essay

Bits of Love

I’ve struggled with what to write about for this month’s Blog of the Round Table. The topic is “Love” and I don’t know what to say about it. What experiences do I have? What can I write? Who do I write about? What occasions have I seen “love”?

The simple answer, for me, is to just shrug my shoulders at it. I don’t know. I’ve always thought that we find echoes of ourselves in the books, movies and games we play. We associate with situations through their metaphors and are able to process, on some level, what we are seeing with what we are feeling. We go along with the ride and experience the catharsis needed to deal with our emotions. If they can go through those troubles, we say to ourselves, then I can go through mine.

We get lost in these virtual worlds. We go on adventures with the virtual only to find the real among the words. This is the power of fiction. It’s what we talk about when we say that a movie, a book or even a game “had a good story”. We become the roles we read and are able to gain, if only for a moment, the necessary distance to see our own life from a different point of view. We look through another person’s eyes and solve their problems. When we come away from it, we are changed.

That’s what I find so hard to talk about. In order to see the echoes, the waves must have first come from me. To hear them return, they must have first left. The sad truth is that I have not been a romantic relationship for just under a decade. I don’t have that. I barely remember what it was like to be “in love”. It’s been so long that it hardly matters most of the time to me.

It’s not that I don’t feel it sometimes. That sudden tightness in the chest. That moment of pause before breathing. I can remember those occasions. I might be standing on a corner waiting to cross a street and then, for a reason I can’t quite figure out, I remember those times. For a moment, I feel that joy and then, as soon as that comes, the pain too. My feet never leave the ground, yet I am taken on a emotional roller coaster over just a few minutes until the light changes.

That should be the same for video games. I should feel that again. But I don’t. It’s cheap to me. As any number of characters in any number of worlds, I have bought and paid for sex. I have charmed my way through a situation. I have been the prostitute and I have been the john. Was that “love”? Was it any approximation of those feelings? I don’t think so.

When I spend time getting to know a character and hear their story through dialogue, is that a relationship? I would say no. To me, to the player, it’s not. To the character I play, it’s important, yes, but the player doesn’t think so. There is no free will for the other character. They didn’t come to me. They didn’t think my character was attractive or smart or funny. I had to go get them. I had to recruit them and then give them presents, go on loyalty missions or complete their quests. I always have control over them.

They “like”, “approve” or even “love” me because I told them to in the first place. And, not unlike Neo in the Matrix, I find it hard to turn off the programmer part of my mind and not see the feedback loops. I isolate the if/else branching and begin to solve the problem. If I want this story or these attributes, I plot in my head, then I need for this person to be happy, this person to be sad and I need to avoid that person.

That’s not love. It’s problem solving. It’s code. Where is their choice? If I own them, they are not unlike dolls. I can dress them up, direct their lives and tell stories with them. They are variables in an equation. Plug in the correct series of inputs and I can watch them act it out.

That is also what scares me about trying to make relationships more “real” in video games. I would like to see better writing, more detailed worlds or even just really solid stories for me to play, sure, but I cannot see a way to escape the agency problem without heartbreak. If I invest time into getting to know a character, do I want them to leave me? Do I want to get rejected? If, because of how I look or act in a game, they should leave, would I go back? Is that “love”?

I don’t feel like I have a good answer for this. Then again, maybe that’s the point. We are always wondering about our output. Was what I said understood? Did I state that correctly? Does he like me? Does she like me? We try to match up the input to get the situations we want in life.

Video games characters can be so very limited at time. They are just little bits of life wrapped up in code. But maybe we are like that too. Maybe we are all just waiting for the right person to come along and ask us to go on an adventure with them.

4 thoughts on “Bits of Love”

  1. I had trouble with this topic too! I like your idea of a character the player actually falls in love with: would we even want this? Is it even possible? Even with excellent AIs, there’s something a little one-sided-feeling about “2D” relationships.

    1. I’ve been debating if I should write a follow-up post on this topic or not. Part of me feels that ‘readers’ can only see what they know when they relate to narrative at a deep level. You cannot ‘see’ connections that you have no knowledge of.

      Being single, then, influences how I see relationships in other works and especially in video games. I have been on the other side of that equation and part of me fears for the future where we, as players, want the deeper relationship with the characters but without the journey (or dangers) that such a relationship warrants.

      I liked that you wrote about marriage, Rachel. That was part of what I was getting at in my post too (having read yours last week): many games want all the joy and happiness of relationships without the drama and the hardship. From what I know of marriages, they seem to take work between both people. I’m not sure, to answer your own question, that people would want that. The complexity, in both code and management, might be too much.

      1. Yeah, good points. But I wonder what players can sacrifice, besides their time, that would conversely up the value of a virtual relationship (I guess money, although that is already happening with people’s farms).

        And, yeah. Ultimately, a video game based on code is going to become more predictable than a person (OR IS IT?? [I am having a t-rex moment]). I’m excited to see what other writers wrote about for this month’s BoRT

        1. “Yeah, good points. But I wonder what players can sacrifice, besides their time, that would conversely up the value of a virtual relationship (I guess money, although that is already happening with people’s farms).”

          Ah, but that is worrisome too. Maybe it’s because I’ve been stuck in Glum Dan mode lately, but I find that just as bad.

          If I am investing time in characters as part of a story, that’s potentially good. I want to feel like I know the people I am reading about or playing either, it makes me closer to the story. However, if I am investing time just to invest time, that’s troublesome.

          There was an episode of the Experience Points podcast that talked about this. (I can’t find it at the moment.) Anyway, the guest they had on was talking about the idea of stopping the use of “escapism” to describe playing game. “If we are escaping into these games,” he said, “we have to ask what we are escaping from in the real world.”

          If players are using time and money to get closer or even spend more time with virtual characters, in what way is that not prostitution? I mean, yes, that is a very blunt way to look at it, but the idea of games engaging in unethical behavior is not a new. One of my favorite worries that I like to bring up is Jon Blow asking if MMOs might be unethical in that they never end and the player must keep paying to play — and thus they are designed with that in mind.

          That, I think, is my point. Any investment from the player in either time, money or friends (that is totally a currency on Facebook and it’s disgusting) into a game for the sole reason to keeping playing not for a narrative ending but to spend more time “in the game” is borderline additive behavior. I cannot help but to think of that in terms of virtual relationships.

          Given sufficient AI, many people will settle for that limited feedback. They will keep up with their virtual boyfriends or girlfriends (or both). After all, isn’t that what dating sims are supposed to do, simulate, in some form or another, a relationship? What happens when it gets too good or too additive for someone? (Assuming, of course, that doesn’t already happen. Which, sadly, it does.)

          (Hmm. That was more of a rant than a good reply. Sorry, Rachel.)

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