What Playing Video Games Has Taught Me About Having Relationships

a picture of someone holding up the old Nintendo cartridge of Dragon Warrior in their hand as they stand in what appears to be a parking lot
Image Source by Trevor Owens

Video games have been a constant presence in my life for basically as long as I can remember. There are a multitude of people that I wouldn’t know at all if it weren’t for my love of video games, like the guildies I met back in the days when I essentially lived inside MMORPGs.

And there are still others who I would have known but wouldn’t have been nearly as close to, for example, my younger brother David.

When my mother picked up a Nintendo cartridge of Dragon Warrior for him, she just knew it had a cool-looking dragon on the front (which to her credit, it totally does). She had no idea how text-based the game was. And how much trouble my brother would have playing it.

My brother was very good at Mario and other action games. But in those games, it didn’t matter that he was little enough that he hadn’t learned to read yet.

Dragon Warrior was a very different beast.

When I happened upon David playing Dragon Warrior, he was endlessly colliding with a locked door in the very first area, the castle throne room, unsuccessfully trying to force his way through into the next area. Because David couldn’t read the game menu that popped up when you pressed the action button, he couldn’t figure out how to “SEARCH” the treasure chests that littered the area and pick up the magic key. Let alone select the option that said “DOOR” to use it to escape.

When I saw this, I intervened by asking him if he would try something. He was reluctant to accept my assistance when I offered it. My brother has always been a proud person and quite unwilling to admit mistakes or limitations, instead deflecting them with sharp humor. Plus I suspect he thought I was going to steal the controller and bogart the machine. But after some insistence, he said okay. I walked him through the menus and read aloud what the game text said in response to everything he did.

He opened the chest, picked up the key, unlocked the door.

And like that, my brother was freed from his prison.

I volunteered to sit beside him and read aloud whatever he needed me to so that he could play. This included the menus at first, but with persistence and the determination that comes from trying to get good at something fun, my brother learned to read the menu words by sight via strict memorization and a fuzzy grasp of the alphabet, which enabled him to sound it out just enough that he could match it with the words he knew were on the list. So after a while, I was mostly just there to narrate the dialogue of the NPCs and let him know what he’d just picked up in treasure chests. That sort of thing.

I had never seen anything like the language in that game at that point in my life (as I was very young myself and hadn’t been reading for all that long). There were a lot of archaic linguistic constructions as part of the medieval setting: “Thou has put the knight to sleep.” The characters’ names were tricky for me to say, too: Princess Gwaelin, fated knight Erdrick.

I’m sure I butchered the words as handily as my brother butchered the parade of monsters. But I was a little kid, and I did my best.

And as we worked our way through that very first game, something like friendship began to blossom between my brother and me, two people who otherwise very well might have been strangers. We continued to play games together over the years, even after he learned to read.

When we were older, my primary role switched from narrator to navigator. I sat next to David, holding a map that came with the game, in a gaming magazine (like Nintendo Power, to which he had a subscription), or later in bound strategy guides that dictated the location of all the treasure. No internet then, so it was all hard copies, and sometimes they were hard to find. But he always managed (via mail order, visiting a bunch of shops, etc.).

As the navigator, I was tasked by David to make sure he didn’t miss anything. Any important treasure. Hidden passages. Side quests. Whatever. I read a little ahead of him and kept an eye out, trying my best not to give any spoilers.

I did, however, tease and hype, pretty much constantly. “Ooo… you’re going to like this next dungeon,” I’d say. And David would get excited.

I can’t speak for him, but I honestly looked forward a lot to our gaming sessions. We spent so many hours together working through games that got progressively graphically more sophisticated, worlds that were more complicated. I believe the last one we played together from start to finish was Final Fantasy VII.

Video games were our thing. The place where we were friends. In stark contrast with this, David avoided me in school. When I gave him rides places (as I was older and got my license first), he would bolt from the car as I was powering everything down, take off like a flash and leave me far behind.

I was a quirky musician, bohemian and offbeat even then. A few years behind me, he was popular in his own class, a jock. He considered me an embarrassing person and didn’t want to be associated with me in public.

But we spent hours playing video games together in private. Laughing at the private jokes.

And to this day, he communicates with me reliably, albeit solely, about video games.

*

When my mother is in town visiting me, she gets a text from my brother and turns to me and says, “Your brother wanted me to show you this.”

It’s a photograph of a copy of Dragon Quest XI for PS4 (a new, distant sequel to Dragon Warrior, the game we first played together as small children, which changed its name mid-series to Dragon Quest, what it had been always called in Japan, once a certain North American copyright had expired).

“Tell him I don’t have a PS4,” I tell my mom.

“A PS4?” she says.

“Yeah.”

