All’s Fair in Love and War(craft)

With royal wedding bells still ringing on pretty much every channel and news outlet in […]

David Zahl / 4.29.11

With royal wedding bells still ringing on pretty much every channel and news outlet in existence, what better day to check in on the state of modern romance. The human heart continues to pursue its prey through and around every obstacle we dream up, and such inventive ways – it’s enough to make one believe that there’s something instinctual, maybe even God-given about the whole thing. This week’s case in point would be  “Love at First Kill”, the touching NY Times article that shone a light on a hidden corner of the online dating scene: avatar relationships in the World of Warcraft. While some might say there’s a fair amount of delusion involved here (i.e. bonafide “fairy-tale” illusions that’ll die a hard death when the relationship becomes embodied), the article nonetheless uncovers a few gems about human need and affection. I mean, if we’re going to idealize a person in the early stages of a relationship anyway, why not do it in as blatant and creative a way possible? It might spare us months of agonizing projection and the disappointment it brings (then again, it might not). Or maybe the absurd(ly cool) facades allow people to actually be themselves–for better or worse–by circumventing (some of) the knee-jerk judgments and identity politics which so often strand us in ourselves? Maybe an avatar provides people with a level of safety and security that fosters relationships. Or maybe they do the opposite by erecting virtual walls around any kind of vulnerability. Or maybe they’re just really fun in the way that lots of escapist fantasy is fun. Probably all of the above:

weddingWhile it may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, more people are likely to meet this way as the genre (known as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs) continues to grow. With more than 12 million subscribers, World of Warcraft is one of the most popular games of its kind in the world (others include EverQuest, Aion, Guild Wars). That’s a sizable dating pool., by way of comparison, has fewer than 2 million subscribers.

“It’s giving people something that they’re missing in the real world,” said Ramona Pringle, an interactive media producer and a professor of new media at the Ryerson School of Image Arts in Toronto. “It is a really primal experience. It’s about survival. It’s about needing someone.”

Multiplayer games encourage… alliances. The beginner’s guide to World of Warcraft notes that you can go it alone, “but by going it alone, you won’t be able to master some of the game’s tougher challenges, you will likely take longer to reach the endgame, and you won’t have access to the game’s most powerful magical treasures.” Ms. Pringle thinks that is analogous to love.

Yet why communicate through avatars? Why not pick up the phone? Or Skype? “When you’re talking on the phone you can say all of those things, but there’s no physicality to it,” said Ms. Romero, a food services director for a gaming company. “And in the game, even though somebody’s 2,000 miles away, they’ve made an effort to sit down and hold your hand. Even though it’s not real, the emotion of it is real.”

Speaking of emotions, the first time she let Dreadmex know she loved him, she did so in the game, and then swiftly logged off. “You can say ‘I love you’ and then run away,” Ms. Romero said. “That moment — ‘Should I tell somebody I love them?’ — it’s a big deal, right? So to be able to say it and then to disappear is pretty great.”

“There’s something magical about falling in love with someone just through writing and then waiting for a reply,” said Ms. Langman, for whom Mr. Bentley once stormed a castle. “It’s evocative of ancient romances where pen-and-ink love letters were delivered on horseback. Just the kind of forgotten world that Warcraft seeks to recreate in digital space.”