“What does it mean when a girl takes your phone out of your pocket?”
That’s the main topic of a thread started by someone only known as Ratt_Poison. Though it’s admittedly a strange situation—a coworker to take your phone out of your back pocket for no discernible reason—the scant responses are hardly helpful. “She was deciding whether or not to rob you,” a user named Wildspark offers. “If you have to ask the question you will never understand the answer,” OmegaRelentless writes.
Another thread from user Perry_Tanko contains a poll: “Would you date a girl who is ‘crazy?’” The poll results are split evenly down the middle.
You may think these threads come from a dating site forum or an old AOL chatroom, but you’d be wrong. This is the GameFAQs board for Mad Stalker: Full Metal Force, a mecha beat-em-up for the Turbo CD.
GameFAQs has been a home for video game walkthroughs and tips since 1995 and is still the first place many gamers head to when they need help. While many mainstream gaming sites have jumped on creating guides and wikis, only GameFAQs has the answers for smaller and older games you won’t find on IGN, or even GameFAQs’ own sister site GameSpot.
What most of these walkthrough users don’t know is that there’s also a thriving subcommunity on GameFAQs. There are a variety of message boards including everything from talking about Luigi to roleplay threads hosted by a specific person. You can chat about sports, politics, or the last TV show you watched, in addition to more on-top discussions around every single game on the site.
There are tens of thousands of message boards on GameFAQs and most of them go unused. While boards for recent releases like Borderlands 3 and popular titles like Fortnite show an active community, most games’ boards die out once a game ages a bit and the majority of players are done with the title. These boards are typically referred to as “dead” boards, as they don’t have any particular activity happening in them.
Boards aren’t typically moderated after they die out—after all, with so much ground to cover on GameFAQs, moderators double-checking boards with little activity when there are hundreds of active boards to keep track of is a waste of time. But under the shade of these dead boards, secret communities have sprouted up, ones that wanted to get away from the prying eyes of the moderation team, who community members saw as too strict and unreliable in their duties.
These would become secret boards, where knowledgeable users could go to talk about anything they want without the risk of a ban.
“A lot of folks would seek out boards that would seem like a sly reference to the topic they wanted to talk about.” Jaime, who used to be a member of the Great Courts 2 board that was converted into a secret Homestar Runner web series board, told EGM. The board had some activity for a while but eventually died out again in 2017. “The people there had this, like, unwritten agreement that they’d chosen the topic they would talk about and that they’d not make too much noise but they’d have a dedicated space to talk about what they wanted.”
Mad Stalker, a game that is by no means romantic, eventually became the dedicated secret forum for dating and relationship advice. Spanning over 1000 pages, the first threads ask about phone sex and other girl issues in 2008. The origins of the secret board’s beginnings are even within the board itself. In to the thread ‘Off-topic but how did you find out about this board?,’ user nintendofan2121 posts the following quote, which originates from an older version of the moderator-run “Site Suggestions” FAQ:
“Do not petition for a love/dating relationship/advice board. GameFAQs is not that place to be asking for that type of stuff, anyways. Adding this might also cause users to lie, troll, and flame, not to mention it could have offensive content. The closest thing you can get to this would probably be LUE, or a secret board.”
The board for Mad Stalker is directly linked in the message. It seems strange that a moderator would publically highlight a secret board, since the whole point of them is to be hidden from moderation. However, the act of creating secret boards isn’t actually against the GameFAQs rules. According to the site ksot.net, which houses a lot of information about GameFAQs’ secondary boards, any board for an older game can be changed into an off-topic board.
The GameFAQs Secondary Board FAQ explains further that boards for certain, more obscure consoles and systems can be used for off-topic content. If you go to create a new thread in most modern boards, a warning will be thrown up to stay on-topic. Go off-topic in the Witcher 3 board, for example, and your thread can be marked by users for moderator action. However, in these more obscure boards, the same rules don’t apply. The Turbo CD is one of the obscure consoles on the lists, and Mad Stalker is a Turbo CD game. It’s a prime sort candidate to house a secret board.
The same can’t be said about the PlayStation version of Mad Stalker, since the console is still very popular despite its age. Off-topic discussion is simply not allowed on consoles like the PlayStation and the original Nintendo Entertainment System, because people may still need actual help for these retro games, even if they’re obscure.
So with moderators denying them an official dating and relationships board, GameFAQs users took matters into their own hands. Choosing Mad Stalker for ironic reasons—just think about how creepy that title is for a dating board when taken out of context—users set up their own advice column for the brokenhearted.
The earliest surviving posts on this forum date to February 2008, six months before Reddit first opened its community for relationship advice, and years before smartphones gave us apps like Tinder and Bumble.
“If someone asked about something and got involved in discussions about a topic, eventually you’d be contacted about the board or someone would make a less than subtle hint about where you could find the board,” Jaime said. Since relationship threads weren’t originally welcome in GameFAQs on-topic boards, members of the Mad Stalker board would actually seek out creators of threads that get locked and shut down to let them know there was a place for them to go for relationship advice.
GameFAQs users flocked to the board, looking for help with their dating woes, although the lack of moderation meant not all the threads and advice were in good faith. One early thread starts with a strange complaint about not being “thug enough” for a woman that devolves into racist name-calling. Another thread has a woman arguing with the predominantly male userbase on the validity of pick up lines and pick-up artist culture (which is now widely regarded to be extremely toxic). Looking through the boards, you notice the anger and misconstrued feelings of some of the users.
But even among these worrying threads are honest users just looking for advice and a bit of hope in their love lives. There are many threads sprinkled throughout the board about how to talk to people, which are usually filled with helpful and thoughtful answers. Later in the secret board’s life, users berate a thread creator for appearing to be a jerk on OKCupid. There’s clearly hope for some of these members to be in a healthy relationship, although it is rare to hear any happy endings on any advice board, let alone a secret board on a gaming website.
All good things come to an end, though, and the Mad Stalker dating advice forum is no longer active. Occasionally, a user will post a thread trying to revive the board, but activity died out in 2015. This decrease of activity isn’t exclusive to the Mad Stalker board; a lot of secret boards eventually died out. Most of the “official” secret boards listed on the GameFAQs secondary board FAQ don’t seem to serve a real purpose, or have very low traffic.
Nowadays, with social media and plenty of ways to chat with others, jumping through the hoops of secret boards on outdated forums seems like a lot of effort. The GameFAQs subreddit is made solely for banned or suspended users to complain about them, which is far easier than finding a secret section of a website where one of dozens of moderators won’t notice. Forums in general are a dying form of communication, when chat services like Discord can allow hundreds of users to be connected all at once, instead of waiting for someone to reply to a thread asking for advice.
But until GameFAQs eventually shutters its digital doors, the 1000 pages of the Mad Stalker board makes a nice window into the strange internet culture of the past.
All screenshots credited to NEC / Kogado Studio.
Elizabeth is an accountant turned games journalist. Her work has been featured on Eurogamer, Kotaku, RPG Site, and more. She loves ROM hacks and fan games and wishes companies would stop trying to shut them down. You can follow her on Twitter @gaiages for an endless retweeting of memes.