She texts this to him. “Okay, now that just doesn’t make any sense,” my mother says after he texts back.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“He says it’s on… steam? That can’t be right. That’s gotta be an autochange thing,” she says. She means autocorrect.

I tell her that Steam is an online store where people buy and download computer games. That my brother is saying I can play it on my computer.

We weirdly chat back and forth through my mother for a little bit, using her as an amusing conduit, something my brother has always done, rather than reaching out to me directly. Where she and I were more likely to butt heads, he’s always taken her idiosyncrasies in stride and largely finds her hilarious.

Part of this is because in spite of surface differences, my brother and I were a lot alike sometimes. And he could do basically the same thing I was doing, be just as wild if not more so, but because he’s a boy, his missteps were considered positive behavior by my mother, in line with what a cool boy would do. And because I was a girl, my missteps were considered by her to be embarrassing, what a reject girl would do. So she never tried to change him the way she did me.

So to my brother, my mother’s strange views of the world are incredibly funny (because they were never personally damaging to him), and he’ll seemingly go out of his way to involve her in our communications, to use her as a filter.

*

But I didn’t just play video games with my brother. While I had been underwhelmed by Mario and some of the earlier games, I thought Dragon Warrior was freaking amazing. And it changed my expectations about what a game could be.

Meanwhile, I was also obsessed with my father’s work computer, the one he kept at home. It didn’t take much to impress me back then. I was captivated even by the word processing software. And I’m still not sure why he did this, but in spite of my mother’s protests, my father insisted that I have a computer of my own to write stories on, a basic system that ran on DOS, had a CGA monitor, and no hard drive (only taking a single 5-1/4 floppy at a time, which meant there was a lot of disk swapping and dedicated save floppies).

When my brother got a Super Nintendo, he gave me his old NES and I was able to play it on a black and white TV in my own room, “so long as I’m not using it,” as my brother put it. I knew that if some reason he wanted to play the older games again, I’d have to surrender it at a moment’s notice, but he rarely did that.

And many nights I’d come home from school, put on my jazz albums or the radio (because the background music got monotonous), and play the same games over and over again (on either my computer or NES), as a way of unwinding from the day for an hour or so before I went to do my homework, practice music, be productive.

I learned a lot about myself from video games, things that I realize are similar to the way I feel about relationships. Here are a few.

1. I have a natural aversion to artificially high-pressure situations.

I’d been kind of iffy on video games when my family first started playing them together. In Mario, no matter what you’d accomplished up until that point, you could randomly fall into a pit, and it’d be all over.

I suppose that was part of the appeal for people who enjoyed platformers, the fear of falling or not quite making it, the dopamine rush when OMG YOU ACTUALLY DID…YOU MADE IT!

It was a form of gambling in a way. And that was exciting for me vicariously, I suppose. As something that was fun to watch others do. But gambling’s never much appealed to me personally, as something to do myself.

I didn’t enjoy playing those games very much and mostly just watched my siblings play (and found that entertaining). When it came to what I actually wanted to play, I much preferred games in which there was risk but that I could also reliably make incremental gains, ones that I could retain, even if I had to take great pains and be rather patient in order to do so.

I liked being able to save at certain points after I’d done difficult things and to restart infinite times from those save points. To be able to focus on strategic planning and problem-solving rather than hand-eye coordination (something I’m admittedly sorely lacking, even as an adult I’m average or below-average at most action games).

Dragon Warrior was great in this regard, as were other games I liked on my computer: Pool of Radiance (another RPG) or Kings Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (an adventure game). You died a lot in those games, but when you did, you weren’t forced to go back to the beginning — but back to your last save. So with a lot of diligence, sure, you’d lose some time and you’d have to replay certain sections quite a bit, but it was very possible to make gains over time, however slow. And you did best if you were patient and methodical and slowly built up your strength and analyzed the puzzles.

Interestingly, I seem to be the same way in relationships. I’m not a big fan of the relationships that feel artificially risky because the other person is being needlessly erratic or seeking attention or control. The ones where you feel like you’re playing an insanely difficult platformer (say, like the original Ninja Gaiden), always in danger of falling into a pit out of nowhere. I’m not a big fan of adversarial relationships in which someone is constantly threatening you or issuing ultimatums. Or playing a constant game of psychological push-pull that washes you in a flood of adrenaline (outside of something like consensual BDSM power play struggles, which can be fun in the right context).

When it comes to the foundation of my relationships, I’ll stick with the turn-based stuff, thank you very much. Situations in which I’m allowed to take my time and make good decisions. Not pushed to react by a partner who pressures me to make snap decisions without all the information.

2. There’s no need to play on a higher difficulty if you’re having fun on easy mode.

Some games have multiple difficulty settings, easy modes, fiendishly hard modes, everywhere in between.

