What Video Games Teach Us About Marriage

Roughly two million couples in the United States get married each year, give or take a hundred thousand. Every pair does it for their own reasons, from the idea of a fairy tale happily-ever-after to the decidedly more prosaic need to share health insurance costs.

It's a big decision, coming with a number of legally and socially mandated perks and responsibilities. Research also tends to find that happy, stable marriages have a ton of physical and mental health benefits, adding to the net positive.

So here in the real world, marriage is an optional path along the very complicated road of life — but not all marriages are created equal. Laws regarding marriage are applied differently, depending on where, geographically, a couple finds themselves. Happy marriages are a net positive, but unhappy marriages can be a particularly draining kind of personal hell. It's a calculated risk, but one that a huge number of people go for at least once in their lives.

What about in our video games?

Games are in many ways much more simple than real life. Even the most complex of all the digital worlds in which we play has finite, man-made boundaries. And no matter how those boundaries look and feel to the player, in the end they're all numbers. Relationships in games, like everything else in games, are ultimately mathematical. But does the math always have to show?

A human can choose to act irrationally, illogically, or out of character, but a game character is restricted by its programming. A player character can only make so many choices, and a non-player character can only follow the script its assigned. No matter how many variables go into determining player options and NPC reactions, it all comes down to a huge series of if-then statements, forming a robust illusion. And yet what amazing illusions they can be.

Broadly speaking, there are two main reasons we do anything in narrative games (as opposed to games that are primarily about mastering a specific skill, or raking up a score). One is to realize some kind of in-game benefit for the characters we play: we want to receive an item, to remove a threat, to gain experience points, or to take some kind of action that will result in some kind of reward. The other, though, is much more, well, human: we do stuff just to see what happens. We explore to see what we can find, we undertake quests just to find out more about their stories, and we talk to NPCs just to find out what they're like.

"Doing stuff just to see what happens" is perhaps the entire point and purpose of three very different games: Fable, Skyrim, and The Sims. The first two are both different approaches to sword-and-sorcery kingdom-saving. The last, though, is designed for players to be able to simulate real life, in every possible dramatic, ridiculous, provocative, and heartwarming way. And all three are surprisingly uncommon among single-player games in that they allow the player to choose whether or not marriage ever features into the stories being told.

Why get married when you could be killing dragons?

Skyrim is well known for its sprawling, almost incomprehensibly large game world. The player character, the Dragonborn, chooses over and over which factions to support, which quests to pursue, which areas to explore... and which, if any, marriage to pursue. In keeping with the "impossibly large" scale, there are 28 female and 35 male NPCs from among whom the player can choose.

What Video Games Teach Us About Marriage

The characters of Skyrim are, well, characters. Each comes from a different area and has different requirements for building a relationship. Some require the player to have a certain level of status. Some require certain affiliations, or quest arcs completed. And some simply require that the player ever hire them on as extra muscle, or that the player defeat them in a brawl.

Filling one's video game home with a spouse can feel roughly as inconsequential as filling it with wheels of cheese.

But even while the potential suitors of Skyrim represent a wide range of races, occupations, and depth, the outcomes of marriage are almost universally the same. Once a day, they can give the player character a homemade meal that increases the rate at which health and magic resources regenerate. They can run a home business, acting as a merchant for the player character to shop at (and giving the player a daily cut of the revenue). And dropping in to the homestead and spending some quality marital time with the spouse in ye olde marriage bed can give the player a 15% boost to the speed at which skills are learned, for a time.

The enormous breadth of Skyrim can come at the expense of depth. The world, its factions, its history, and its lore can be impossibly deep and detailed, but the characters in it don't always feel like people. Because the player can choose from such a wide array of paths and actions, filling one's home with a spouse can feel roughly as inconsequential as filling it with wheels of cheese. By allowing anything, in a sense the game has taken meaning from everything. Marriage has its tangible benefits in place, but no mechanic for its emotional ones.

