Born on the Internet: Raised by ‘RuneScape’

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 4:22pm

NOSELL

Courtesy of Dylan Yono

When I describe myself as being “extremely online” to my friends, they usually agree — they too love memes and spend hours on Twitter.

Trying to clarify what I mean gets messy. It usually turns into some form of me reciting my own version of Bane’s quote from “The Dark Knight Rises”: “You merely adopted the internet; I was born in it, molded by it.”

If I was molded by the internet, “RuneScape” was the pair of hands that shaped me.

By the time I reached third grade, I was in the internet trenches. Deep in the trenches. I’m talking roleplaying “Pokémon” on fansite forums, watching Naruto fan flash animations on Saiyan Island, trying to learn the dance from “Caramelldansen” and consuming dozens of Strong Bad emails on Homestar Runner. According to the record books, June 21, 2007 was the first time I logged into RuneScape. I spent the first of what would become thousands of hours glued to the computer. If “Pokémon” roleplay and Naruto fan flashes were the trenches, “RuneScape” was my ninth circle of digital hell.

For the uninitiated, “RuneScape” is an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), an open world fantasy multiplayer game where you play alongside thousands of other players. If you’ve ever played “World of Warcraft” or “Club Penguin,” you’ve played an MMO. They have an emphasis on social interaction, with in-game guilds and virtual economies. It’s the social aspect of “RuneScape” that shaped me most — where I learned everything from politics and pop culture, to learning what sex was and finding out Santa isn’t real.

As a young kid hooked on fantasy, “RuneScape” triggered all the right neurotransmitters in my brain. I could practice archery and slay dragons and do quests day and night. I loved the grind of mining coal or fishing for lobsters ad infinitum, selling them for gold and buying fashionable clothes for my character to wear while mining and fishing. Whenever I leveled up in “RuneScape,” a little animation of fireworks would display over my character; I can still feel that dopamine rush. My favorite thing to do was chat with other players while training — I would usually juggle three or four conversations at once. Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, I was going days without stepping outside. I rarely opened my mouth. Messages on “RuneScape” could be my only social interaction for days.

Before long, I grew so deeply immersed into my online identity that there was Dylan and then there was Smallbones25, my “RuneScape” username. By fourth grade I genuinely didn’t have a real-life friend, but that never bothered me. I had friends in noodleboy12, a friend met fishing on the docks in Karamja, and Vortex King, a “RuneScape” veteran I met training in the Warrior’s Guild. My social life got even better when I adopted the alter-ego of a 17-year-old girl named Kendra. When your character is a girl in a male-dominated video game, friendship and conversation online come easy. 

Somewhere down the line my dad picked up on the unnatural amount of time I spent on my computer and the extreme emotional investment I had in “RuneScape.” As a parent, I can’t imagine how shameful and disappointing it must have felt when your eight-year-old son with no friends came to you bawling his eyes out because he got scammed in a video game or accidentally died and lost all his virtual possessions. It crossed the line when I started staying up too late and sleeping in on school days. My dad started cutting the internet on my computer at 7:30 p.m. on school nights. The first night I staged a pseudo-strike outside his office, demanding my internet be reinstated. He ignored my futile protests, so I adapted. At 7:30 I would go to sleep for the night, and when the internet turned back on at 5 in the morning, I woke up to play “RuneScape” before school.

For a long time I was content with “RuneScape,” a constant in my life I didn’t know how to live without. Then puberty hit in sixth or seventh grade and my virtual friends were no longer enough for me. I started to acknowledge my hobby as an addiction. I started to recognize my lack of real friends as an inadequacy, a personal failure. I wanted to be one of the “cool kids,” and those kids were talking to girls on Facebook and wearing fake Gucci Belts, not slaying dragons on “RuneScape.” If I wanted to be cool, I’d have to quit “RuneScape” and instead play “Call of Duty” with them and drop slurs on Xbox Live.

I quit “RuneScape” cold turkey. For the next few years I dreaded and resented the addictive game upon which I built my prepubescent social life. Making friends in middle school felt like a desperate attempt to catch up on what I missed out on for so long. In the deepest pits of my eighth-grade depression, I blamed “RuneScape” for my complete lack of social skills and feared it for its life-shattering power. I clocked in over 2,000 hours on my main “RuneScape” account and easily thousands more that went uncounted, and what did it give me?

