Everything you Need to Know About Society Could have been Learned in the Runescape Wilderness
Before I get any further into this article, I will be talking about Old School Runescape or OSRS. This is the version of the game that’s roughly the same as it was in 2007. The current version of the game is Runescape 3. I don’t know anything about Runescape 3, so if you were looking to get some hot dish on the modern take, that aint me.
I’ll be talking about OSRS as a whole, but I want to focus on the most philosophically important aspect of this game: The Wilderness.
If you’ve never played this game, it was the original ancient eldritch beast of online grinding. Don’t believe me? The name actually spells out RUN and ESCAPE. The entire purpose of the game was effectively to get your numbers bigger. The graphics are about the worst thing you could crank out of flash, you can easily see the world fading into unloaded nothing, you’re often walking on implied texture, and the pathing was something fucking else. And holy shit did we play the loving fuck out of this game as kids, because it was free. It was babies first MMO and you could play this silly, big game with friends from around the world. And that was kind of huge.
And it had quests, it had magic items, it had trade crafts to make cool gear, it had extremely rare drops and it had PVP. In a lot of ways this game was extremely open within its design for what you were able to do. It was rare that you could have an item that wouldn’t be able to be lost, dropped, or traded. And when you did die, everything in your inventory except 3 items dropped where you died. Anyone could pick it up. And you’d spawn back where every newbie begins their quest, left to reflect on the choices you’ve been making your whole life.
And while my Faster than Light article was a profound lesson on life, this article is going to be a profound lesson on capitalism.
I really want you to understand something. When I was a child, I gave another child 20,000 gold and a pickaxe to mine rune essence for me. That was my sign on bonus. When they delivered, I would pay them 2 more gold per unit for rune essence than the standard market price. I would see someone selling logs for less than market price, purchase them, then resell them for a profit. I would need a specific item and I would stand in a bank and shout my price for that item and keep going higher and higher until someone would cave and give it to me. Even if it was an item you could only get once on your character, eventually my price would make them give that up. I was a god damn wheeling and dealing capitalist at ten years old.
But let’s go back a second. In OSRS, everyone more or less starts out equal. I didn’t just walk into the world with enough money for child labor or playing the market. I had to lift myself up by the bootstraps and EARN my fake wealth. Just like in real life!
And the way to do this is chopping down trees. You have to spend approximately 20 hours chopping down trees to level up enough to start chopping down Yew Trees. Each Yew tree will get you approximately 600–1000 gold per tree from the sale value of the wood you’re harvesting. They will take approximately five minutes to cut them down and another twenty for them to respawn. If you’re a free-to-play player, you have access to about 3 of them at a time, so you don’t have 100% uptime for profit. The short of it is if you want to buy the very basic adventuring armor and gear you’re going to need to invest about 25 hours into chopping trees minimum and than 5 more hours every time you mess up and lose it.
Chopping trees is just one way to make money, but it’s one of the most consistent and reliable ways to get started. And I know what you’re thinking, Faye, do you sell these logs to a merchant or what? No, no no no, you sell it to other players. Those players will then use those logs and craft bows for experience. You can then use magic to turn those bows into gold. So, you can buy 1000 yew logs for 250 gold each or 250,000 gold total. You can then turn them all into bows, use alchemy on those bows, and get about 500,000 gold total or 250,000 in profit.
Casual players don’t usually think about what happens to the trees of their labor. They don’t see how it moves through the system and generates profit and value along the way. When you’re on the bottom of the chain, the top can be above the clouds and out of view. When I started playing the game, I put in my time grinding out trees, selling them, and then using that gold to do whatever.
And here is the thing fam, it takes way way way longer to make 250,000 gold chopping trees, than it does making 250,000 gold turning those trees into money. It takes about two minutes to get 250 gold worth of logs. It takes approximately 30 seconds to get 250 gold of profit using those logs. Getting those logs is RNG, turning those logs into gold is consistent, fast, and safe. I didn’t mention this but as you cut down trees you have a chance of a tree spirit coming out to kill you or your axe breaking. Which is not that different from being a pizza delivery driver. No, I won’t expand on that. (Also my numbers aren’t exact, they’re approximations because my point won’t be more clear if the actual profit is 235 gold or if the actual time is 69 seconds. I’m also focusing on just one interaction, high level players can get items worth several million gold and takes much less time than all of this, but explaining advance interaction is like several hours worth of writing or videos so I’m keeping it simple here.)
