The first time I remember falling in love in gaming was in Harvest Moon 64. Like all Harvest Moon titles, Harvest Moon 64 offered players the opportunity to pick the mate of their choice as they built up their little piece of farming heaven. Mastering the art of conversation and picking the right gifts were the surest path to your mate’s heart.
The oddly named Popuri (her parents owned a flower shop) was my lady of choice, and after some careful wooing and a lot of patience, she became my fake wife, and I was overjoyed as any well-adjusted (?) 12 year old boy would be.
There’s something oddly attractive about the ability to fall in love in a video game. It’s a staple of the genre that continues to inspire gamers even today, with players regularly stressing out over who will be their lover of choice in games like Mass Effect or The Witcher.
What is it that makes this element of choice so effective and entrancing for gamers, though? It’s funny because in the solemn opinion of this writer, it’s a lot of the same things that make real-life dating so exciting and scary. For instance, it’s the fact that there is a choice, and all that the idea of a choice entails.
For example, what if you pick wrong? Sure you might find yourself turned on by Jack’s badass, shaved-head, IDGAF motif in Mass Effect 2, but who could say what it would actually be like to be in a relationship with someone so *ahem* intimidating? Does she have demons that are going to come cropping up to ruin date night? Is she going to have a nightmare and fry you in your sleep with her biotics? These are questions one has to consider.
Now obviously Mass Effect takes place in a very exaggerated version of reality but the point remains the same. Deciding to “choose” someone in real life comes with it’s own share of baggage and some very real problems to deal with. There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship and for every person you could choose to try and build a life (or even part of a life) with there will always be a bevy of other viable choices.
Now these kinds of struggles and questions in the romantic realm are some of the most everlasting issues that we will face in our lives. No matter what kind of person you are, or what kind of relationship you are (or aren’t) in, these are things that you will face in your lifetime. So why do we want to simulate them in gaming?
Well, the answer might be kind of obvious: it’s because videogames are a totally safe space. Unlike in real life, there aren’t any long-term consequences to choosing the “wrong” mate in a video game. If you find yourself unhappy with your spouse of choice in the digital world, all you have to do is start a new game, or even simpler, turn off the game. You’re not going to wake up to a series of increasingly frantic text messages from your fake boyfriend and you’re not going to find your fake wife lurking around outside of your apartment.
Like with other potentially scary elements of life like violence, war or death, love, and the things that come with it, don’t pose any real threat in gaming. You don’t have to worry about getting your heart broken because you’re 100% in control of the experience. When it begins, when it ends, and how it plays out are all up to you. It’s an empowering feeling, and probably goes a long way toward explaining the endless tidal wave of dating simulators that always seem to be trickling out.
Falling in love in a game can be a fun release from the pressures of real life relationships, and can even be therapeutic in some ways. No matter who you do (or don’t) have by your side when the dreaded date of February 14th rolls around, there’s nothing keeping you from finding yourself a fun little substitute in the world of gaming.