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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 September 2007, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
State of Play: The game of love
By Margaret Robertson
Video game consultant and writer

Screenshot from Final Fantasy XI, Square Enix
Avatars are not always the best guide to the player behind them

People play games for many reasons, but increasing numbers are finding that they are a great way to size up potential partners.

These days, the media is full of tales of people who fall in love online.

The wave that started in chatrooms has swept across internet dating sites and crashed against the shores of Azeroth, Vana'diel and Norrath.

Hundreds, probably thousands, of players can attest that they met their partners or spouses in the worlds of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI and EverQuest. A few more have darker tales to tell of romances that led to obsession or that were founded in deceit or infidelity.

For a while, it was a taboo. Couples steeled themselves against the inevitable silence that followed the announcement "we met online".

Now, it's commonplace: any silence following that kind of declaration will be based on boredom, not embarrassment.

The speed of that acceptance has meant that a fundamental question doesn't often get asked: just what is it about online games that makes them a good place to hook up?

They do, of course, share some of the aspects that make online dating in general successful: it's a quick, efficient way to encounter a large number of potential suitors, all without having to expose yourself too acutely.

it's hard to beat a game for how much it will show you of someone's character, and how quickly
Margaret Robertson
And there's a good chance that by picking a game that appeals to your particular tastes you've already limited that pool of potentials to people you have something in common with.

But surely, that's where the advantages end. You don't see anything real of someone in a game, not so much as a photo. You don't get a real name, or even a real gender, as often as not. Conversation can be cumbersome and stilted, and your range of action can be severely limited.

But while information may be sparse in online relationships, insight abounds.

There's an intimacy available in games that the real world takes time to match. Warcraft is a world where you can right-click on someone you've just met and inspect their underwear.

Imagine how that ability would change how you responded to someone who offered to buy you a drink in a bar. What conclusions would you draw about a mighty, armour-laden warrior who is secretly wearing a pink silk shirt under his plate-mail carapace? How would you judge a seemingly level-headed priestess when you notice she's stuck with a low-level robe that offers little protection but matches her hair?

So far, so shallow. But can a game clue you in to more important character traits?

A good stint in an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game) can give you a very accurate reading on, say, how someone handles their money. It's easy to assess the difference between a carefree impulse buyer and a number-crunching investor who knows how to play the auction house - much more revealing that whether or not someone offers to "go Dutch" on a first date.

Or how about tricky social situations? Games are full of awkwardness: persistent beggars hassling you for money or inept but enthusiastic players who need to be jettisoned from a squad if you're to have any hope of success.

Goblin cupid, Blizzard
Games do not need much help to get players connecting
How a new acquaintance deals with those situations shows you far more about them than spending an evening listening to carefully calculated anecdotes and well-worn jokes.

And all this is before you get to the actual game; there are few more revealing processes than watching someone play.

You can easily gauge some of the slipperiest aspects of human nature by observing someone's tactics. Are they a risk-taker? Do they panic under pressure? Do they respond to failure with frustration or creativity? Are they a gracious winner or a griping loser? A loner or a team-player? Perfectionist or bodger? Is winning all that matters, or will they risk death to pull a prank or tell a joke?

Dinner and a movie may well give you a chance to check out the basics - minor details like physical appearance, age, sex, gender and race - but it's hard to beat a game for how much it will show you of someone's character, and how quickly.

Dating in the real world is all too often reminiscent of the way French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery describes in his book The Little Prince meeting adults who only care about jobs and houses and money, golf and politics and neckties.

They never ask about essential matters, he laments, and so he never discusses them with such people; no talk of boa constrictors or primeval forests or stars, of butterflies and games and rose-brick houses.

It's taken more than 50 years for games to catch up with him, but it's hard not feel that he would approve of the exploration, friendship and whimsy that they now offer.

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