I’ve had friends who are gutted if they can’t beat a game on its hardest difficulty setting, even if it doesn’t affect the ending or much of the core gaming experience. To them, it feels like a personal failing or something. And forget about reverting to a lower difficulty once they’ve beaten it. It’s always about moving the difficulty ever onward.

This is a reasonable approach to gaming. But I’m not like this at all. In keeping with the last point, I also found that if I’m playing a really well-designed game, one that has a lot for me to enjoy, I don’t have a need to play it on its hardest setting in order to get the most out of it. One good example of this is Civilization (which I’ve played on a ton of platforms at this point), and later, my absolute favorite iteration, a spin-off set in space called Alpha Centauri. I can play those games on extremely challenging difficulty and have in the past, but these days, I pretty much always play on the easiest difficulty because I find it relaxing.

I’ve noticed I’m the same way about relationships. I can work through challenges that naturally arise in the relationships I have, but I’m rather unresponsive to people who “play hard to get.” I rarely chase after people who run away from me.

I’m not compelled to pursue relationships that need this tension to be marginally interesting, that don’t feel intrinsically rewarding on easy mode.

3. I like co-op mode much better than I like versus mode.

Probably not a huge surprise since I’ve written previously that I’m not a terribly competitive person, but when I’m playing in a multiplayer game with a friend, if there’s a co-op (short for co-operative) mode, I want to play that instead of versus.

I was much more likely to want to play a 2-player co-op session with my brother of something like River City Ransom or the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for NES than to fight against him in Street Fighter 2 on SNES (although to be fair, I thought Chun Li kicked ass and enjoyed playing her versus the computer in 1-player mode).

I’m really not a big fan of competition against human opponents. The social dynamics of sore winning, sore losing, and everything in between. I didn’t hurt a computer’s feelings when I bested it. And it didn’t bring up its victory in conversations for weeks on end with irritating smugness. (Both of which I typically experienced with human opponents.) I found it much better to team up with other humans and take on challenges together. I liked that a hell of a lot better, teamwork instead of sparring.

Growing up, I found there was a similar competitive vibe when it came to the dating scene. Winners and losers, posturing, mockery.

I longed for companionship (and felt lonely most of the time, even when surrounded by people), but, LORD, did I hate the dating game. It was incredibly cutthroat, competitive, and obnoxious. Dating seemed to me like a never-ending game of musical chairs where the music would stop, and when it did, I was always the one left standing, the person with nowhere to sit. Constantly eliminated.

When I finally found someone who wanted to have a long-term relationship with me, I was ecstatic. We had very little in common, but I didn’t care. I was so sick of versus mode. I was ready for co-op.

The only problem with this was that we were so different that we never really synced up in where we were heading. It was a bit like the old co-op games where if one of you gets too far ahead or behind on the game screen, the other can get stuck. And it’s this really annoying process of realizing this, communicating this, retracing one’s steps and deciding who needs to move back or forward in order to get unstuck.

Except unlike the game, when this happens in a relationship, there’s no clear visual picture of who is stuck and who isn’t or where you need to move. Instead, you both feel stuck, and it can easily devolve to a clash of egos over who needs to change and who doesn’t.

In that particular relationship, I pretty much always caved…until one day neither of us wanted to play the game anymore.

But it would be many years before that happened, and on the way there, I would discover close friends of mine were polyamorous and had an open marriage, a realization that sent shock waves through our close knit group of friends. Many eagerly opened their relationships.

I was more reluctant at first for a variety of reasons, one of which was that I really didn’t like versus mode. My past experiences with relationships had all been competitive and annoying, and while I had my issues with my partner at the time, I liked being in co-op mode. I feared that having other people in the picture would launch me back into versus mode.

But after some soul-searching, I ultimately did agree to open up that relationship. And I’ll be honest, I did run into people as I dated polyamorously who truly did seem to be playing on versus mode. And it was annoying and off-putting.

But there were many others who didn’t, folks who were playing on co-op mode. And it was pretty easy to figure out which was which, provided we were friends for a bit first and I didn’t rush into serious relationships upon first meeting them (a mistake I try very hard not to repeat). If I watched them and saw how they interacted with their metamours when they thought they were talking to a friend about it and not a potential partner (and thus weren’t doing so much impression management), I got a very clear picture into whether or not they were likely to be gracious to me and my other partners were we ever to date.

And just like that, I’d found co-op mode. That’s one of the reasons I ultimately liked polyamory so much once I tried it, much more than other potential options I saw other people pursuing like serial monogamy or cheating (I know very few people who mate for life, who have one serious partner and just that one partner alone over the course of their lives).

Provided I exercised a bit of caution and was careful in partner selection, polyamory very much turned out to be more like co-op mode than versus. More than just about anything else I’d seen in my travels out and about in the dating world.

*

Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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