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Virtual Romances, Real Complications

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
May 2009 Issue
March 30, 2009

Virtual Romances, Real Complications

“He was in my guild. Probably the best thief I’ve ever met.”

When I began approaching acquaintances for a column about finding romance online, I expected to hear stories like you see in the television commercials. You know the commercials: the matchmaking service finds the perfect match based on math and science.

“We chatted online while plotting strategies. He was clever, funny, and I just knew I had to get to know him outside the game.”

As it turns out, my friends are either skeptical of the hype or they are too cheap to pay for online matchmaking. Instead, the people I know have found online romance when they haven’t been searching for love, proving the old truism about love finding you. Apparently, love can find you between heists in virtual worlds.

Since I am not an online gamer — I play Scrabble, Word Jong, and Chessmaster on a Nintendo DS — I had no idea people were meeting and falling in love during World of Warcraft marathons. To be completely honest, I made several assumptions about players and had no idea some of the women I know spend three to four hours a night slaying monsters or casting spells or whatever it is you do in these virtual spaces.

Within days of starting my research, I had learned that at least six of the women I know had either a “VBT” (virtual boy toy) or a serious online relationship. I don’t mean they dated the men they met. At least something virtual leading to a date, I could understand. These are completely online relationships that were meant to remain virtual.

These virtual relationships are conducted while playing online games, via text messaging, and with the help of Skype, a service that supports voice and video conferencing. One woman said she and her VBT have set times when they chat on Skype. Apparently, he has an adorable smile.

Would they ever meet in real life?

“I don’t think so. We’re nothing alike. But, he’s fun for now.”

Another woman told me that her previous “VBF” (apparently a step up from a toy, but not serious enough to simply call a “boyfriend”) even got jealous when she chatted with other gamers online.

“It was so bad that he would call me so he could hear if I was typing to someone else.”

That’s a clue that you’ve met someone destined to appear on Cops… or worse.

I asked the men I know if they have had any of these virtual relationships.

“What? You mean chat while figuring out how to best slaughter another player?”

Apparently, I don’t know any men who play games as elves, magicians, or thieves. They don’t even type to “chat” in these games, since that would limit the ability to handle weapons. No, these gamers wear headsets and talk as if the battles in cyberspace are real. Their games aren’t set in the places of love and romance.

Absolutely no online sparks? Ever? I asked every male I work with and even asked one of my writing classes about online romance. Only one male student volunteered a “yes” to the question.

“I fell for this girl on MySpace when I was in high school,” a student confessed. “We were going to meet, but never did.”

It turns out that my students don’t trust online relationships. There have been too many stories about crazed killers on Craigslist and pedophiles on MySpace for young people to consider meeting people from online. That’s either good news about my students being wise or a sad commentary on how careful we have to be.

My students do chat and text a lot, but chiefly among people they know from school or work.

Clearly, though, if a few of the women I know are meeting men online and having virtual relationship, there must be men involved. It turns out, that’s not always the case.

“I had what I thought was an online boyfriend. He kept refusing to talk on the phone or through Skype, so I got suspicious. I found out she lived in Seattle with they guy she was pretending to be.”

Online romance is a lot more complicated than I initially assumed. You never know who is at the other keyboard unless you have a live Web camera feed.

I remember when chatting online was assumed to be safe. While a student at USC in the late 1980s, I met two people in real life whom I first met in online “chat rooms.” Both were, like me, computer programmers in university work-study. They were students at CalTech and UCLA. Only one might be called a date: milkshakes at an In-N-Out. There simply weren’t that many young women online.

There are now dozens of commercial online matchmakers. I assumed at least one of my friends would be using such a service. Millions of people do, judging by the commercials on television and radio.

Personally, I would bet a few of my friends and acquaintances have tried these sites and don’t want to admit it. If you can’t find a match using a “scientifically proven” personality profile, maybe you start to doubt yourself.

Online, you can still get attention without any strings, anyway.

“I don’t want a real boyfriend,” a woman I interviewed explained. “I want someone who will flirt, tell me I’m great, and make me feel good, but who will go away when I don’t want him around. I close [Yahoo] Messenger and he’s gone.”

How can a “real” boyfriend compete against that?

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