I like to say that the couple that games together, stays together. I'm not alone in that sentiment, either. I'm sure there are tons of couples who integrate gaming into their day-to-day interactions and manage to get along just fine.
But just because I like to say it... well, that doesn't make the statement true. Unfortunately, I only know this through first-hand experience.
My husband and I met online, like a lot of people do these days, and he liked to say that he fell in love with me on that very first date.
I have a habit of hiding behind a gaming handheld when I'm really nervous with someone new. It wasn't long into that first meeting when I dug into my purse. I pulled out my Nintendo DS, and just kind of fell into it for a couple of minutes before closing it and going back to him. He swears that that moment, right there, was the moment he fell in love with me.
I still don't know what he saw in me at that moment. Was my nervousness merely indicative of the sort of unshaped person he was looking for? Did it make me look more submissive, perhaps? Maybe he just wanted someone who played more games than he did. I haven't really gotten an answer, and that's okay. I'm not looking for answers these days.
This year, we separated, and the divorce process has yet to really get underway, despite the fact that we're both pretty happy with other people at this point. What I realized most recently about our separation is that the way we played together this year said a lot about where we were in our relationship.
Two games managed to show me it was all over. There wouldn't be any turning back. No rolling a new character for a fresh start, no "maybe I'd be a lot happier in this marriage on ‘Very Easy.'" These games, which were very different from one another, weren't the problem, but they were certainly illustrative.
I wasn't an idiot. I knew when the snowball started rolling down the hill. After one of our (increasingly common) serious talks that left me bawling, I told my husband that we needed some time to ourselves. We needed a couple of hours away from the distractions (read: other people) just to see if there was anything to salvage. I wanted to make it a weekly thing, even.
Okay, so I wasn't an idiot then, but I sure was stupid to think that a couple of hours was going to do a lot for us. Maybe hope kills brain cells.
I wanted counseling. He said no. So, us being us (or perhaps me just being me), we picked a recent downloadable PlayStation 3 release to play together—The Simpsons Arcade. He'd played it a lot as a kid, since he could visit an arcade on a semi-regular basis. I hadn't ever managed to play it before, but the show, as well as the game's genre, are among my favorites. The best part (to me, for this occasion) was that it was all co-op. No fighting each other allowed, only working together.
In a sense, going back to this kind of game was the perfect thing to do. We were going back to basics, trying to figure out the essence of "us," whether that was particularly painful or not.
Here, the pain was minimal. We actually finished the game in about half the time that was allotted in our schedules, but we didn't want to go back and do it again so soon, so we perused the menus and that was really just... it.
I don't think playing something together really "worked," but then again, I don't know what I expected. We came, we played, we went back to our (increasingly separate) lives. Honestly, we never even spoke about the nothing that happened again.
And playing together weekly never happened, either. That time would be the next-to-last.
The absolute last time we played a game together was the Diablo III launch. He'd been waiting the better part of a decade for this game and I'd only been waiting the better part of a year. The way he talked of high school LAN parties made its predecessor sound like the ultimate in companionship gaming. Bonds were forged, and loot was had. I wanted in on this.
I got my chance during the game's press preview for the beta. I could finally get a real sense of what the game was like (and find out just how well it would run on my MacBook Pro). I installed the game and started playing while my husband watched, and man, it's like something was just weird in that room all of a sudden.
I didn't deserve to play, he said. Mostly because of the fact that I'd never touched a Diablo game in my life. Does that really compute? I'm not sure. I offered him my computer and told him about that last open beta push before the game's release, but I don't know if he ever went for it.
In any case, we finally made it to release night, and after his late-night gym excursion, which could bring him home well after midnight most nights at the time, we booted up, avoided error messages (perhaps due to blessings from Deckard Cain himself), and went for it.
I made my gal a Demon Hunter named Ariadne (named after my similarly-classed WoW toon), he got started with a Barbarian, and off we went.
Since I'd already done all of this before, I was directing things pretty well, but trying not to be too overbearing about it. It was, in my opinion, so, so cute to see my husband so excited about exploring New Tristram. We went on for about an hour, and then it happened.
He let me die.
In co-op, enemies scale with you and the size of your group. When I'd played before, there wasn't much of a problem (with the exception of that damn Skeleton King) because my enemies were scaled for a single-player game.
So, here we are, fighting our way through the very beginning of Act I and we separate and all of a sudden I manage to aggro everything in a pretty large radius and I don't know how that happened and they're attacking and oh my god sweetie I don't wanna die hey can you help me they're killing me um seriously can you help because I can't get range and I'm mostly good for range attacks and... dead.
He let me die. In a room where we would often simultaneously play our respective MMOs with chairs sitting literally next to one another and desks that were touching, he let me die.
With me verbally asking for help, he still let me die.
Yes, it's just a game. Yes, I could come right back to life and keep going (and I did). But I still cried that night before I went to bed because he. Let. Me. Die.
Yes, he was wearing headphones, but he heard me. I confirmed as much later, when we were done for the night. Oh, "it's just how you play," he said. Oh, so it was normal to ignore your partner. It's just "normal" to not even deviate from your loot-grabbing activities to save your wife from monsters. I gotcha. (Except everyone I've ever told this story to who has any Diablo experience is always as shocked as I was.)
