I was introduced to RuneScape a long time ago. This was still in the time of what we've later come to know as RuneScape Classic. I had never heard of this game; I had never even thought it was possible to play games on the internet. For context, this is the time where internet wasn't as commonplace as it is today. At home we could plug the phone cable in the computer to maybe download some emails and simple websites, but it was slow, expensive, and you couldn't use your phone at the same time.
You can imagine my sense of wonder when I joined my friend at his home where he had ADSL, internet that was always on! Together we created my first account, and I would visit him regularly so we (well, mostly I) could play. I couldn't play at home, because not only did we not have ADSL, my parents wouldn't let me play on the "good computer" for more than an hour a week!
Several months after this, I moved away. This was before the time of Facebook and WhatsApp, so we knew we would have very little contact from that point onward. With the move something good came as well though: our own ADSL connection! RuneScape turned from a game I played at my friends' house to the way I stayed in contact. This shows one of RuneScape's core strengths: its social aspect. While we were miles apart, it was still together with my friend that I set my first steps in RuneScape 2.
Over time, our interest in the game faded, and we started to lose contact. However, one year later, I met new friends, and we started playing RuneScape again. After school we would race home and boot up this virtual world to play together. Still limited to using my parents' computer, they would often have to drag me outside to make sure I got my share of vitamin D at this time.
As it often is with RuneScape, during my teen years it become increasingly uncool to be associated with RuneScape, and I once again stopped playing. In the meantime, MSN Messenger and Skype were taking over as main communication methods, and with two sisters competing for computer time, more and more often I would play games on my own, on my computer without an internet cable plugged in.
It would be years later until I finally started up RuneScape again. Buying prepaid cards behind my parents' backs to pay for membership, and without telling any friends I was playing again, the experience was very different to before. I'm not talking about being a member, I am talking about the fact it become mostly a solo experience. This all changed when I decided one day to check out this clan called "Clan Quest".
Instead of playing with people I already knew, I was now making new friends online. This was not a new experience, as at that time I was strongly involved in Dutch game development communities, to the point where I would visit meet-ups. Among my clan, RuneScape was not a dirty secret of uncoolness, I could freely be myself. You know what they say: on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.
This all is a long preamble to one of the biggest life lessons I have ever learned on the internet: while you can make real, strong friendships on the internet, it never feels real until you meet them in person. Where in my childhood I would meet up with my friends from real life on the internet, I now meet up with my friends from the internet in real life.
It is no secret that a lot of context gets lost while communicating digitally. Text is the most lossy form of communication: intonation, facial expression, it all gets lost. Voice chat adds an extra layer, and adding webcams brings communication as close as it gets with technology that is available nowadays. And yet, it is not the same.
Over the years, I have met dozens of people in real life that I had previously only communicated with online. There are no words to describe what the experience is like. The second you meet, everything feels the same old. When I met Shane, within five minutes we were discussing one topic or another. It is like making a new friend without the time required to build trust and understanding. It just... clicks.
The wondrous thing about meeting a person in real life, is that it will change future interactions forever. Over time, the effect of having met each other in person fades, but you cannot lose that feeling, that deep understanding that the person on the other side of the line is actually real. It is something you have to experience yourself, because there is no way I can accurately describe what happens when you first meet long-time friends in person.
Events such as RuneFest are important for that very reason. Meeting clan members in person has only strengthened my bond to them. I still get raised eyebrows when I say that some of my best friends I have (only ever) met on the internet, but I guarantee that every RuneFest attendee that met a friend will tell you that it is possible to create friendships for life within a game.
And thus my experience with RuneScape has come full circle. From sitting around a screen with my friend, to having it be the communication tool, to finally meeting an entire new group of people that I would never have met otherwise. If you have ever doubted whether your online friendship is as valuable as your real life friends, if you have ever considered whether travelling to meet an online friend in person is worth it, the answer to both questions is: yes. As we become more dependent on platforms such as social media, it is more and more important to consider that not even the best technology beats an actual hug from your friend.