And the interesting thing is that OSRS base world represents an idyllic view of capitalism. There is no real value in OSRS and all value is negotiated. If I wanted to sell my logs at 350 gold, instead of 250 gold, I could do that and I could wait until someone was desperate enough to buy. If I wanted to buy at 200 gold, I could do that and wait for someone desperate enough to sell. If I wanted to make it in the world, I could put in time and that time would construe consistent value and that value could be used to invest in further value. The power dynamics are approximately as fair as they can possibly be and aren’t weighted on the fact we live and die, that we can have health problems, that our abilities/bodies are diverse, that we have families, that we need to live places, that we need to eat and so on. Chopping yew trees to afford a sword is something I consent to do, working for $7.50 an hour because it’s the only job in my small town and I’d like to eat and have a home isn’t exactly consent as much as coercion.
So, now that you understand all of this, we can finally talk about the Wilderness. If the main hub world of OSRS represents a potentially fair system of capitalism, the Wilderness reflects the modern reality of our current economic market. I shared a parody of the warning sign that you see before entering the wilderness and it’s worth looking at the comments on that reddit thread to understand the mentality of the wilderness bandits.
The thing is you have to consent to entering the wilderness. Once you’re on the other side of the ditch, anyone can kill you and take all but three of your items. However, if you’ve attacked another player, you get a skull above your head and if you die you’ll lose all of your items. A very common tactic for PVP was to bait a person you’ve started combat with into attacking you after you dropped combat. Since the combat system and pathing were far from perfect, it was very easy to trick someone who you were attacking into being flagged with a skull, so you could steal all of their shit.
Why would anyone venture into this Mad Max style pit of death and despair? Why not simply avoid the content all together if you didn’t want to experience griefing or losing hundreds of thousands of gold? The answer is that there was important content, bosses, and items that could only be gathered or accessed within the Wilderness. It was a high risk, high reward system, and many non-pvp oriented players at one time or another had to venture into it and hope they weren’t killed.
And here is the interesting part of OSRS. It isn’t that its an MMO or that it has loot dropping on death or that it has a PVP system. The interesting thing is it has all of this combined. Where it forces people to either significantly limit themselves in the safety of the hub world or open themselves up to the harshness of the wilderness. A lot of people in OSRS just want to get stronger, get more gold, or get higher level and do not want to fight or be fought by other players. However, they often don’t really have a choice, and the higher level you get, the more that leveling up your skills starts to require venturing into the wilderness. The game itself is designed to plumb you up, so they can feed you to the wolves.
The picture above showcases a person losing a fuckton of wealth to PVP, but if you play the game you know stories like that aren’t uncommon. There is an insane mode in the game where you can’t use the bank and every thing you use has to be just within your tiny inventory. The main way players work this system is by using wilderness bags for extended inventory that can only be accessed within the wilderness. This means they usually jump into a very obscure area, just tip their toes into the wilderness to get the items they need, and go back into the main hub world. There was a player who was doing this on a Hardcore character, meaning when they died, they lose the character. And just so happened to be unlucky enough to be sniped in those few moments and lost thousands of hours of play.
So, one must ask, how can someone be so evil as to destroy another person’s time and money like this? How can someone get enjoyment on ruining other people’s experience? How can people just steal all this work, time, and effort from another player? And while some people do a mix of PVP and non-PVP content, some people purely do PVP. Some people’s entire experience with the game is hunting other people for sport. In fact, it seems like a huge part of the community doesn’t even want that at all.
Any why is all of this? Why do people who grief and gank feel no remorse and actually mock people who complain like in that first picture I shared? The answer is because it’s legal. And so long as it is legal to do, there is no imperative to stop you. Every single person who died in the wilderness, had to say yes to the warning sign about where they were heading into. And once you crossed that line, a person was in their right to use any method in the game to trick you, hurt you, trap you, kill you, and steal everything you have.
Recently we lost a legend in Minecraft by the name of TechnoBlade. I don’t personally follow Minecraft players at all, but the respect and love TechnoBlade got is obvious to anyone in gaming. And then we have people who are milking his death for content, views, and money. My boy Charlie doing an entire video on it below.