What Video Games Teach Us About Marriage

Where Skyrim is broad, Fable III is narrow. Its intentionally mindless mechanics are entertaining, but its relationship, sex, and marriage systems fascinated me. On the one hand, they're appallingly simple: perform a series of clearly denoted positive actions with almost any character in the game, and a relationship will eventually progress to love. If the player's Hero and the target NPC are compatible (same-sex relationships do exist in Albion, and NPCs are specifically denoted as straight, gay, or bisexual), the Hero will eventually have the option to propose.

As in Skyrim, love and family are only important to the world of Fable inasmuch as they are important to the player, and Fable III encourages a cartoonish, comic, all-or-nothing experimentation. The Hero literally ends up either with the angel's wings or with the devil's tail by the end, and may as well go around kissing babies or drop-kicking puppies.

I asked Ben Huskins, senior technical designer on Fable III, why and how the team had chosen to add marriage into the game in the way they did. "We want players to care about people within the world and in doing so become more attached to the world itself," he said, adding that ultimately, the mechanics were all designed to increase the player's investment in the world:

"By encouraging players to develop relationships with the people of Albion it made their decisions more meaningful when they came to rule the land. During the latter part of the game those choices could have profound effects on the people they had met throughout the game, including loved ones and giving those choices much more weight.

"We've always been keen on giving players the freedom to form relationships with (and eventually marry) nearly anyone they encounter in the towns and villages. Just as developing a character is a way to express themselves, so is choosing who to marry is another way to express who they are and weave your own story in the world. Everyone ends up with a slightly different tale depending on who they chose to marry (beggar, nobleman, shopkeeper, thug, etc.) and where they chose to live (in a hut on an island, in a castle, etc.)."

What Video Games Teach Us About Marriage

Touch, he further explained, was designed to be the true primary mechanic for advancing relationships in the game. While "hug," "hold hands," and "kiss" may feel impersonal when selected from a floating menu, they truly are the building blocks from which so many real world relationships are built. I didn't consciously notice, while playing, how reciprocal and mutual all of the available relationship-building actions were, but in retrospect, it seems obvious:

Touch was a key part of developing a relationship, the hope being that the physical connection would help reinforce the emotional connection. Previous Fable games were about performing actions at a person (I act, you react), in Fable III it was more of a proper physical interaction between the characters (hug each other, dance together, kiss, etc.). This extended to hand-holding when players wanted to take a villager on a date or out on an adventure.

A happy spouse does provide gifts every so often when the Hero comes home.

Ultimately, though, marriage in Fable III fell prey to the same trap that so much of the game did: the scale simply didn't match, and every cost or benefit, no matter how couched in descriptions of morality, ended up being measured in money. Transactions of a few hundred or even a few thousand coins once per game month, for domestic upkeep, don't even show up on the radar when a Hero can generate hundreds of thousands of coins every five minutes of real time just from owning property. A happy spouse does provide gifts every so often when the Hero comes home, but a popular enough Hero will eventually reach the point where every step through a town or village comes with a swarm of NPCs begging you to accept their presents, and one more barely makes a splash.

Fable III lays bare the skeletal structure of human manipulation in a way that even The Sims can't quite achieve, but with less consequence or depth. Marriages in Fable III have very little meaning to anyone other than the NPCs who have married the Hero. And if they live in a big enough house, with enough cash flowing in, they won't even care if you propose to another NPC right in front of them.

What Video Games Teach Us About Marriage

Marriage was in the first game; divorce was in the sequel

Sims, though, care how you treat them. They don't exist to carry along a script; they are not destined to slay the dragon or to save the world. They exist to mimic the best and the worst of us, with all our human goals and fears. Charles London, creative director on The Sims franchise, described them to me as a "canvas" on which the player could project almost anything, up to a point.

Unlike RPGs, where the overall story arc comes from the game, in The Sims the overall story arc comes from the player, and the Sims need to walk a delicate line between being characters and being dolls. "Too shallow," London said, "and there's no feeling of the Sim having the breath of life; too deep, and players have difficulty reverse-engineering the behaviors, and the Sim starts driving the story instead of playing a part. If we err too sharply in either direction, the suspension of disbelief fails."

