Online games are a very powerful medium that stretch far beyond the limits of offline games. Much like their offline counterparts, online games can provide an escape from life but I would argue that the fact that they allow players to interact with thousands or even millions of other players can sometimes lead to a much higher degree of escapism. It's almost like stepping into another life. Without the face-to-face interactions of real life, you can be anyone, become anyone.
Between MMOs, Steam, and services like XBL and PSN, there are so many ways to play games with people online; people you know and people you don't. Online games bring together people from all over the world so you are bound to make some friends along the way.
It's almost been ten years since the first time I played a game online and in that time I've been a part of many an online group of friends. Much like in real life, online friendships have their ups and downs and plenty of drama. You can grow to love these friends as much as you would a real life friend, and you can grow to hate them.
Today I want to take you on my own trip down memory lane and share my journey through the world of online gaming. It is a long tale to tell so I will be splitting this into two parts, each covering a different "era" of my online gaming life. This could take quite a while, so strap yourselves in and let's get going.
The first time I played a game online was during the summer of 2004. Elementary school was over and middle school was looming on the horizon. A good friend of mine named Will had recently started playing the MMO Runescape. Remember that game? It was the first and last MMO I ever played, and looking back it wasn't that great a game, but I had fun with it.
Of course Will got me into playing Runescape and we did spend a great deal of time playing it together, but I also spent a lot of time playing on my own. As I've mentioned many times, I am a very shy person and I've struggled with social anxiety for most of my life but there was just something magical about the world of Runescape in my twelve-year-old mind. It was the lack of face-to-face interaction, the lack of voice communication. To everyone in the game I was just my avatar and my words were not spoken, but typed into a chat box. This allowed me to avoid the difficulties I had in real life with talking to people and making friends.
So I made some online friends here and there and small groups of maybe three or four people would form. I always made myself out to be way more awesome than I thought I was in real life though. This was understandable because instead of being some kid in wheelchair with social anxiety, I could just pretend to be someone else. This never ended up hurting anyone so I continued to do it because it boosted my self-esteem somewhat.
These early groups never lasted to long because eventually most of those early friends started only logging in once in a while or they just stopped playing altogether including Will. But for every friend that left I made a new one. There were a couple of exceptions, let's call them Pro and Plop. They were brothers and I would frequently play with them for the entire period I played Runescape for. But for everyone else, the cycle continued for about the first year I played Runescape until I eventually fell in with my first group of online friends.
The group I fell in with was made up of a dude, let's call him Kite, a pair of sisters, let's call them Kat and Chan, and some other people that were less regular (and I don't remember their usernames. Honestly, I'm surprised I remembered any). Kite and I would frequently go do quests and fight monsters and grind up skills together whereas Kat and Chan were more interested in just hanging out and talking about stuff. So whenever they got on we would just sit around talking and having fun.
I don't remember a lot of the details because it was so long ago, but this group would eventually collapse because of drama. It was like something out of a cheesy romantic soap opera or something except in a video game, but I guess we were all a bunch of stupid thirteen-year-olds looking back now.
There was like some sort of thing between Kite and Kat and then there wasn't and then she became interested in me. I of course had no idea what I was doing and I sucked at talking to girls in real life let alone having one being interested in me. So we were a thing for a bit, but it destroyed my friendship with Kite for a while although it was later repaired.
But slowly but surely they began to stop playing as frequently, being much more capable people at life than I. Kite was the first to go, and then Chan, but Kat will still get on from time to time and I would drop everything to go hang out with her until she stopped entirely.
It sucked. Here I had made this group of friends unlike anything I had in real life since I just plain sucked at social interaction, and then it was gone. I slowly reduced the time I played Runescape until it was almost nothing. I would play from time to time on weekends or something.
This continued for several months and I probably would have cancelled my membership and stopped playing entirely if not for a chance encounter at the capture the flag game in Runescape known as Castle Wars. I met a couple of really fun people there, let's call them Gannon and Angel. I played a ton of Castle Wars with them and had a blast.
At the end of the day, Angel friended me but totally forgot about me the next day. She completely ignored my PMs and everything. But lightning strikes twice and I someone ended up in a Castle Wars game with Gannon again and we became friends. And through him I became friends with Angel for real and then a new group of friends was forged. There was the Gannon, the funny guy, Angel, the hyper girl, Joy, the more levelheaded one, Cota, the lovable goof, Outer, the weird dude, Stopel, the serious one.
It was the most fun I had had in a long time and for months things were great. We would do quests, fight stuff, explore, just run around, play minigames, and just sit around talking. I had no way of knowing at the time, at the very start of this friendship with Gannon and Angel, but I would soon learn that drama can exist in the world of online gaming. Drama on a scale almost equal to real life.