A lot of content creators and names have denounced folks from doing this and attempted to publicly shame people out of it. I believe the main offender here got their channel cancelled as well, but there are likely dozens of folks doing somewhat similar things. And the surprise and disgust these folks have over this behavior simply did not learn the lessons about life from Runescape’s Wilderness. TechnoBlade died in the wild and everything he dropped was free to pick up from looters. There is nothing illegal about being scummy and using his death for your profit. And because you CAN the moral imperative becomes YOU SHOULD for many people. People may hate the griefer, but he did make 3,000 dollars from this.
This is actually the entire basis and critique within the No Mercy run of Undertale that I wrote about. It says that a player will do anything within a game simply because they could, simply to see everything play out, and milk every piece of content out of it and destroying the very soul of the game, the story, and it’s dignity in doing so — often without any real consequence to the player. Undertale as a game stood against this and created consequence to this shitty behavior to teach players to not do this.
And while we’re talking about video games and people see them as ultimately fake and may think that comparing Runescape’s wilderness to a very real tragedy and lose of life is unfair — I assure you the mentality is the same inside and outside of the game. In fact that’s the entire point of these essays is to understand things within simple systems so you can start to understand them within complex systems because my hero is Terry Prachett and that’s what he taught me.
When we look at PVPers within Runescape, they will justify all of their actions by the consent given to them within the world. Boohoo you died, you knew what you were getting into. In real life, I see landlords doing the same thing all of the time. It’s completely legal to take out a massive loan for a house and have a $1000 mortgage on that house and then rent it out for $1,400. After thirty years you now own a home worth $300,000, have made a $100,000 in profit, and all you needed to do was have the ability to get that loan in the first place. You existed as a middleman and exploited a family out of their money that entire time. But nothing stops you from doing that, so why shouldn’t you? If that family can’t pay, you kick them out. Tough on them, but in many cases that isn’t illegal and you need to make return on your investment. Landlords are the PVPers in real life is my point here.
But it isn’t just landlords, it’s paying people to harvest yew logs for you, so you can alchemy it into more money. It’s trying to buy a home, but an investment banker overbids you. It’s going to a hospital and racking up a bill so high, you spawn back at your home with only three pieces of gear left to your name.
In regular OSRS the wilderness is a segregated part of the map that you consent to going into, but there are worlds where the entire place is PVP. I talked about how the main hub of a regular world represents a kind of idyllic capitalism and that PVP represents what our life is actually like right now. Well, our life is currently a PVP world. There is no safe place to just get the value of the work you put in. There is no safe consistency to earning or maintaining value, because you can get ganked at any point.
Libertarians have this cute idea that free market capitalism requires no regulation and would function like OSRS’s hub world. In reality free market capitalism is economic anarchy and therefor creates power vacuums that will end in dictator ship. If you don’t believe me watch this 90 minute criticism of Legend of Kora.
In just the Wilderness of OSRS you can get lured there by accident, you can get grifted, you can get dozens of people in a clan one shot’ing your character in certain areas, you can get snared by magic, you can just have terrible luck and not get out in time. You can lose everything you have to players who only make profit and joy off of destroying your life and they’ll sleep just fine at night. Or you can be tricked into thinking you’ll make your luck as a PVPer, like a person getting into crypto currency, only to get rolled by other PVPer and grifters.
In America, we have a million dead due to a pandemic that could’ve been significantly curbed with wearing masks. Many people opted out of wearing them because it wasn’t required. In state or places where it was, most people put them on. Tesla is looking at firing a large part of it’s staff and downsizing to maintain it’s projected profits. Video game companies do this all of the time. Thousands of people out of a job, but it isn’t illegal. Small town’s only employer hiring at $7.50 an hour isn’t illegal. Requiring working sixty hours a week for crunch on a game isn’t illegal, you can find a different job if you don’t like it, but we’ll tell everyone in the industry to not hire you. Following you around in the safe world of the OSRS and attacking you if you dare go into the Wilderness isn’t bannable, it’s just playing the game. Stalking is a criminal offense, but the line you need to cross for behavior to be considered that makes stalkers really have to put in a lot of work to get any consequence.
The justifications people give themselves for killing another player in the wilderness are the same ones people use to justify profiting off a beloved creators death. They are the same justifications we see for exploiting workers or folks needing homes or food. The same justifications for following orders that lead to slaughter of entire demographics.
People look at the world in the same way they look at games. And people may scoff at that, because they don’t see games as real, but we have so much evidence that how we react in games is how we react in life.
