In 2001, the video-game studio Jagex launched Runescape, an online role-playing game. This week, the developers announced that the original version of the game, one that consumed vast quantities of my time as a middle schooler and remained online until now, is shutting down.
In eighth grade I desperately wanted to play Everquest, the dominant online role playing game at the time, but I didn’t have a credit card, and my parents wouldn’t let me use theirs. So I typed in “free online RPG” into a search bar and my brief, fiery affair with Runescape began.
I played it in a browser, and it was archaic looking even then compared to Everquest’s graphics. Runescape was relatively flat, cartoonish, and colorful, with little sense of overarching style or design sense. Still, it was a fully functional online role-playing game with combat, a rudimentary magic system, cooking, mining, a full chat interface, and more. It would eventually evolve graphically and systemically, and those newer versions of the game will continue to be supported, but Runescape Classic is where I learned how to be an online citizen.
I made friends, sure, but when I think back to my time in Runescape, I don’t think of the positive social experiences I had. I think of the hard lessons: On one of my first forays into Gielinor, the realm where Runescape takes place, another user pleaded with me to type alt and f4 in order to receive some free gold. I did, my browser window closed with a snap, and I learned a valuable lesson: alt+f4 is the shortcut to close a browser window. My first ever trolling.
When I wandered out into the wilderness, other players promised to help me slay monsters way above my level, only to kill me and steal my gear as soon as we entered into a PVP zone. My first griefing.
After I had devoted months to the game, I desperately wanted a specific weapon, the Rune Axe, the most powerful axe in the game at the time. In order to acquire the axe, I decided to trade gold for it. Money-making in Runescape was a chore, so I spent hours grinding my cooking skills, in order to be able to cook apple pies, which were sought-after healing items and required a high cooking skill to make. I’d hang out in dungeons while other users smacked away at skeletons, selling my pies at a premium.
One day I was cooking pies by a fire near an apple orchard. I had acquired almost enough gold for the Rune Axe, and I was approached by another user who offered to trade me the weapon at a small discount. Excitedly I clicked through the trading interface. The trade went through, and the other user ran away immediately. I had traded a huge amount of gold for the vastly inferior but similar-looking iron axe. My first scamming.
I eventually moved on to other games, but I never got into any other online game the way I did with Runescape. After many years of support the developers have drifted away too, to focus on newer versions of the game. Runescape Classic only has three months to live.
It’s sad to think that this thing, which for a short but intense time was so important to me and so many others, is going away forever. Runescape taught me much more about being a digital citizen than the time I had previously spent lurking on message boards. Online role playing games force you to interact with others, and for a shy, trusting kid like me, it was an important step toward learning the kind of behavior to expect from others online, and helped me understand the kind of person I wanted to be there.
The closing of Runescape Classic highlights the challenges faced by digital preservationists. At least there are communities working to preserve the Runescape Classic experience on private servers. But even if we are able to keep around the game world itself, how exactly do you preserve not just the artifact, but its experience? Who will scam the children?