Before I can continue to tell this tale I must go back and explain our new character's backstory. You see, as I mentioned earlier, in-game relationships in Runescape were a thing and the situation we are about to discuss is a mess you might find in some soap opera or something. Angel was in an in-game relationship with this guy called Beefy but Gannon totally had a thing for her and she for him. What I gathered from conversations with them was that Angel kept promising Gannon she would break up with Beefy but never actually did. He was a way higher level than any of us so maybe she just liked getting free stuff from him. And if you think this sounds like the plot of a crappy soap opera, we're in agreement. It was something I looked over at the time though.
I was just glad to have a group of people to hang out with every day, something I was kind of lacking in real life. With these new friends I was able to escape the woes of life and have the time of my life. Things were very solid for a while and we were all having loads of fun.
Looking back, this time in my life was amazing yet also pathetic. Amazing because I was having more fun than I had had in a long time and I was able to escape my less than stellar life of social anxiety and insecurities of being disabled. In the online world I wasn't very shy at all because I didn't have to worry about being insecure about my appearance or my voice.
But that's where the pathetic part comes in. I was now being way too emotionally invested in a game, in people I didn't actually know in real life. I had trouble making friends in real life so I made them in Runescape instead. I wasn't able to do things everyone else could in real life but in Runescape I could flat out lie and make these people think I wasn't some disabled kid, that I did all the things I wish I could do. There was no way a girl would give me the time of day in real life but in Runescape that wasn't an issue.
So that's what I did: I made a bunch of online friends, I pretended I was the person I wanted to be instead of being who I was, I even went looking for a girlfriend in this game. That was me, a pathetic, stupid fourteen year-old. But looking back, it was worth it, it was all worth it and I would do it again.
I now had this group of friends to look forward to hanging out with every night after my homework was done: Gannon, Angel, Outer, Cota, Stopel, and Joy. Remember how I said I went looking for a girlfriend in Runescape? That ended up being Joy. We had a thing going for a couple months before ending it amicably. It might sound silly, but that time gave me a feeling of self-worth that I was missing in real life.
It was an amazing few months I spent with these amazing friends. But unfortunately it was not to last.
The perfect storm events sent the first fractures through this group. It was partly my own stupidity, and partly a growing inevitability. By this point Gannon was tired of waiting for Angel and then out of the blue she finally ended things with Beefy. For stupid selfish reasons of my own, I injected myself into this mess and only made things worse. I ended up driving the final wedge into the growing gap between the two of them by professing my feelings for Angel. The whole thing blew up and Gannon ended up hating me for a bit.
I realized I messed up and my friendship with Gannon was repaired but there was no undoing the damage done to his friendship with Angel. He basically realized he would always be waiting for her and was just done. Apparently I opened his eyes or something.
The end result was that there was a formation of two groups of friends for me. One consisting of the old group, the other of Gannon and some of his other friends who we will call Dragula, Blue, and Nit. But this was the beginning of the end for Gannon as he soon started playing less and less until one day he never came back to Runescape.
Meanwhile in the first group, things changed as well. Joy also ended up having a falling-out with Angel although I don't quite remember why. She pretty much went the route of Gannon and stopped getting on regularly, although she never went away entirely.
After all the drama eventually faded away, things began to settle down again. The group was replenished with some new faces. Bowsman, Sword, Star, and Hawty replaced those we had lost. I don't really remember when these particular people became part of the group, they just seemed to appear one day. Things were going fine in the other aspects of my Runescape life as well. I was getting better at the game, my other group of friends with Dragula, Blue, and Nit was going well, plus I had some other friends outside of these groups where there was no drama.
Of course I still was talking regularly with my old pals Pro and Plop, but I also made some new friends such as Wilson, whom I met while working on my fishing skill, and Avenger whom I met due to randomly saying something about the band Three Days Grace who I was getting into at the time.
The funny thing is that Avenger was actually this other dude, Reaper, who was playing on his friend's account because his had been banned. Eventually he got his account back and then somewhere down the line I became friends with the actual Avenger and we formed our own mini group. Wilson also ended up becoming part of this group. This group was much more focused on actually playing the game, but we did have some great discussions about our shared passion for metal music.
Thus began the best days of my time in Runescape, the "Golden Age" if you will. It was the start of summer and I had graduated from middle school. With my new found free time I was playing a lot more Runescape than I had in a long time. I was spending time grinding skills with Reaper, Avenger, and Wilson, or goofing off with Angel, Sword, Cota, Star, and whoever else in our group was around, or just talking with Dragula and Nit.
All these groups of friends were fun and all but the main focus was the group with Angel. She just had this way of drawing people in. Looking back, the only reason any of us knew each other was because we had been friends with Angel first. We were like spokes on a wheel all meeting at the center point that was Angel. Maybe two or three of us would go do stuff in the game on our own but whenever Angel got online we would all congregate.
