I had a stimulating conversation today with someone from Dentsu, which reminded of the oddest commission I’ve ever received: a request from a Polish newspaper for a piece on games as dating tools. I’ve dug it out, and – it being marginally less awful than I remembered – I thought I’d give it an airing. But do please put yourself in the mindset of a Polish newspaper-reader from 2008 before you start. The world’s done a lot of turning since then:
If you’ve read your share of romance novels, it’s likely you’ll have encountered this scene: the heroine watches enraptured as the man of her dreams, the man she’s never even spoken to, takes to the stage. He settles in his chair and draws his ‘cello to him, his arms tensed and poised as he prepares to play. As a flood of music sweeps out from the stage, she stares greedily at his fingers, agile and strong, as they move against the strings. She feels herself respond to the gentleness with which he cradles the instrument, with the passionate force with which he makes it give up its music. We may find it clichéd, but we don’t find it ridiculous that someone could long to be on the receiving end of the skilled, passionate focus that a great musician shows to their instrument. Hundreds of films and thousands of books have shown us images of women in high-necked dresses swooning at the sight of a virtuoso pianist, bent over his keyboard with furious abandon.
But what if instead of a piano keyboard it was a computer keyboard? And what if, instead of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto, he was playing Halo 3? Suddenly the romance vanishes, replaced by ridicule. Who could swoon over an anti-social geek, wasting his life pretending to be a space marine? It may surprise you to discover that across the world, a forest of hands just went up. Gamers are the new virtuosos, and both men and women are falling for their charms.
This isn’t as strange as it may at first sound. The last few years have seen an explosion of online games, most notably World of WarCraft, a virtual world which now has a population three times the size of Paris. These worlds offer a fresh face for the now-familiar process of online dating. The key advantages of online dating – that you can both massively widen your potential pool of partners, while easily filtering out undesirables – holds just as true for games, as does the liberating anonymity that online interaction can bring.
In practice, what this means is that people can fall in love from the inside out. Although there are many scare stories based on people who’ve been wildly misled as to the age, appearance and even gender of their online sweetheart, for many the experience is exactly the opposite. Online games provide an environment where attraction is formed based not on the shallow factors we rely on when sizing someone up in a pub, but on deeper revelations about their personalities, interests and attitudes.
It’s in this respect that games come into their own. All you get from a chat-room or forum is a couple of paragraphs of prose, carefully calculated to show their author in a good light. Games put you under pressure, manufacture crises, and dump you in awkward social and financial situations, all of which can be uniquely revealing. Where else but in games could you find out on a first date if someone’s a good leader, if they deal well with beggars, if they can be patient with children, if they are greedy when they think no-one else is looking? These are deep elements of a person’s character, and games expose them ruthlessly. Never forget: these are worlds where you can right-click on someone you’ve just met and inspect their underwear. This combination of social intimacy and situational pressure produces a romantic crucible just as powerful as the famous Stockholm syndrome. “Much of the relationship formation in online games happens because these environments force players to work together and bond over crises,” says Nick Yee, an academic who has researched hundreds of online gaming romances as part of his Daedalus Project.
But if that all sounds a bit mercenary, than that’s to underestimate the immense romantic potential of games. Playing together takes you right back to all the delicious excitement of a school-days crush. Most games give you the opportunity to send other players private, real-time messages, so while a group of you gather together for a formal discussion about the next big battle or pirate raid, the two of you can keep up a constant stream of invisible flirtation, confident in the knowledge that these love letters will never be intercepted by the teacher and shared with the class. Or, if you’d rather be outrageous than subtle, then most games give you an arsenal of wolf-whistles, sexy dance moves and flamboyantly blown kisses to direct to the object of your affection.
These are fantasy worlds where the kind of gifts you’ve always dreamed of giving to – and getting from – your lover, are merely a weekend’s play away. Megan, a 32 year old from Minnesota, still wears a rare Mooncloth circlet given to her as a courting gift by the partner she met in World of WarCraft. ‘It’s too low level for me now,’ she confesses, ‘but I never want to take it off. Every time I look and see where it says ‘Made by Kurall’ it still makes me tingle.’ Or, if even virtual capitalism is a turn-off for you, then how about saving the life of your beloved – or sacrificing your own – for the ultimate dramatic gesture? And, for those whose romance truly blossoms, most virtual worlds accommodate in-game weddings, which give you the chance to gather together friends from all around the world in the most spectacular location to witness you making your vows, all without the thousand dollar price tags, and the worries about pre-nups. ‘So far I’ve made a tuxedo and shirt,’ says Christophe, a 21-year old Parisian who also met his girl-friend online and is planning to surprise her with an in-game wedding. ‘I just have to sort out the ring, and then I’m going to surprise her on the beach at sunset.’
One of the great, ironic virtues of the gaming world is that it levels the playing field. People who may be self-conscious of their appearance in real-life can glory in being a ten-foot cow, or a miniature gnome with pink hair. Those who never got a chance to score a goal or win a race can lead victorious armies and proudly wear the insignia to prove it. Traditional dating is like traditional exams – it favours the people whose natural abilities are well suited to a peculiar and artificial process. Gaming gives you an arena where you can demonstrate the strengths that would all too often get overlooked in a usual romantic setting. It lets you show yourself in a far more flattering light than the question, ‘Do you come here often?’ gives you a chance to.
But what if online gaming isn’t your bag, any more than online dating is? What if, despite all the reassurances, you need to meet someone face to face – flesh to flesh – before you can tell whether or not you’re interested in them? Games can still come to your rescue. Watching someone play can be just as revealing whether you’re on the other end of an internet connection or the other end of the sofa. And the great thing about offline games is that there’s a much wider range of titles available, which means a much wider range of insights to be gleaned about your prospective partner. Communal online games tend to fall broadly into the adventuring bracket – kings and queens, monsters and dragons, trading empires and space pirates – which can be a great help in judging the intelligence, patience and team-work of a prospective partner, but may leave you with some crucial gaps.
Home console games often rely on quicker reactions and reward ingenuity and skill. Watching someone play can often given you pointers about their more intimate abilities. So even if war games bore you stupid, it can well be worth sitting through an evening of play, as long as your attention is on your intended, not on the screen. How much finesse do they exhibit? How much imagination? How quick are their fingers? Do they rely on the same tactic over and over again? If it doesn’t work, do they alter their approach, or keep using the same technique in the hope brute force or luck will win the day? Do they follow the instructions the game offers them, or are they determined to please themselves? Do they save the game every five seconds so they never have to worry about losing progress, or are they eager to take risks? Watch and learn, and at the end of the evening, see if you feel surer than you did of how good a lover they would be.
Does the theory work in practice? Certainly many thousands of players have tales to tell of relationships that have started in games, and then moved into the real world. It’s common for romances to bloom over a period of years, and for couples to move thousands of miles to start their lives together. Does this ‘inside-out’ approach of getting to know someone mean that these romances prove more durable than those started in more traditional ways? “We just don’t have good numbers on the success or durability of relationships in different spheres of life to really answer that question.” laments Yee, but anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the bonds people make in-game are strong and deep. As Megan says, ‘Some of my friends were worried when I went to meet him for the first time, but after two years of adventuring together, I’d learned I could trust him with my life.’ So whether you meet online and then move off, or meet in a bar and venture in-game for an unusual first date, the game of love has never been so easy to play.
[I've lost the credits for the cartoons, I'm ashamed to say, so please let me know if you know what they should be, and I'll add them.]