In 2005, there was a virtual pandemic that happened in World of Warcraft by accident. It was honestly a really interesting quasi-glitch. There was a boss that cast a debuff on you, that would move to anyone you were close to. That person would die or blow up in a few seconds. It wasn’t meant to be taken outside of the boss fight, but players found if they desummoned a pet who had the debuff, they could summon it in the open world, in major player hubs, and kill everyone. This wasn’t intended and the debuff spread everywhere and the behavior of people was mixed. Some people were deliberately griefing, some avoided the game all together, some tried to keep playing. And researchers actually studied the event to get an idea of human behavior. At the time everyone said that the study was bogus, nobody would react that way in real life. And they were absolutely right, we acted way worse!
The funny thing is Division 2 also featured a pandemic and the creators complained that they did so much research into how people would respond when creating the game and it turned out they had much more faith in people than they should have.
So, if you as a kid found yourself getting griefed in the wilderness and thought life really was unfair and people were shitty, you’re right. In real life we can’t escape the wilderness. In real life we’re entering a capitalistic game that is thousands of years into the making and if don’t start out ahead, we’re probably never going to catch up. I don’t get to sell yew logs for 250 gold anymore, because Big Yew Log controls the prices and it’ll be 100 gold from here on out. I can’t stand in a bank and try to buy food for a price, the grocery isn’t going to let me negotiate the sale of their bacon, and the system is designed so my 100 gold per Yew Log is enough money to have food, a shelter, and enough left over for most of use to limp past 50 and then die in debt.
The Wilderness in real life isn’t a place other people kill you, it’s a place like it is in the real game, a place where they exploit you. A streamer lost 15,000 dollars of in game wealth that took thousands of hours to make, how’s that different than losing $30,000 to a hospital because you tripped and broke a leg. You had to spend thousands of hours to make that too.
That’s all super depressing right? Well yeah. Life is pretty tough. But remember how I mentioned that people would wear masks in places it was required. That the hub world of OSRS was idyllic? That anarchy created power vacuums that often resulted in consolidating power and violating human rights by sharing a Kora video? You probably didn’t expect that last one and I’m very proud of it.
The point is systems need regulation and we can see the benefit of that regulation. There are a scary amount of people who will do anything they can within a legal framework, but will respect that framework. If we created systems like in the OSRS hub where you don’t need to worry about food, shelter, or healthcare than we’d be a lot safer to chop trees and sell them at a value that we deemed fair. I don’t think there is any perfect system in a video game, in government, or in the economy. There never can be. What matters isn’t the system so much as the intention we put into it, the checks and balances we have to stop abuse, and the effort we put in for maintaining the system.
When OSRS got relaunched due to fan demand, they started allowing changes to the game by community consent. And that’s really huge and very cool. And this means majority rules and stuff will happen that you don’t like, but you do actually get a say. You can advocate for the changes you want. You can try to sway opinion. The article I shared about hating PVP was put out with a suggestion to put it up for a vote.
And the wildest thing about this is how OSRS has actually started to represent an idyllic form of society. People don’t really mind grinding out levels or grinding out a job, if they feel they’re respected, feel they’re moving somewhere, and have some say within the system. Fairness doesn’t make society collapse because nobody is going to do shitty jobs, fairness expands our self worth and puts value into EVERYTHING we do, even shitty jobs. And isn’t that kind of crazy?
OSRS has gone on to represent one of the coolest things in gaming. And it got there because it just actually followed the community. It wasn’t top level executives trying to play or control the market, it was them realizing there was a need and actively responding to that need. And they make a ton of money too, fairness doesn’t mean everyone is poor. It is so insane how many people don’t really understand economy or economics or behavior. And I’m not a scholar on this, I don’t want to speak over economists, but I have listen to them. The actual research on cause and effect for systems and not just feelings people with a lot of money have on the market.
So, the very weird and round about conclusion for this article is that OSRS is a strangely good model for life and something we could look at to really improve the shit we see around our world. And this is all just understanding that people do honestly engage in video games the exact same way they engage life. And while some people may be more serious or less serious about these structures, nobody is actually a saint in real life but a monster in behavior within a game. And maybe people tested the waters in early 2000s with online behavior, but these days how people are online is how they are in meat space. How people play games is how they operate in the games we play going through our daily life. Games are not just a fun thing kids do, games are fundamentally about rules and operations and your personal agency within them. Life is just a really complex game and if you understand more simple games, you can start to understand life a bit better.