I guess it's too much to expect "‘til death do you part" to extend to the virtual world, to avatars that aren't even programmed to express the sentiments behind such vows.
While Ariadne came back again, prepared to handle the onslaught alone, part of me didn't. We were over. Really over, and nothing could save us. It wasn't until after this moment, though, that I really accepted that as fact. It wasn't just that He Let Me Die, it's that he was so nonchalant about it, even while tears ran down my face.
I left our home the next week. I've spent the majority of this year in the kind of depression that you really only seem to get after someone very close to you dies and there's nothing left to take its place. Once I left, things got better, but I've really only been replacing one kind of sad with another.
There is a spark in my life, thankfully. If there wasn't, I probably wouldn't have made it to today, to be honest. I have a boyfriend now (and I've had him for over a year now, so you do that math—I'm a cheating cheater (my husband had been, too), and while that isn't the only thing that made us fall to pieces, it certainly is among the reasons).
I'm not like Patricia Hernandez, who wrote not too long ago that she just plain doesn't list gaming as a thing she's into on her OkCupid profile anymore. It's there, it's something I'm open to talking about, but if you're creepy as hell about it, I'm just going to ignore you. My guy... he's not a gamer. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. He's pretty "meh" about most games these days, despite still fitting in the occasional Age of Empires game (and this is the very first version of the game). He has a Wii, but who doesn't? The thing's ubiquitous.
So, okay. He doesn't play a lot of games. That's fine. It doesn't bother me in the slightest. But when we first started getting a little more serious, or at least as serious as an online long-distance relationship can get while you're still married, he did mention having a copy of Portal 2. This, by the way, was the best thing ever.
I'm a Portal maniac. I love GLaDOS' acerbic humor more than almost any game character as a whole. She may be what amounts to a sentient operating system, but still, my point stands. Best character. Oh, and the part of Portal where you play with portals is pretty good, too.
So I knew Portal 2 pretty well by this point. Hell, after my town was flattened by a tornado and I used the game as a bit of a way to return normalcy to my life, I wrote to the game's co-writer, Erik Wolpaw, to thank him. (His response was to say thank you, "but you didn't actually say the game was any good." For the record, sir, it's excellent.) I had been through the co-op campaign with someone else, but I didn't know it like the back of my hand yet.
So it was only natural that I bugged him to play it with me. After a lot of IMs, he finally installed the game and it was on. Part of the beauty of online play is that despite having about 1,300 miles between us at the time, it only felt like mere inches.
We stumbled, together, through it again. What struck me most was the fact that this time, it felt truly cooperative. My first partner, to whom I'd lost my co-op virginity (gasp!) was smart enough and well-versed in game design, so if we were stuck, he almost always figured it out. When I tried to play with my husband, it fizzled out after about a half-hour, because the portal mechanic just isn't his thing. I get that. (Sort of.) Also, I don't think he liked taking too many directions from me. (It's possible that this theme may have existed for a while.)
You know, he and I hadn't even met in person yet. But here we were, handing off edgeless cubes and hitting buttons and being willing to try things even if they don't work. I was able to actually teach him some things about the game—no, you can't carry things through the emancipation grids—and, as a bonus, the game did feature voice chat. So it was a fantastic Skype replacement, too.
Playing with him just felt right. I don't know how else to explain it. Maybe I should just say it was like having the knowledge that there's someone out there in the universe who just understands you. Maybe this means more to me as a woman, but if things weren't clear, he would wait for me to explain them and ask questions until he completely understood whatever task was at hand. Like, oh my god. Dream guy.
It wasn't long after that first play session before he decided to ask me something. This something was prefaced as a "weird" something, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
He wanted to know if I would have his children.
And perhaps this sounds stupid, or like an uninformed product of lust and at-the-time completely unfulfilled sexual tension, but I... uh, I said yes.
I said yes not just because I love him, but because while we were playing, I literally had the thought, "Huh, this feels like real teamwork. I honestly think I could have kids with this guy if this is how well we interact."
It'll be quite a while before I have to live up to any of that, sure. That is, if both us as a couple and the plans for everything that happens before kids shake out. But over time, I've felt like a game—a silly game about screwing with physics—is really a better litmus test for relationships, having children with someone, and other serious endeavors than anything else I've encountered (you know, aside from actually doing any of these things). It's puzzling, challenging, and occasionally you just want to throw up your hands and give up. All of that sounds like parenthood to me. Except for the part of parenthood where you don't get to sleep. I hear that's a thing.
Ultimately, I think we can learn something about ourselves and our relationships with others when we take the time to play with other people instead of against them. Maybe you don't always like what you see, sure, but it's worth the effort. How's that competitive personality going to work out with another person? Are you the sort who gives up control too easily on a shared screen? Does that translate to you giving up control in your life? It's something to examine, for sure.
As for me, well... I'm ready to learn some more about the people I love. Just as long as it doesn't involve Diablo III. That one still hurts a little.
Tiffany Claiborne is the former news editor at GamingAngels.com. You can reach her on Twitter at @kweenie, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.