“LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MARRIAGE and what BS this ‘fairy tale’ is,” says William Hughes, a 42-year-old veteran of romance in online games and, apparently, bad online-gaming breakups. The object of Hughes’ cynicism? A four-year-long relationship that began in the virtual world of a role-playing game and ended in the real world only months before the couple’s prospective wedding date. “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” says Hughes. “How my relationship came to be was also how it came to end.” It’s a familiar story for those who find in computer games not just entertainment, but also the perfect pick-up bar—a place where first impressions are formed by what you say instead of how you look, where you are whoever you pretend to be.
LEVEL 1: COMMUNICATION
Unfortunately, when you build a relationship on the fiction of roleplaying, it’s hard to separate what’s real from what’s character. “In the online game world, you’re seeing the person—and you’re not seeing the person,” says Hughes. “A lot of it is alter ego. You’re not a Quake killer or a jet pilot. You’re doing a lot more exciting and memorable things in the game than you are in real life.” In 1999, Hughes (a systems engineer) and his now-ex-fiancée Caron (a dental assistant) began their comparatively action-packed alternate lives in a game called Starship Troopers. They soon found themselves decoding the subtle flirtations hidden in text messages. “Typically, when you meet people [in real life], there’s a physical reaction. There’s eye contact, hand gestures, a lot of subliminal messages going on,” says Hughes. “With text, you’re just getting these words and phrases. A word could mean good things for one person and bad things for another. It’s just your choice of words.”
The two played the game together, typing out an elaborate modern-day mating ritual for a year before finally agreeing to meet in person. It might seem like a long courtship in this age of socially acceptable online dating, but for Hughes and his ex-fiancée, the jump from the screen to the street was huge. “Nowadays, you have all these audiovisual communications that you can use,” says Hughes. “You can just get online, talk to the person, use webcams. You can see what they look like before you get in your car to drive up there.” The couple had traded pictures, of course, but the vast majority of the time they spent getting to know each other had been inside Starship Troopers. It put them in a strange new situation, having to guess each other’s real-life personality based on the way they play a computer game. “Depending on the type of game, you get to know a lot of their real qualities,” says Hughes. “Are they a hacker or an exploiter? Are they uptight? Do they have a sense of humor? If you’re doing that every day for weeks and months, you really get to know the fiber of a person.” Or so he thought.
LEVEL 2: REAL LIFE
Separated only by the four-hour drive between Hughes’ Connecticut abode and Caron’s former residence in Massachusetts, the couple decided to take a chance on human-to-human contact. The short commute allowed what might’ve been a onetime hookup to turn into something more serious. “You can fly from New York to L.A. to meet someone,” says Hughes. “You can like or not like them, have a one-night stand, whatever. But it’s very difficult to keep that kind of relationship going if you’re not in a close proximity. That opened the door.”
Door opened, Caron and Hughes walked into the harsh light of real life, where things weren’t exactly how they’d seemed online. There was the issue of Caron’s marriage, which she had claimed was over. “The online thing allowed her to take liberties,” says Hughes. “She really wasn’t divorced, separated, or anything else that she said at the time.” Alarm bells should’ve gone off, but the couple continued their relationship. Eventually, Caron moved into Hughes’ Connecticut home, where they discovered a new love: Star Wars Galaxies. Plugging away at separate computers for hours at a time, they fell into the grip of a 30-hour-a-week fantasy-life habit. “A game that should have consumed free time began to eclipse all time,” says Hughes. “The game devoured so much time that, after six months, Caron left her job at a dental practice. She played over the next six or seven months nearly full time.” It was during this gaming binge that the couple became engaged and began to plan their wedding. But while Caron and Hughes seemed to grow closer in real life, their online lives were diverging.
LEVEL 3: BETRAYAL
“Our gameplay started to change,” Hughes says. “I’m a pretty hardcore combat type, and so was she. But Star Wars Galaxies offered all these other things that I hadn’t done: crafting, creating a financial empire, different forays. I started going down this other road, while she continued down the player-versus-player road. As our gameplay and styles changed, we kind of grew apart.” We’ve all known couples that split over religious, political, or lifestyle differences, but can you really destroy a relationship with role-playing character development? “You start grouping with different people,” says Hughes. “One’s gathering resources, and the other is gathering bullets.” As in real life, bankers don’t spend their time hanging out with soldiers, so the two soon formed separate social circles. “We were getting involved with all these other > people around the country,” says Hughes. “It wasn’t just her flirting with other guys; I was flirting with girls in other parts of the country. The only difference was that she actually followed through.”
Then one day, on the same carefree whim that took her to Connecticut, Caron flew halfway around the world to live with another Star Wars player, though Hughes calls him an “online boy.” “I stress ‘boy,’” says Hughes, “because he was 21 when she flew to Germany to meet him…after four months of knowing him online. She was 41 at the time.”
