Gaming on Romance
June goes into detail about how Mordin broke her heart. She reminisces about the surprise and shock that she felt when he told her that he was not interested in her romantically. She never saw it coming. “It was amazing,” she says with unexpected enthusiasm, even with regard to the pain of the experience. However, her relationship with Mordin was not a typical romance—he’s an alien non-playable character (NPC) in the sci-fi role-playing video games Mass Effect 2 and 3.
It is unlikely that romance comes to mind at the mention of video games, particularly considering the long-enduring association of them with boys, and more stereotypically masculine qualities. However, games are not limited to rote actions, conquest, and domination of in-game lands. Most players, regardless of gender, agree that romance greatly enhances narratives in more story-focused games. In fact, June’s connection to Mordin echoes the sentiments of many of the 54 players I interviewed and the approximately 2,000 online forum posts I analyzed.
Most players, regardless of gender, agree that romance greatly enhances narratives in more story-focused games.
With the growing participation in gaming activities, social scientists such as Bonnie Nardi and T. L. Taylor have been emphasizing the importance of understanding the social world and experiences involved with video games, focusing on the time investment, connections, and meaning of this play. Some argue that beyond a hobby, these games can become “real” parts of the player’s social and emotional lives. Many researchers, for example, have highlighted the parasocial interaction that players experience through attachment to and identification with game characters. My research suggests that romance heightens those connections.
Masculinity and Romantic Game Encounters
These digital romantic relationships start with meeting a variety of NPCs and, as the game progresses, gaining dialogue options to flirt. If these flirtations are pursued, the player and character can establish an official relationship, typically punctuated by cut-scenes illustrating everything from first kisses and sexual encounters to declarations of love.
The genre of romance tends to be seen as the purview of women and is devalued accordingly. Arguably, the dominant social expectations of masculinity complicate men’s relationship to romance. Gender stereotypes and expectations that men be stoic and avoid associations with femininity arguably prevent them from openly engaging with and consuming romantic media. Some scholars challenge these assumptions. More recently, anthropologist Helen Fischer and psychologist Gwendolyn Seidman have argued that men are more romantic than women.
Indeed, the men I interviewed happily discussed their video game romances. For these men, the prospect of exploring romantic options in a game is both mundane and fantastic. Mundane because, for them, romance just seems to “make sense” for the game’s narrative arc. After all, in the physical world, if you are in a situation where you have to work with a team in close quarters, personal bonds are bound to be forged. Ignoring these dynamics feels unrealistic. Yet, men and women in interviews and online forums nevertheless also describe these romantic experiences as enthralling, interesting, and compelling. They easily discuss their romantic selections in games: why they chose specific characters, how their decisions reflect their “real life” preferences, or —conversely—how the game allows them to experiment romantically. Players enthusiastically speak about the inclusion of romance in games that they felt particularly connected or attached to. For example, many players in interviews and online insist that romancing Solas is the onlyway to experience the narrative in Dragon Age: Inquisition fully.
In analyzing the similarities and differences between men’s and women’s engagement with love and romance, scholars like Francesca Cancian and Ann Swidler emphasize that men and women similarly prize love and romantic attachment. However, they also note that gender influences expression and engagement in romantic love. My interviews also offer new ways of understanding men’s engagement with romance. For one, men, more than women, are concerned with how well the relationship is integrated into the story. As Ben says, the romance shouldn’t feel, “shoe-horned in.” Romance falls flat if it appears to be there for a one-dimensional reason, for the sake of pandering to the audience or serving as filler.
Men, more than women, are concerned with how well the relationship is integrated into the story.
The romantic storylines may also become—whether intentionally or unintentionally—a way to push back on narrow masculine expectations. A number of these men use the aspect of romance in complex ways that explore ambiguities by gender, personality, and sexuality. They consider options that are not typical for their own identity, preferences, or orientation—for example, playing a straight romance as a woman character or a gay romance as a man character, explaining that sometimes the story feels deeper when you make the “right” choice.
