When Allana turned twelve, the limits of her world shrank to the four corners of her bed. A heart condition kept her between hospital and home. She could not attend school or make friends. She was lonely. She could not live like a normal twelve-year-old.
In that same year, she discovered RuneScape, an irreverent, medieval MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing game. She became Miss Misty, on an adventure through Gielinor.
At first, she bobbed about, chasing butterflies with an empty jar. Even for the time, RuneScape’s graphics were basic – the fields and roads of its pastoral world were flat single shades of green and brown. Its avatars resembled Playmobil, with smoothed faces, colourful capes and dinky swords. But, almost immediately, Allana felt the world that had been closed off to her begin to unfurl again with possibility. In Gielinor, she could hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, chase cows in the evening, and slay monsters after dinner. She could make friends, typing her opinions into a chat box so they appeared over her head, like ideas in cartoons. Or, she says, she could run around doing nothing, just like real life. Allana could act her age again.
She would be bedridden for several years, but she would not feel it so intensely. “In those years, RuneScape gave me the sense that I could still achieve something,” she says. “I could still progress – somewhere – when I wasn’t able to do that in my real life.” She has been playing the game since 2006; last time she checked, the in-game time had registered passed a year. That’s 8,670 hours. RuneScape saved her life, she says. “I know that sounds corny, but I truly, truly mean it.”
That anyone could invest this much time in an online world doesn’t surprise us now, but back in 1993, in his book The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold experienced this fact as a revelation. In 1984, he had joined a computer conferencing system called The WELL, which let people around the world carry on public conversations and “exchange private electronic mail (e-mail).” He was shocked when he began to care about the people he met through his computer.
“The idea of a community accessible only via my computer screen sounded cold to me at first,” Rheingold wrote. “[It] was like discovering a cozy little world that had been flourishing without me, hidden within the walls of my house; an entire cast of characters welcomed me to the troupe with great merriment as soon as I found the secret door.”
Though video games are still in their adolescence, some games have been going decades, and some players have been there from the start. The first commercial MMORPG was Island Of Kesami, released in 1985 – it featured a chat room, servers of up to 100 players and graphics that resembled the interface one might launch nukes from in the eighties. World of Warcraft, the most famous MMORPG, is still running 17 years after release. RuneScape turned 20 this year. The Realm is one of the oldest MMOs still online, running since 1996, but according to Atlas Obscura, no one knows who hosts its servers.
Where modern life – particularly at present – can be unjust, chaotic and precarious, online worlds are reassuringly stable. Most people only stay in a job for four and a half years; these games have been a constant in some player’s lives for more than a decade. “There comes a point where you’re not playing a character anymore – your avatar on the screen is a projection of yourself,” says Mark Ogilvie, design director of Jagex, the developer of RuneScape. “If you’re in a world that feels chaotic, where you’ve lost your sense of place, where you’re never quite sure what the government is going to tell you the following day, sometimes it’s nice to go to a place where there is a bit more structure, where, if you want to get to level 55, you need 100 more experience points.”
In many ways, this comparison is an indictment of real-life (Mckenzie Wark argues as such in her seminal book Gamer Theory.) But progression in these games can be a source of confidence to those who cannot find it in the real world.
Ultima Online has been running since 1997. Reddit user Wolfgeist played the game – on and off and on unofficial servers – from its release up until three years ago. Since creating his first character, HunterArrowstorm, he puts his game time at tens of thousands of hours.
Bullied for being overweight – he was 300 pounds in high school – Ultima provided a kinder world than real life. “In Ultima Online I was wandering the woods of Yew, hunting people down or pickpocketing them, potentially killing them and looting their house – which usually ended with me feeling bad and giving things back,” he says. “Every time you stepped into the wilderness, it was a gamble.”
Ultima didn’t just accompany him through milestones in his life – it fostered them, too. In 1990, he made $2,000 using a money order in the game; his grandpa told people he was a “computer genius”, filling him with pride. Extended sessions of Ultima kept his binge eating in check, as he followed a document he found online called ‘The Hacker’s Diet’. His life changed. He plucked up the courage to ask out his high school crush “a wonderful punk rock girl in my Commercial Art class,” he says. “Later on it allowed me to begin training, coaching, and fighting in mixed martial arts in which I weighed in at 170 pounds. I’d like to think my player-versus-player experience in Ultima Online helped with that as well.”