I thought: “RuneScape” doesn’t give, it only takes. Mostly, I thought “RuneScape” took away my childhood. I’d find myself thinking things like, if I’d spent all that time playing sports, I could be the star of the football team. When I heard people talk about their childhood memories and childhood friends, it would trigger a depressive episode that lasted hours. My childhood memories placed me in a dark room in front of a screen for hours on end. “I will never have a childhood,” echoed through my skull.

I’d made some friends in middle school and tried to do more “normal” things like joining the track team or going to the mall, but with social skills built on the internet, face-to-face interaction felt like a losing battle in my head. I frantically advertised my dedication to fashion as my new-found “cool” hobby. I needed a way to distinguish Dylan, the cool track runner fashionista, from Smallbones25, the internet-addicted dweeb.

Naively I thought I was alone in living my life online. Even after I quit “RuneScape,” I just dumped the same amount of time into new outlets like playing “Minecraft” or making friends on anime fansites. I was caught somewhere between wishing I could leave it all behind to become a “cool kid” and wishing all those people I met on “RuneScape” or “Minecraft” or anime fansites could be real. It never clicked that there were real life people behind all those “RuneScape” avatars.

One day during a discussion in English class, I dropped an anime reference in front of the class. As soon as I let it slip I shut myself up — I’d accidentally let a little bit of Smallbones25 out. It didn’t seem like anybody noticed, though.

Somebody noticed.

Sitting alone at lunch always made me uncomfortable, so I would always eat in the library. The library was where the “nerds” hung out until fourth period. One of those nerds was in my English class. He saw through the fashion-runner-boy and knew I was hiding Smallbones25 beneath. Gradually he lured me in and inducted me into his nerd circle. 

I’d made real friends in the last two years since I’d quit “RuneScape” and tried to start over, but for the first time in my life I had friends I could be myself around. They were different. They didn’t play sports. They didn’t talk to girls. They didn’t give a shit about my Air Jordans. But they watched videogamedunkey and played “Dungeons & Dragons” and they were always three steps ahead of the meme curve from constantly browsing 4chan. They too were born on the internet. They even played MMOs!

The library nerd circle developed into a close-knit crew that would be some of the only friends of mine to persist after high school. We played games online together, yeah, but we also did the same kinds of things I would have done with considerably more “normal” friends, like going to the movie theater or talking about school. Something about the backdrop of a shared childhood spent in front of screens made those normal things feel so much more genuine, like our brains were all tuned to the same frequency.

A small part of me still feared “RuneScape” for a long time, but by the time college rolled around I was breathing nostalgia for it. Watching my friends play MMOs like “Path of Exile” or “Final Fantasy XIV” was encouraging. I finally had a reckoning with RuneScape when I logged into old school “RuneScape” for the first time in seven years, a perfect recreation of the game that first sucked me into the abyss back in 2007. It wrapped me up in excitement just like it did when I was a kid, but in a new, healthier way. Old friends like noodleboy12 and Vortex King were long gone, but new friends took their place. Most of the player base is also nostalgic adults, and reminiscing about a childhood built on “RuneScape” is a staple conversation in old school. Like me, many of them balanced school, work, hobbies and a social life. I spent a couple months in the summer getting my fill of nostalgia and then naturally drifted from the game when school came back around.

I still wish I went outside and talked to real people a lot more than I did when I was a kid, but I wouldn’t remove “RuneScape” from my life story. The game didn’t just take — it gave a lot back. It gave back in small ways, like all the weird quirks embedded in my personality. I have a knack for napkin math from always calculating my experience points and levels. I chatted so much on “RuneScape” that I learned to type fast — so absurdly fast that I’ve never met anyone faster. I also spent years accidentally spelling things in British English (“RuneScape” is a British game).

The game gave back in bigger ways, too. The intricate universe of “RuneScape” and its countless cities, cultures and histories were the foundation for my interest in worldbuilding. Being able to be whoever I wanted online was a space for identity exploration that I really needed. I value generosity, relationships and dedication, elements of my moral compass that are rooted in “RuneScape” culture. Most importantly, “RuneScape” was the hallmark of my internet-based youth. That youth was the foundation for some of the friendships in my life I cherish more than anything else.

It took me a long time, but I’ve finally come to terms with being raised by “RuneScape.”

Daily Arts Writer Dylan Yono can be reached at dyono@umich.edu.