20 Years of RuneScape Language Barriers

posted by on 18th January 2021, at 2:27am

Everybody experiences RuneScape differently. The experience is a combination of our backgrounds, the people we encounter in-game, the state of the game when we first made our encounter, the choices we make along the way… I think it is fair to say that no RuneScape playthrough ever feels the same way. Of course this applies to myself as well: many things factored into how I have experienced RuneScape. At the same time, RuneScape has also played an influence in my life otherwise. Not just through the people I met, but also the things I learned.

It is hard to believe that a single game has been with me through more than half of my life. While my experiences may be unique, I wanted to single out one thing that has shaped my relationship with RuneScape: language.

My assumption is that the majority of the players, and the majority of you reading this article, speak English natively. This means that when you opened up RuneScape and spawned on Tutorial Island (or – Brassica forbid – in a random shady basement in Lumbridge), you should have had no problem following the instructions and explanations. How different was it for me! As anybody who has heard me on the RSBANDB podcast probably already figured out, English is not my native language. When I started playing, I was a mere 11 years old (please don’t tell Jagex!). I had just started learning how to count to ten in English in school, so the only reason I managed to get my own account us because a friend of mine led me through the process.

Going through my first steps on Tutorial Island, in what we now know as RuneScape Classic, the game was not much more to me than my friend telling me exactly what to click and what to do. The text on the screen might as well have been random characters! For the first year, I wasn’t able to play RuneScape at home – we only had a metered internet connection, so that couldn’t be used to play games online. Every week, I would visit my friend, and we’d play together, him explaining to me what I could do.

At some point, I moved towns, and while RuneScape was a great way to stay in contact, I was also now on my own. Over time, I started learning the English terms in the game. I may not have known what they meant, but I could often figure out enough from context. Not that I always got it right, mind you. With people talking about owning “100k”, I came to the conclusion that “k” must be the currency of RuneScape. When I proudly showed off my “600k”, I got a bit of a laugh from my friend. That day I learned the meaning of “k”.

For quests and minigames, I had to rely on guides written in Dutch to figure out how to complete them. Yet I still came to be a quester, and I think that is because I always had to learn about new systems by experimentation and word of mouth – that is, if the aggressive chat censoring didn’t censor out half your Dutch sentences in-game. It took me several days in the RuneScape 2 beta to learn you could run instead of walk, and that the game now had sound effects and background music! I lost all my progress in the RuneScape 2 beta, because I didn’t understand the news post about copying your RuneScape 2 progress back to RuneScape classic.

It is much harder playing a game if you have no idea what you’re doing. At the same time, figuring out the game became a game by itself. Each time I figured out what something meant or what to do, it was a small victory. At the same time, I was learning English words left and right, and while I went on a RuneScape hiatus after a few years of playing, it had already helped me develop my English beyond that of my peers. In a sense, I still benefit from playing RuneScape at a young age all these years later.

Is this an argument then to put young children in front of a game in a foreign language and just let them figure things out? Perhaps. You’d be surprised at how well they’ll manage and pick up the language. Yet I’d argue there is also a flip side to this story: the only reason I ended up deep inside the RuneScape rabbit hole is because I was handheld all the way through it by somebody else (whether that be a friend or a Dutch fansite), and because I persevered even when my lack of understanding led to loss or disappointment. That kind of game is not for everybody, and many a child would’ve moved on to other games. Translating your game in multiple languages is more inclusive to those people who’ll struggle interpreting and learning a language they don’t know, and allows everybody to experience your game to the fullest. I hope this shows all of you how easy it is to take for granted that you understand what’s being said or written, because it surely is not that way for everybody.

Nevertheless, I am still around playing RuneScape, twenty years after the game first came out. It helped me get better at English, and my unique experience in trying to learn the game through different means than reading the in-game text is what has pushed me to see the game in a different way.

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