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Saturday, May 18, 2024

They Found Community, and Then Love, in Online Games

A warlock dressed in a long scarlet robe entered a tavern and spotted a female priest in a flowing blue dress with a halo above her head. “I was like, oh, this person is really, really bright and pure-looking, I’m going to try to kill them,” says Jonathan Casey, who played this character, Uthibar, in the multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft.

“He was a ‘bad boy,’” says Tiffany Witcher, making air quotes with her fingers. She bursts out laughing as Jonathan recalls his malicious intentions for Atris, her priest character. Tiffany and Jonathan are now married and live in Toronto with their son.

For many of us, virtual worlds are fertile ground for growing new friendships and romance. In online role-playing platforms, gamers may feel more confident in their social interactions than in real life because they can be seen exactly as they want to be seen, says Anthony Bean, a clinical psychologist in Fort Worth, Texas, and founder of Geek Therapeutics.

“Your character, your avatar, is a projection of yourself,” says Bean. “Your ideal self. Your best self. Or sometimes not your best self.”

When their characters first met in World of Warcraft in February 2009, Tiffany had moved back home and was taking time off during college. She was then a single mother, healing from a bad breakup, when she decided to try online role-playing. “I thought, well, life’s stressful, let me just be somebody else,” she said.

Jonathan’s assassination plan faded as he and Tiffany bonded. They went on quests together in the game. They talked about music. They wrote to each other over MSN Messenger, then moved to video chat on Skype, and would sometimes just leave the video connection open for days at a time as a way of being closer to each other. Once their private video call lasted about 400 hours—which may have killed Tiffany’s laptop.

They considered themselves “good friends” when they first met in person in the cold Canadian winter of 2010. Tiffany’s biggest surprise was that “he was a lot taller than I expected.” (“You were a lot shorter than I expected,” Jonathan quips back.) It was just the first of many long journeys she would make from Washington, DC, whether by bus, train, or plane, over six years.

Jonathan decided to propose to Tiffany at a League of Legends Championship Series match in Toronto in 2016, in which teams compete in front of a stadium full of fans. He contacted producers at Riot Games, makers of League of Legends, to set up a surprise. A YouTube video immortalizes the moment: In front of a crowd of onlookers and giant evil spirit Thresh, Jonathan dropped down on one knee. Tiffany, dressed as the League of Legends fan design “Star Guardian Karma” with purple hair, gasped.

“Seven years is far too long,” Jonathan said, smiling and holding up the ring. Tiffany nodded vigorously as the crowd cheered.

Chance meetings in games can grow into relationships powerful enough to change the course of lives that had seemed settled.

Take Alberto Naso and his wife Michelle Naso, who met in “a town floating in the sky” called Dalaran, outside a barber shop, where players can change up their hair and other physical features in World of Warcraft. Michelle, playing Rubyrose, remembers she thought Wochinimen, played by Alberto, was pushy but opinionated.

“Didn’t particularly like him at all,” she says from their bungalow in England. “But, I think, he did persuade me to join his guild, and that’s when I realized you were really passionate about the game. He really cared for his players. He did take an interest in people’s personal lives.”

Alberto didn’t just poach Michelle from her prior guild.


At the time they met in the game, Michelle had been married 22 years, and had a daughter. She often worked seven days a week. “I don't think it occurred to me that I was so alone,” she said. “I just worked and played WoW.”

Michelle was also sick a lot, and doctors didn’t know why. She ended up spending one to two weeks each month in the hospital. She couldn’t play World of Warcraft there, but Alberto chatted with her on the phone and over WhatsApp to keep her company.

“She realized at that point that nobody else was caring for her, except for me. And we started to move this only-in-game type of a friendship to something that was a little bit more involved,” Alberto said.

Michelle ended her previous marriage amicably. After one year of long-distance dating, Alberto left Italian city life in Milan to move in with her in a rural English town. Doctors had figured out that Michelle had multiple sclerosis; Alberto vowed to be by her side no matter what. He proposed to her in the hospital.

Their wedding was decked out with World of Warcraft homages, including music from the game and a red Horde symbol on the bride’s veil. Attendees included guild members from the game.

Michelle now has grandchildren who call Alberto “Granddad Wochi,” after his World of Warcraft character. And, together with Alberto’s brother and sister-in-law, the couple opened a shop called Geeks Headquarters in Chesterfield, England, generating a community for people who love tabletop games.

“I always wanted, before meeting my wife, to have a partner that I could share these things with, because I never thought that anybody else could understand this type of world, except somebody that likes it,” Alberto said.

Anthony Bean, who uses the tools of role-playing and geek culture to help clients in therapy, has seen some game-spun relationships work out this well. He’s also known games to break up marriages and form new ones. A character asking “How was your day?” in a virtual hangout space can be compelling, Anthony says, especially if no one in real life is asking.

“That avatar experience really allows us to connect with other people because we’re

going to naturally gravitate towards people with our liking, our adventuring, our wanting to go forward and understand the world around us. Explore. Experiment. Everything along those lines,” Anthony says.

Some relationships quickly dissolve, though, when starry-eyed gamers realize their partners are different in real life. They may have the same sort of one-sided, “parasocial” relationships with avatars as one might with a newscaster or entertainer—watching them on a screen, but not fully knowing them as real, human individuals.