These big gatherings were loads of fun even when we were just chilling in one of our player-owned homes and not necessarily playing the game. As summer waned and high school began I would look forward to playing Runescape with these people when I got home from school.
Then finally it happened. With Beefy long gone and Gannon disappearing from the game altogether, who was left? Me. Angel and I became a thing, and the following months were awesome. We were near inseparable, well as much as you could be in a game. It might sound pathetic, but this was the height of my Runescape experience. There was just so much awesomeness all around but it was not to last.
So here this group of friends was, on top of the world, having a blast every day. But people were changing, people were leaving. Outer had a falling out with Angel and went the path of Joy and only got online once in a while. The three of us sort of formed a mini group and would sit around and talk for the little amount of time we were on at the same time. Then one day Hawty left, and then shortly after Stopel left, both of them sort of just stopped getting online without warning.
Soon the group was reduced to pretty much just Sword, Cota, Angel, and I, and sometimes Star. But then Angel delivered the killing blow to the group. Her true nature was revealed to us, something we should have seen from the very beginning. Angel was just a huge drama queen. It explained why so many people had a falling out with her. Gannon, Joy, Outer, all stabbed in the back. She strung Beefy along and then moved on to Gannon, and I was next.
One day she decided she was done with me, she liked Sword instead. That's when we decided we had had enough and we all jumped ship, leaving Angel all alone. Her love for drama bit her in the ass in the end as she had betrayed everyone around her.
The way it all played out felt more like something out of a bad romance novel or a crappy soap opera, not like the experience you expect to have in an MMO, but there it was. The drama that this group of friends had been through kind of put me off and it marked the beginning of the end of my time in Runescape.
The "Golden Age" was over and the last stage of my Runescape days had begun. A significant portion of my old friends were gone at this point. Sword eventually stopped playing, but we kept in contact on AIM for a time, but we started to drift apart over time and eventually fell out of contact entirely. My old pals Plop and Pro stopped playing eventually as well. I kept in contact with Plop for a while on AIM but when AIM kind of died out we didn't really keep in contact. I really wish we had since we had so many great times over the years.
In the end, I ended up with a few small groups that were all loosely acquainted with each other through me. Star, first of all became my new and final in game girlfriend. We were a thing for a while, but we both reached a point where we felt this kind of relationship was silly and just became friends. She fell in with the group made up of Dragula, Nit, Blue, and myself. But a lot of them had some interaction occasionally with my other group of friends, Reaper, Avenger, and Wilson. And then there were the occasional meetings with Outer and Joy.
This period was almost as good as the "Golden Age" but at this point a lot of us were kind of sick of the game so it just didn't really have that sense of wonder to it. Things continued on like this for several months but then I was given an Xbox 360 for Christmas and soon after I signed up for Xbox Live and cancelled my Runescape membership subscription.
I made the foolish mistake of not really telling anyone this so I may have lost out on a chance to keep in contact with some friends. I eventually managed to log in to the free-to-play severs from time to time and get some contact information from some of my closer friends from Runescape.
I became friends on Facebook with Reaper, Dragula, Wilson, and Star. I still occasionally talk to Reaper, Dragula, and Wilson, but I have no idea what happened to Star. Her Facebook account got deleted or something and she never bothered to get back in contact with me. Additionally I became Xbox Live friends with Dragula, Wilson, Blue, and Outer. Unfortunately I fell out of contact with Blue and Outer because the differences between us became too great. To this day I have yet to play a single game with Dragula or Wilson on XBL but at least we still keep in contact, however rare our conversations are these days.
Looking back, the five or so years I spent playing Runescape are not some of the brightest moments in my life. Instead of trying to make the most of the less-than-ideal life circumstances I was instead escaping into another world and sometimes pretending to be someone else. I forsook trying to make friends in the real world for online ones. I sought out romantic relationships because I felt I would never be able to in real life.
But on the other hand, I met some incredible people and was able to feel like I was a part of something for once. Without the experiences I had in Runescape, I don't know if I would be the person I am today. It sure as hell was a stepping stone for me in helping me begin improving my social interaction skills and it really did help me realize that escaping is not always the best solution. It took being down at such a low point to make me feel the need to better myself.
And hey, I met some awesome friends a long the way. That has to count for something right?
In writing this article, I have felt the need to try in keep in more regular contact with what old Runescape friends I still have a means of communicating with. You never know, now that we're all adults maybe an in-person meetup will happen somewhere in the future.
That wraps up the first part of this journey through my history of online gaming. Next time I will tell you the tale of the Era of Xbox Live. I feel so much better getting this done. I'm sure a lot of you here on TAY know that I've been talking about working on this piece over the course of the last few weeks. Even though writing this was more for me to get some things off my chest, I do hope you enjoyed reading this.