Perhaps more stereotypically, straight men playing these games are also more likely to emphasize the importance of physical attractiveness. Online, the ratio of posts focusing on characters’ bodies—by posting images from the game, sexualized fan art, or revealing cosplay— is far higher in forums with mostly men users. This is individualized but frequently centers on culturally conventional ideas of feminine attractiveness, including body shape and facial features. In an interview, Scott mentions, “… I mean, it’s really just whatever character I’m most attracted to [giggles]….in Dragon Age II, I generally romance Isabella and….in Dragon Age: Inquisition, I had a really hard time choosing between Josephine and Cassandra. So I made two characters and did one each playthrough.”
This is true even in cases where the romantic option is a humanoid non-human species, like the blue-skinned, seemingly all-female race of Asari in the Mass Effect series. The men discuss the significance of personality and character “fit,” but it seems that “the gaze” remains important, and it can come down to who they want to watch in those romantic movie-like cut-scenes.
Of course, romance is complicated, and women playing these games are not completely averse to attractiveness. In online forums, they discuss the “hottest” characters, though less frequently than the mostly men forums. In interviews, women tended to have favorite romances. For example, Regina discusses her romance choice of Garrus – a bug-like alien in Mass Effect—in terms of personality. However, when it comes to Cullen, she says, “…’cause he’s hot. [laughing] Mostly the first time I romanced him was ‘cause he was hot and then the second time was ‘cause I liked the story aspect of it.”
The Politics of Video Game Romance
Romance is an instrumental way to evaluate a game, and it offers another avenue to build bonds with a game —even before it is released. This was recently seen in online posts speculating about romance options in the upcoming game Cyberpunk 2077. The question of whether or not players would be able to engage in a physical or romantic relationship with a character played by Keanu Reeves was an immediate topic of discussion. It is worth noting that the majority of these forum users are men. Playable romantic relationships remain relevant even after the newness of a game has passed, with players opting to discuss their favorite all-time romances repeatedly in similar online forums.
Romance can become politicized among players, who are often concerned about the constraints placed on their digital romantic conquests. With the growing concerns of representation, who can have their romance written and consumed? Despite the wide range of alternative fantasy and sci-fi races available, from giant humanoid beings with horns to slug-like humanoid creatures, sexuality and race as we know it in the physical world remain a point of contention for players. Debates continue about player-sexual options, characters who respond solely to player interest instead of having set sexual identities, and the issue of having fixed sexualities that limit players’ options. There are some exceptions to this, including Mass Effect, but in-game interactions based on race and ethnicity are also frequently narrow. Many of the gameplay options tend to depend on mostly white characters in video games. For example, players across online forums, were upset that Vivienne, the only major black character in Dragon Age: Inquisition was not made romance-able within the game.
Tensions surrounding game content reflect both the increase in audience demand for more diversity and a resultant backlash. For example, players—in particular, women—have pushed back against highly sexualized or violent depictions of women characters in games, and harassment toward women in the gaming community as well. Some, however, have argued that changes are unwelcome and simply reflect a “PC” and “outrage” culture taking over games. These tensions notably manifested into online harassment campaigns, which encompassed everything from concerns about game journalism to worries over the potential changes resulting from increasing diversity in game content and behind the scenes.
Beyond the Game: Expanding the Romantic Options
The interest in these romances frequently moves beyond what is offered in the game. Players discuss their romantic choices in forums, as noted above, but they also use online outlets to explore and expand on these virtual romantic encounters. They use fan art to express their own interpretations of romances, allowing them to delve into their favorite moments or create new ones.
Players can also choose text-based options for these expansions, creating stories in fanfiction that add new dimensions, circumstances, and possibilities. This is especially common for pairings or outcomes that the original story did not include, whether they are same-sex options, outcomes of marriage or children, or romances not included in the game.
One example of a consistently elaborated romance is that of Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Unlike other characters, Solas does not have a sexually enticing cut-scene, nor any real closure. In fact, he always leaves the player. In cases like this, players opt to take things into their own hands, creating new pieces of art or stories that depict the events and endings that they truly hoped would happen. Even in these cases, players can be riveted by the original content. As one forum user puts it, “When the game ends, and he leaves after breaking my heart, it made me angry.… The romance was so real, and since most of my relationships end in someone leaving me, it hit me in a way no other romance has.”
Overall, with the audience interest in this aspect of games, it makes sense for game developers, in turn, to expand these options. Although not every company or game includes romance options, many have clearly concluded that romance sells. As our society increasingly turns to virtual interaction, understanding romance in these games provides a window into new areas of intimacy, gender, sexuality, race, and politics.