What Video Games Teach Us About Marriage

Some, but not all, Sims have specific aspirations toward romance, marriage, and family just as some, but not all, people hope for the same. And while some interactions are easy enough to model plausibly—if you suddenly stop paying attention to someone who likes you, annoyance is sure to follow—the available mechanics haven't always done the best job of keeping up with the designers' intentions. The consequences of limited modeling ability, London said, could be surprising:

"In some ways, marriage in The Sims original series was also an old-fashioned affair for the age in which the game was released. For instance, the player was charged either 1000 simoleons or half of their Sim's current wealth, whichever was less. This represented the old-fashioned social value of 'being prosperous enough to marry,' a rite of passage which, while still important in many places in the world, caused the player (unless they cheat) to have to tell a story about establishing their Sim in the world as well as one about developing a deep love affair. As well, the Sim who moved in took the last name of the current family and left their home and belongings behind. Strikingly traditional when the incoming Sim was female, and oddly modern when the reverse was true.

"There was no divorce, as we didn't have the means to split a Sim off into a separate family in that way. Instead, a Sim could only begin an affair with another partner and marry again."

"There was no divorce, as we didn't have the means to split a Sim off into a separate family in that way. Instead, a Sim could only begin an affair with another partner and marry again, joining a new household, which is an oddly Victorian juxtaposition of starched values and prurient betrayal. Domestic issues were possible, in that Sims who married and then had subsequently poor relationships could get into physical altercations —T-rated of course. After the fight, however, one of the Sims would leave the home, never to return. We chose that carefully: while we wanted to say we knew marriages could go very wrong, we also wanted to assert a picture of dignity and self-esteem for our Sims. We felt it was important that Sims who were driven by the player to intolerable conditions would assert their own dignity, and opt out."

By the time the dev team reached The Sims 3, divorce and same-sex marriage had all become supported, and Sims' daily moods could be more highly effected by the status of their relationships. An ugly SimDivorce can leave the split-up Sims, as well as their children, deeply distressed for a time.

But for all that Sims have detailed ways of behaving in any given situation, the value of their relationships and their marriages still exists only inasmuch as the player finds them valuable. Sometimes it's nice to see a Sim live happily ever after... and sometimes it's nice to watch them light their neighborhoods on fire from a badly-built barbecue. The Sims series is in many ways the ultimate "what if" sandbox, and destroying fake people's fake marriages can be as entertaining for players as building them.

Sometimes it's easy to forget you're married.

The in-game relationships with the most depth and variety, and the biggest emotional consequence, are the ones that have human minds steering the characters. And so we find marriages appearing in online games, when players inevitably add romance to the mix of dramas that they role-play with their characters.

A small handful of online games actively support character marriages through an officially sanctioned mechanic. Massively multiplayer online game Maplestory, for example, allows players to purchase a virtual ring using real currency, and recognizes when two characters have officially married in-game.

For most, though, it's a matter of imagination, with no benefits from the game. Two players in World of Warcraft can decide that their characters are linked, without a change in game mechanics to support them. They can have a wedding, and invite their friends. In other online games, like EverQuest II, they can share player housing and take on the same surname. The characters, in short, are married because their players said so, not because the game did.

And really, that's what all the game marriages have in common: they are exactly as important to the game as they are to the player. The single-player games that allow marriage as a choice also have to support players' ability not to choose marriage. They are games driven by guaranteeing that anything the player chooses to do, within the confines of the game, will be supported. And so the marriages are mechanical and shallow: benefits can't be too great, nor responsibilities too demanding. The virtual money and the short-term stat boosts end up being more or less meaningless against the greater scale. Instead, it's about how invested the player is in telling a story and in deciding where emotion lies.

In the real world, the financial benefits and responsibilities of marriage can be staggering. But usually, that's not what a couple is thinking of when they decide to legalize their union. Instead, they are thinking of passion and of love. They are marrying for emotional reasons, because they choose to share a new kind of bond.

In reality, as in games, a relationship is a matter of imagination: before (or without) legal marriage, a couple is together because they say so. And after marriage, the partnership holds up—or fails—for the same reason. In game after game, a character's marriage lasts and thrives exactly as long as the player remembers to pay attention to it, and to choose to draw meaning from it. And in that, virtual marriages do indeed teach us a valuable lesson to take away into the world.

(Top photo captured in The Sims by 4thefunofit4, posted on the official forum for The Sims)