Game designers spend their lives “world-building” – concocting the impression that the lands we visit have been around long before us. In MMOs, this history isn’t fiction: just as certain events tend to define eras – 9/11, the financial crash, Brexit, Trump, Covid-19 – so they do in MMOs; just Google the The Falador Massacre or World of Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood incident. “There’s a social history to RuneScape. You’re not only getting into a game that has layers of its own story,” says Dave Osborne, RuneScape’s lead designer. “This is a game that has ages and periods of development – different players love different periods of RuneScape differently.”
Other than Wolfgeist’s memory of discussing Columbine with another player (“wild to think it was shocking at the time”) and a post-9/11 influx of players named Bin Laden, most players I spoke to said that they avoided politics in these spaces. “The online world is often about escapism, and people want to escape from that stuff,” says Ogilvie. It isn’t that these game communities are apolitical; instead, they are intensely political about everything but the real world – as such, moderation often feels like running a political party.
“I would lead hundreds at a time to fight hundreds of others, come up with ways to motivate people to do so, manage teams within the group, do PR, you name it,” says Peter, who first installed EVE Online, a space-based MMORPG, in 2004, becoming his alter ego Elise Randolph. As a two-term member of the Council of Stellar Management, a player-elected representative body, he has become a central figure in EVE’s community. At the height of his influence, he managed upwards of 2,500 players. “I was, for all intents and purposes, running a small company,” he says.
These responsibilities came before Peter got a job; at the time, he was training as a lawyer. EVE’s world, he says, has often seemed fairer than real-life employment. He explains that when his mentor in the game found himself unable to commit the time to play, he left Elise Randloph in charge. “You’re talking about one of the best players the game has ever seen just passing the torch-like it was nothing,” says Peter. “This is Jeff Bezos giving away Amazon to his right hand because he doesn’t have the time to manage the day to day things. I was floored, and it really taught me a lesson that I didn’t know I was being taught.” The pandemic has been a chance to show his friends the mutual aid that characterises the EVE community. “I look over at my coworkers and friends that didn’t have established communities, and the difference is night and day,” says Peter. “I was able to incorporate people who dismissed the seriousness of online relationships and communities the way I had over a decade prior, and they took to it surprisingly well.”
Like many parents, Allana’s mum, Pat, learned about the game her daughter loved from peering over her daughter’s shoulder. She knew she played online, so supervised her playtime, intrigued, if a little bewildered. This supervision grew into a shared interest with her daughter, a shared passion to discuss while she was ill. Allana’s health improved, and in 2015 she went away to university. Pat decided she would join the game to stay in contact with her daughter. She became BP Bubble. “I have a single character, just one – that’s me,” she says. Allana’s friends became her friends, too.
Soon RuneScape hooked her. She found that she could pick it up at any time of the day, and it would give her a sense of release. She played even more, and on her own. She would let her family know when RuneScape had double XP weekends. “I’m not going to cook for you more than a spaghetti bolognese that can boil over on the side,” she would tell them.
Allana and Pat began to meet these friends offline, and put human faces to medieval avatars. They organised big RuneScape meetups and attended RuneFest together (“I love RuneFest!” says Allana). International friends spent Christmas with them. “I felt a sense of belonging. You belong to this little community, you belong to a clan,” says Pat. “It’s really strange – the game has brought a new bunch of friends and a new family into our life. It’s amazing.”
Though they both say, except for the occasional gender assumption, that being women in a male-dominated space has never been an issue, the number of hours Pat played made her feel “awful”; it conflicted with the expectations she felt as a mother. Pat says she stopped checking the in-game counter. “I thought, maybe I should have put that many hours into my family,” she says.
Now, she is more philosophical. “I just have this in my head: my husband likes cycling. And I like RuneScape,” she says. “That’s my hobby. Other people sit for hours and knit. You know, if you added up all the hours that my mum used to sit and knit that would probably be half a lifetime.” She is more guilty now if she doesn’t help her clan then if she does. “It’s a sense of escapism – when your life is really hard or your work’s really hard, or even if it’s okay, but you just want to escape somewhere else, and still feel like you’re achieving something or progressing, RuneScape is that place,” she says. “It’s the bright bit of your day sometimes.”
Allana finished a Masters degree in computer science, and wrote her dissertation on Jagex. She dreams of working for the company one day. “I was chatting to Mark about it recently – what’s great is, if you need to put the game down, you can do,” she says. “I recently put it down for a few months because I started a new job and life is a bit hectic. And actually, I just needed to put it down. And what’s nice was his response. He was like, ‘We will always be here for you to return. And real life always comes first.’”
Will Bedingfield is a culture writer at WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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