Chase, 23, from California, has never met her “it’s complicated” boyfriend in person, but they have spent many hours together in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
They initially met on the dating app Tinder, and later decided to spend more time together in the virtual world of the video game.
For their first date, they went to Chase’s ‘island’ — a virtual hangout area you can create in the game.
“I decorated one part of my island as a little romantic picnic area,” Chase says.
“He decorated a few clothing items for me as gifts.”
She says dating in a video game is not without the real-world excitement of dating, with the primping and pampering to boot.
“Yes, I wore a nice dress!”
Chase isn’t the only person turning to video games to date during the coronavirus pandemic.
‘Almost a sense of normalcy’
Coronavirus has made meeting up with friends impossible — in the real world, at least. Online, it’s a totally different story.
‘There’s less pressure’
Matt, 31, has also been dating on Animal Crossing, after posting in a Facebook group for those who play the game.
“It was close to being just as fun [as meeting in-person] without some of the awkwardness of a real first date,” he says.
“And it’s a game, so there seems to be less pressure.”
In Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, you play as a character, and build a world that is your own fantasy island.
You can connect with anyone in the world who has the game; you can visit the islands that your real-world friends have created, and even visit the virtual museums and aquariums together.
Because you can decorate the island you live on in almost any way you like, Matt says your island can become a strong reflection of your identity.
“You are totally immersed in the person’s personality [when visiting your date’s island], which helps you get to know them,” he says.
Virtual dating has been around for a long time
Vasileios Stavropoulos, a clinical psychologist who specialises in cyberpsychology at Victoria University in Melbourne, says dating in video games is nothing new.
Role-playing games which are connected online to a large online community (known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game or MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars and Second Life have all had people dating over the years.
“It’s the same formula, but a new audience,” Dr Stavropoulos says.
Pros and cons of dating online
While you can’t have hugs and hold hands, there are some benefits to dating online.
Jamie Madigan writes about psychology and video games.
“When you interact through a game like this, you can feel free to share information about yourself or say things that you might not be comfortable saying in person,” says Dr Madigan.
And, naturally, there’s the flip side to dating on a game.
“We’re able to selectively present ourselves in games, even if it’s subconsciously,” Dr Stavropoulos says.
Like the way we only post our best angles to Instagram, we can choose to behave in ways online that are different to how we might behave in the real world. You could be less shy or flirtier than in real life.
But those who shared their experiences of dating in video games are well aware of the limitations.
“I’d prefer an in-person date over this any day,” Chase says.
“I don’t know any of his mannerisms or quirks he has. I can’t learn them over Animal Crossing.”
However, these couples are combining their gaming with a different kind of technology to get to know each other a little better: the phone.
“We voice called through Messenger during the date,” says Chase. She says she enjoys the time in a video game because “we can spend time together and talk. He can help me plan my island and vice versa”.
“And I can spoil him a lot easier [online] than ‘in real life’ (right now).”
But, she says, even after self-isolation lifts, she’d still have fun online with her boyfriend.
“This would be a really cute once-in-a-while date.”
Why you want to text your ex right now
Being in quarantine with no-one except for my dog has really tested my need for personal connection, Molly Hunt writes.
It’s not all that different
While video games have found a way to help people connect — and, yes, even date, despite self-isolation — the challenges in dating are the same as they’ve always been: The hope, the expectation, the nervousness are all still there, just like real-world dating.
If you’re dating someone online, it’s good practice to keep in mind:
- Meet them within a couple of weeks of chatting to them so you can get to know them in the real world, not just the online version of them. However, while we’re physical distancing at the moment, chatting via video call is a good step to getting to know them in person;
- When you can meet up (where safe), make it a public place and tell a friend or family members about the meeting;
- Use common sense and follow your gut. Some red flags to look out for when getting to know them include feeling like they are rushing the relationship, telling inconsistent stories or wanting you to send them money.
For all of these couples, it’s early days, so we’ll need to wait to see if their virtual island-hopping adventures can jump to a relationship in the real world when self-isolation lifts.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for them.
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