by Scott Roberts
July 23, 2001
"I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin' for love in too many places..."
Johnny Lee, "Lookin' For Love"
In the 16 years I've been involved in online communities from the early days of 300 baud BBSes in the late 1980's to the massively multiplayer online games, MUDs, and MUSHes of today there's one thing that sticks out in my mind more than anything else when it comes to online romances. One thing which I hope you'll take to heart, memorize, and remember whenever you're flirting with someone online.
I should point out, before we go any further, that I'm not some embittered sufferer of a broken heart. In point of fact I've had several successful romances which began online. This series of articles, however, will deal with two things: first, the out of character implications and interests involved in online prose games, and second, the in-character roleplaying of romance.
Sex, Lies, and Logs
There are a few caveats which everyone should be aware of in an online game when it comes to romance.
First caveat, as was said above: people lie. The internet is a wonderful place to hide one's flaws. All those adages about beauty being skin deep, personality mattering more than anything else, and wit and charm saving the day are certainly true online. It doesn't matter what you look like. In fact, it's usually easier to lie about or smooth over those imperfections. The very best liars can avoid the question entirely.
One of the largest problems with people lying is that in many online prose games, people get extremely attached to their characters. They strongly associate in character relationships between characters and other characters with a relationship between the players out-of-character. This leads, in many cases, to pointless depression, angst, and disruptions to one's life when something bad happens in character... or when you find out that out-of-character reality doesn't match your fantasy.
Take, for example, something from my own past an extreme example. I had met a woman who shared several interests of mine. We admined an online prose game together. She was interesting, charming, and attractive to me; we had developed quite a friendship, spanning several years, based solely on this online game. This person was also beloved by many of the players on the game, which made the news of her death (conveyed by a loved one after a long absence, and backed by a long illness) shattering. The staff and players of the game put up a memorial to this individual in the game, complete with touching and heartfelt poems and remembrances.
Imagine our shock when we discovered that this individual wasn't dead, wasn't even a woman, but was, in fact, a married man from Brooklyn who was on disability from his job and faked his/her death because she had gotten tired and felt guilty about the lies. I should point out that this wasn't just one person being fooled; this was hundreds. I was pretty crushed by the death of my friend and someone I was attracted to; to find out I had been fooled this whole time was humbling to say the least.
Yes, the above is an extreme example, but it's a true story and one that is repeated in various ways every day. People lie, and nowhere is this more prevalent than the Internet. Be careful who you trust.
Second caveat, playing a female character gets you better equipment, gear, and treatment. There are exceptions to this consent-based socializer games like Castle Marrach, for instance, don't have much for achiever-types to want to acquire, hence they tend to attract fewer people interested in online transgendering for fun and profit. Yet by and large, the rule is that if you make a female character, you'll get more Stuff. This is because many online gamers are men with varying levels of social skills in the real world who fancy themselves gallant gentlemen, and have the opportunity to assist a "helpless woman" with something they know something about. Fortunately, in recent years this practice has started to drop off as more women enter the gaming universe and more men become savvy to the wiles of adolescent males trying to get good stuff by pretending to be women. You'll still run into this, however.
Third caveat, much like the real world, online prose games are filled with folks interested in sex. The Internet has done more to reduce inhibitions in this area in recent years than spiking the punch at a sorority party. Online prose games in particular attract folks who wish to have sex in a fantastic realm sexual role-playing writ large. A safe environment, anonymity as desired, and differing scenarios, personalities, and settings provide a relaxed and somewhat permissive atmosphere. In all, there are many who would say this is a good thing. Keep in mind, however, my primary caveat: people lie. They lie more about sex than they do about anything else, and of course, the Internet empowers them to lie better about sex than they could face to face.
A Matter Of Trust
Now that all of the dire warnings are out of the way, there's absolutely nothing wrong with indulging in romance in-character. The next column in this series will deal with exactly that, in the style of previous ones, giving tips and suggestions on what and what not to do. The key point when dealing with romance, however, is not to grow too attached to the person behind the other character (or characters, if your tastes run that way). That way lies danger.
Once you get past the lies inherent in the medium and those who use it in a predatory manner, you hit a whole new minefield. Gaining trust between people in an online romance can be a double-edged sword. For the sake of argument, let's say you've established that the person behind the other character is indeed of the appropriate sex, and doesn't have any of the traits mentioned in the above section. This is where the first mistake always seems to happen: assuming that an online persona is the same thing as a real-life persona. It's very easy to project qualities into someone you meet online that are missing from their real-life persona, or, as is more often the case, failing to remember that they have real-life flaws that you aren't seeing. Internet lovers don't leave socks on the floor; never fart in bed; don't make you sleep in the wet spot; never forget to take out the trash; can cook wonderful food... well, the list goes on. They're wonderful people. In an online prose medium, you project whatever personality you're able to type; the concerns of real life, day-to-day peeves and problems are diminished or forgotten; the relationship becomes primarily mental and spiritual, not at all based in the real world.
Even were you to meet your partner in the real world, it's most often for brief periods of time at the start romantic assignations with little permanence or long-term contact behind them. You've already done all the preliminary dating habits and the like online; things move much faster once you meet in person. (As an aside, we're assuming here that the physical appearance you meet matches the one you expected; I could write a whole column in itself on stories about the times those don't match.) Normal relationship development is highly compressed, and things proceed in a very different manner than real-life romantic social interaction.
Tales Of Woe And Wonder
In the seven years since 1994 that I've been involved in online prose games, I know of two successful marriages that occurred beginning with the partners meeting in such a game. I also know of at least four real-life marriages that were broken up by relationships formed online (only one of which led to one of the two marriages above); one online relationship which resulted in a marriage and a child followed by a divorce and cross-country move; and one situation where a pregnant woman left the man she was living with to move to a different state to live with someone she met on a MUD, put up the child for adoption in that state, and eventually left that man, too, for yet another person she'd met online.
Be careful. If you want to have an online romance, don't get involved out of character with the player on the other side of it. It can hurt you, hurt your life, and hurt people involved. You can try to buck the odds, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Next week, I'll talk about how to have that online romance... and meet those sexually-charged elf chicks. Comments welcome!