That’s why Anthony advises anyone who wants to advance an in-game relationship to meet first just for a day, in a public space, in a town that’s not where either person lives. A cruise, for example, would be a terrible first date, he says.

An ocean separated Jenn and Daan Berks when they encountered each other in a French game called Dofus, in which anime-looking characters combat monsters in a fantasy world.

Since in-game spouses could teleport to each other it made sense for their characters to marry quickly. But real life intervened: Jenn began student teaching and didn’t have time to play; she was also dating someone else who also liked Dofus, and let her boyfriend play her character for a while. Gaming has always played a role in her romantic life—in fact, all of her relationships began in games of some kind.

After they broke up, her ex-boyfriend kept playing as Jenn’s character, who was still married to Daan’s. “He would be like, you know, like, Jenn, your in-game husband, whenever I log on as you, he's like, ‘Jenn! You’re here!’ He's so excited.”

Eventually, Jenn did start playing Dofus again, and realized her chemistry with Daan reached beyond the in-game fantasy world. Her personality clicked with his. He made her laugh. Contrary to what Anthony advises, Daan visited Jenn in Michigan for two weeks in June 2010—their first in-person meeting. Then, in December, she flew to Norway to see him. He proposed on the third day of her visit.

“We had met in person for like 17 days before you proposed,” Jenn says to him in their home in Canton, Michigan. “Like that's crazy, crazy.”

“You know, that is just in person,” Daan adds quickly. “We’d known each other for quite some time.”

Rain Freeman of California also made a big move for the sake of burgeoning game love early in her relationship. Rain, who uses the pronouns he, she, and they, moved in with Jess Freeman after only two in-person meetings. World of Warcraft brought them together, and when Jess decided to move an 8-hour drive north of Rain, Rain decided to join Jess.

“My parents were just like, ‘you’re kidding, right? You’re not moving in with a stranger you met online!’” Rain recalls. “I was like, ‘I mean, we talked literally every single day for like 5 to 6 hours while we’re playing games. Is that really a stranger?’”

For them, meeting in a game sidestepped the superficiality that can come with the beginning stages of dating, Rain says. The couple has been married for almost nine years and have two children.

With the opportunity to create as many avatars as one likes, with choices for appearance, gender and personality, online role-playing can be a safe space for people questioning or exploring their sexuality or identity, Anthony says.

That’s how Dylan Zaner, aka 8bitDylan, felt, growing up as a gay kid in Nebraska. He loved playing different personas in games such as The Sims, where he created a same-sex relationship. That was his first window into what a relationship with another male would be like. “For me, gaming was a lot about self-discovery,” he said.

In later years, Dylan got into making YouTube videos and playing Minecraft. A friend invited him to be part of a server called Harmony Hollow, where other YouTube content creators collaborated in the game while living together in a virtual village. They made videos in their colorful town in which Dylan pretended, at first, to be in a relationship with fellow resident Nigel Fitzpatrick, who streams on Twitch as Delphron.

Minecraft had a special meaning for Nigel. Around 2013 or 2014, he fell into a deep depression; he thought about taking his own life, and even wrote a final letter. But on YouTube he happened to see a girl having fun building a log cabin in Minecraft. Nigel downloaded the game and tried it. That’s what led him to start making his own videos.

“Definitely, gaming for me was like a lifeline, because without gaming, without the silly cuteness and the silly adventures and stories, I don’t think I would be here today,” Nigel said.

In 2017, Nigel and Dylan’s virtual Minecraft relationship became a real long-distance relationship. For their first in-person meeting, Nigel came to Omaha and found Dylan wasn’t quite as “put together” as his online persona, Nigel remembers; his car seemed to be falling apart. “Half the windshield was like hanging off the car. There was, like, rust everywhere. I was like, ‘What is this?’”

Still, the two bonded during their self-imposed two-day ban on gaming. And, after a year of cross-Atlantic visits, Dylan proposed at a Sims event in London in October 2018.

They panicked about the finances required to be together, but soon after the engagement, Dylan landed a gig as a community marketing manager at Twitch—a serendipitous monetary boost to help with Nigel’s moving and US visa situation.

“We met through streaming and YouTube, and then I end up getting a job there, and it ended up paying for how we got together, so it was like this weird moment where it was like, everything kind of fell in place,” Dylan says.

Couples who meet in games speak about their game memories the way others might about real-world dates. Jake and Tanya Basile of Austin, Texas, met in the online role-playing game EverQuest sometime in 1999 or 2000.

“When he was trying to woo me, he took me to this place in the game,” Tanya says. “The dragon place. What was it?”

“Yeah. The Veeshan’s Temple,” Jake says.

“There’s all these dragons,” Tanya continues. “We’re just walking and talking as we’re looking at all these different dragons. We get to the top. It was nice! You don’t get things like that today.”

Jonathan and Tiffany, the couple in Toronto who met in World of Warcraft, still play lots of games together—and he did recently get his chance to assassinate her in Among Us.

When they met in 2009, having a relationship with someone you met in a game was somewhat taboo, Jonathan says. Social media, he thinks, has normalized long-distance relationships and made them easier to form.

“The old adage is: There’s a million fish in the sea,” Jonathan says. “Now, it’s actually possible to see the millions of fish, and find the one that speaks to you the most. And I did.”

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