With Christmas a few weeks away, it's time we started dusting off the hearts in our chest to look for those warm, fuzzy feelings. Yes, Valentine's Day is a few months away, but I think it's time I turned away from looking at the, us versus them mentality of customers versus the MMO companies, and took a look at a more interesting aspect of gaming: us versus us.
There are a lot of schisms that can happen between players in an MMO environment, but there are none so strange or uncomfortable as those that come from relationships - and not just from break ups. If online dating wasn't awkward enough, imagine doing so in the public presence of hundreds or thousands. Sure, your real face may be on a dating site - but your relationship isn't up to public scrutiny, and when you're done dating one person on a dating site, you can move on to the next without your last haunting you (normally, at least).
The main problem is that MMOs are social games, and the communities that form around them generally become like small towns or clubs. A lot of social bonding happens on servers, and whether you've even been on a speaking basis with someone, most players know the names of dozens, even hundreds, of those that share their server. As we spend time on the server, we become exposed to the business of dozens of people through guilds, pick up groups, forums, and gossip. There's not always an opportunity to dodge the people you've burned bridges with, but there's a huge difference between an ex-guild leader and an ex-lover.
Now let's pause here, because you're possibly thinking, "Wait, back it up. People maybe have cyber flings in MMOs, but no one really has real relationships, and certainly none that last!" For those of you that are skeptical, I don't blame you. Most articles about "dating in MMOs" have the same kind of vague language that frequents urban legends: "my guildmate's sister plays on another server and she totally knows someone who hooked up after they ran Molten Core!" Well guess what: this author is one of those weirdos who met someone via MMOs, met them in real life, and even got married later. I know, some of you are so surprised.
However, I'm not going to be all bright-eyed about it and recommend it to all the socially anxious youngsters out there who think dating in a game will be easier for them than finding someone in the flesh first. Don't get me wrong: I'm perfectly happy in my marriage - my marriage isn't perfect but no one's is. The process of finding "someone special" in an online game, intentional or not, and pursuing a life long relationship is not a pleasant process. For me, five years of long-distance relationship was emotional hell, and I often thought it wasn't worth it to continue trying to manage my social relationships and my romantic relationships in the same game at the same time. Add over five years of marriage and living in close proximity to someone you game online with, and yes, it still drives me stir crazy from time to time, and he knows it. It's not just about managing a relationship online either: we'll be blunt and say I was damn lucky the guy I found turned out to be healthy and, more importantly, not a criminal.
In short: if you're looking for love in an MMO, don't assume that you're going to be part of the handfuls of successful relationships out there. They are, indeed, the minority of relationships started online.
So what's all the drama about? Let's take a semi-hypothetical situation: Mary Sue meets Slater in a group one day, and they hit it off, sharing lots of jokes. They continue to talk privately for days after the group is over, and soon they start to flirt a bit. Flirting may or may not lead to cyber sex, but somewhere along the line affection is professed, and a relationship - albeit sans a dinner and a movie - is born. She joins his guild, is welcomed in with smiles, and makes a lot of friends and acquaintances in the process. All is well, or so it seems.
The more Mary Sue and Slater get to know each other, the more they find they don't mix. He's a PvPer; she's a hard core raider. They can't find time to spend together. She insists they do things together and whines if they don't. He, not out of callousness, but out of disinterest in the activities she wants to do, could care less. Mary Sue realizes that Slater can't meet her emotional needs; Slater realizes that Mary Sue isn't his type of gal, and they break up after a fight that starts in their guild channel about whether he should help her level her new alt.
Mary Sue tries to stay in the guild, but people stop talking to her - they knew Slater first, and tend to side with him, although they were annoyed by the fussing in guild chat over who had to sit out so they could run instances together and how bad she was at PvP. She figures they must hate her, because they're on his side and must like him more, so she quits the guild. She finally finds another guild to join, but a lot of people are friends with Slater's guild mates, and she finds herself in groups with not only her former guild mates, but even her ex.
This is one of the less complex situations I've seen in my years of gaming online. It's uncomfortable for everyone involved, and it's interesting to see the level of possession some people reach. We understand "spouse aggro," and usually attribute it to either a spouse who doesn't game online or a player not getting their priorities straight; yet many players suffer a different kind of "aggro" that dictates what they can do and with whom. Ever known a couple playing together that just has to group together, or neither goes at all? It might be sweet and endearing to the couple, but it's nothing but annoying to those of us who have to adjust groups based on the emotional needs and insecurities of the two of them. It's like newlyweds who can't part each other's side for more than a moment anywhere. The rest of us know it's just too sickly sweet and unnatural.
It boils down to this: relationships online aren't any prettier than real world relationships. They can be as happy, as roller coaster, or as creepy as anything the real world can throw at you. Your only real benefit is you immediately share a common interest and, at least to start, you have anonymity on your side protecting you. The drama is just as drawn out and complex, only it often involves a lot more people whether you, or they, actually want to be involved. There is just as much lying and manipulation, plenty of good intentions gone bad and promises broken. Certainly, it works for some people, myself included, but don't count yourself in that group unless it really does work out. If it does, count yourself among the lucky few. It's better to pass and wander out into the sunshine with sunglasses and a smile.