With that, this half-fictional role-playing romance was finally put to rest. William Hughes came out of it relatively unscathed. He still cruises for single women in online games, though he keeps his gaming habit down to a more reasonable 10 hours a week. If he did find himself in the throes of another gaming relationship, though, he would do things a bit differently. “In retrospect,” says Hughes, “it’s probably advisable to set some guidelines: Always play together. Don’t allow yourself to be in 1-on-1 situations with members of the opposite sex.” Those are rules that most real-life relationships adhere to, but, again, Hughes’ situation is complicated by the deceptive possibilities of online communication. “The hard thing in the gaming world is that with everybody on their own monitor, you never really see what the other people are doing, even if you’re sitting side by side,” says Hughes. “If you’re not in the exact same space, you can’t see what their interactions are. And worse, when they’re typing text, there’s no way to know. They could be saying, ‘Please pass me more ammo,’ or they could be setting up a rendezvous.”
LEVEL 4: TRUST
And then there are people like John and Tevys Taves, a couple—now married—who met and fell in love while playing Star Wars Galaxies. They’re the kind of perfect couple that miserable single folks love to hate, never short on good things to say about each other, floating around in a state of perpetual teenage gaga love. Their story is the exact opposite of William Hughes’ nightmare scenario. Where Hughes now feels a need for ground rules to keep a gaming mate on the up and up, John Taves thinks good relationships, gaming or otherwise, are built on trust.
“Setting rules for a relationship is asking for trouble, whether it concerns online or offline activities,” says John. “There should be a natural respect and limitations that are understood. We live our lives trusting that each of us will respect the other. In the case of roleplaying online, I’m fully secure that whatever she roleplays stays in the game—and that when we step away from the computers, we’re a happily married husband and wife.”
Of course, that’s easy to say when you’ve got the (Star Wars–themed) storybook marriage of John and Tevys Taves. The couple got to know each other mostly through the game’s message boards rather than in the game itself. Instead of growing in different directions in their game, they started at opposite ends of the spectrum. John was well on his way to becoming a Jedi Knight, while Tevys was a notorious villain on the dark side. “I was a hardcore Imperial, and he was one with the Force,” says Tevys. “We were worlds apart, but we somehow found each other in the vastness that is Star Wars Galaxies.” Separated by character class and culture, they interacted mostly on the boards, where Tevys was impressed by John’s suave persona. “One of the things that first attracted me to him was that even when he knew I was a girl, he didn’t try to flirt with me or follow me around like a puppy dog,” says Tevys. “He just played it cool.”
The strategy paid off. After a year of forum flirtation and occasional run-ins in the game, Tevys asked John if he was interested in taking their online friendship in a romantic direction. “I knew I was going to open a big can of worms,” says Tevys. “The next PM from him was: ‘Where do I turn in my application?’ So I sent him all sorts of personal questions. His application was by far the best, so he got the job.”
LEVEL 5: DEVOTION
While William and Caron lived only a few hours away from each other, John and Tevys were separated by more than 5,000 miles. John worked (as he does today) as an engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense in Germany, and Tevys lived smack in the middle of the U.S.—Minnesota, to be exact. It was an insane distance to travel for what could’ve been a disappointing meeting, but the couple’s online relationship had gone as far as it could. “All I could think was: ‘I have got to meet this woman,’” says John. “We were so alike. Either this was meant to be, or we were going to bring about the apocalypse when we occupied the same space at the same time.”
Stateside, the two Star Wars–crossed lovers had their first real contact. It was a nerve-racking experience…until John stepped off the plane. “It was very scary for a while, wondering if he would be the same,” says Tevys. “But he was the same character I grew to love. It was perfection at first sight. He ran up and planted a big kiss on me. I was mush from that point on.”
John proposed months later. “I went to the forums where we had gotten to know each other,” says Tevys, “and there was a thread titled ‘TEVYS.’ I clicked on it, and it was a picture of him in a suit on one knee with a ring in his hand. He had Photoshopped a bubble over his head that said, ‘Will you marry me?’ He flew in to give me the ring in person a couple of days later.”
LEVEL 6: FAIRY-TALE ENDING
The forceful brass of the “Imperial March” plays from loudspeakers as Darth Vader marches down the aisle with Tevys Taves at his side. They’re joined by four silent stormtroopers, perfect reproductions from head to toe. This is not some star system in a galaxy far, far away. It’s much more exotic and strange: Las Vegas, where Team Taves put on their ultimate Star Wars fantasy wedding. Their best friends from Galaxies were there, along with the usual family crowd, whom the couple delighted in freaking out. “All I could think was, ‘Man, I wish I could see what they’re seeing,’” says Tevys. “It must have been awesome, from the looks on their faces.” The couple now lives in Germany, where they remain a model for role-playing relationship seekers. “This is the happiest I have ever been in real life,” says Tevys. “Keeping roleplaying and real life separate is not the easiest thing to do, especially when they end up as intertwined as ours. Star Wars has impacted both of our lives in so many ways, and we couldn’t be happier about it.”/Robert Ashley.