive-text-only ones, but yes. I am, at this moment, looking to see if I can find a packet radio library for Python, because if I can find one… Let’s just say, I have some game programming experience, and I’m extremely well versed in Python. If I can pull it off, I’m totally going to try to make a packet radio game, and if it works out, I might go for an MMO in the vein of MUDs.

    1. i would be very interested in how you set this up. i have been trying to find out how to recreate the BBS i used to run on the phonelines but have run into roadblocks with radio

      1. This exactly. Anyone wondering about how it worked – read up on some reports on the nazis hunting allied resistance members via radio, and then realize that direction finding equipment is now 75 years more modern and a short burst of data can be easily located.
        The communist block was still very afraid of protestors organising via radio and apparently radio played a big role in the Czech Spring, but you can only use it for a very short time until the authorities have tracked you down.
        For exfiltrating information, it could still be usable. Tracking down shortwave transmissions is slightly harder because of the skip zone and the much worse accuracy of direction finding once the signal has had a few hops. But still, if you do 2 data bursts within 10 kilometers of each other, the authorities will know your general area, and just station a direction finding van somewhere close to it. The 3rd time you can be sure they have your location within a couple hundred meter.

    1. In the 90s, I vaguely remember, Graphic Packet (on DOS) had multiple extensions, including games.

      The BayCom software meant for PC-COM/BayCom modems supported playing chess, too, I vaguely remember. Or at least, there was a third-party game for BayCom. It’s been a while.

      Anyway, the software still works on modern hardware. All it needs is a DOS VM and a TNC or an TNC emulation. Via Null-Modem connection, the software can communicate with each other.

      PS: Other old hardware, like 741 based HamComm modems can work if being supplied with both a positive/negative voltage (op-amps need that in rail-to-rail operation).

      So if those old HamComm modems are being powered by two 9v batteries for +9v, 0v, -9v rather than via RS-232 pins, they could still work in a DOS VM through USB RS-232 converters (those converters use 3.3v or 5v TTL nowadays, rather than the proper +/-12v).

        1. Diversity, that’s what I love abour amateurs radio! ❤️ There are so many different people with different ideas coming together.

          Personally, though, I miss old Packet Radio with AFSK @1200 Baud.
          Simply because it’s independent of the underlying infrastructure. Audio signals can travel via sonic waves, via telephone, via CB radio (legal in Europa), via infrared, via laser etc.

          By comparison, all the modern modes are being derived by consumer technology, like WiFi or ethernet.

          Of course, that doesn’t make them inferior – rather, the contrary. They’re sophisticated, very sophisticated. And that’s why they need hi-tech.

          As someone who grew up with, say, both ancient 20th century DOS/Windows PCs connected via modems and 21th cenrury Windows PCs using broad band Internet, I see the differences in complexity between today abd yesterday.

          “Primitive” technologies like Morse telegraphy, RTTY, black/white SSTV or Packet Radio are so fascinating because they can be easily understood and re-built by hand.

          As a radio amateur, some of us feel the motivation about creating an infrastructure, about being independent.

          If everything fails, if internet fails, our own infrastructures are still working. Provided that we don’t make ourselves so dependant of internet technology. The many iGates used in APRS, especially LoRa APRS are a step backwards, because they take away the need for our own radio links our own infrastructure.

          That’s why I still hold on to classic Packet Radio. However, I’m not stuck with 1980s era TNCs. Well, not exclusively. ;) Modern implementations like Soundmodem or DireWolf do include FX.25 and intelligent algorithms.

          Also, classic low-speed amateur radio modes could be easily adapted to underwater communications. Imagine, Packet Radio or Robot-8 SSTV through sonic waves, long wave, 160m band or laser signals. Isn’t that a fascinating idea? Amateur radio makes these things possible (thinkibg if 300 Baud HF Packet or 45,45 Baud RTTY). WiFi and other popular consumer technologies are to a bit too broad for such things, unless modified.

          Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud. Amateur radio is what we make of it. 🙂

    1. Or to “send”? A transmitter is a sender, isn’t it?

      In APRS, “broadcast” could be acceptable as a term, since it’s usually just an connection-less message. Well, unless you “ping” some or send someone a message.

  4. “Gaming” 🤣
    I’m laughing picturing the Halo generation seeing this headline then going all “WTF?!” once they read the article.
    I remember “back in the day” being thrilled to connect to a friend’s computer via modem to play various games and feeling like I was darned near living in the Jetsons age to play MCI scripted “graphical” PETSCI text adventures on my favourite BBS’s.
    I still get all tingly remembering chatting on Google plus (RIP) with an astronaut on the ISS discussing Firefly.

    One of the reasons this community exists is the common joy of that juxtaposition of eras and technologies forced together to do things they were never meant to do. It’s a shame we’re being inundated by the “old stuff sucks, why wouldn’t you just buy ?” crowd.

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