In-game marriage: Modern love, mediated love, or playful love?

By Guo Zhang

Guo Zhang is a PhD candidate and lecturer at Indiana University. She studies interpersonal and group behavior in online games. In the following essay, she describes some of her research on in-game marriage in the game Audition.

It is obvious that today intimacy and ICTs transcend and (re)shape each other. For example, I have noticed that intimate experiences and relationships have penetrated and mediated virtual worlds – Multiplayer Online Games (MOGs) are not just virtual collaborative environments but “have evolved into places for people to meet up, find romantic partners and maintain relationships” (Huynh, Lim, & Skoric, 2013, p. 251). One example is in-game marriage: Players can get married in a game, collaborate as a couple, and/or develop genuine offline relationship if they want.

Audition was released in South Korea in 2004, launched in the U.S. in 2008, and now attracts more than 300 million players worldwide. Audition is a non-violent, non-fantasy MOG with colorful designs, cute avatars, numerous pop songs, and a popular marriage system that mediates and facilitates couple-related collaborative behaviors (e.g., dancing as a couple to compete with other couples)

Log-in page of Audition (as of 2013)
Log-in page of Audition (as of 2013)

Audition players can form an ad hoc couple when they join a “couple mode” battle simply by sending a coupling request to a member’s avatar of the opposite gender in the “room.” However, to pursue long-term collaborative relationships, players tend to use the game’s marriage system.

The dynamic of the Audition marriage system is designed such that once a player identifies a dance partner, they can both go to the lobby of the Dancing Hall and send each other “kisses.” They are only allowed to send one kiss per day. Once they get five kisses, they are eligible to purchase a wedding ticket, which gives them three chances to accomplish the dance task in a wedding party. Marrying couples can also invite guests to observe their wedding dance so as to celebrate their marriage.

The wedding party dance task uses the song Audition – Wedding Day (130 beats per minute) in Couple Dance mode. The two players have to coordinate with each other in pressing keys to get at least 12 Perfects, 3 Synchro Perfects, and a score of 160,000, which is a very difficult task. Thus the two players usually need to practice dancing for a long time by attending other dancing battles together in the Dancing Hall. Once they accomplish the wedding party dance task, they will officially be married and will get a love license and a ring.

The wedding party dance

The wedding party dance

I was an active Audition player and have been studying Audition as a game researcher since January 2013. Based on data from players’ self-reports, semi-structural interviews, and in-game observations, I find that in-game marriage in MOGs is different from online dating or other types of intimate experience such as friendship or cybersex.

A graphical collage of a love story describing an Audition couple's serious relationship (posted to a public game forum)
A graphical collage of a love story describing an Audition couple’s serious relationship (posted to a public game forum)

The ultimate goal of an online dating service is to meet a potential boyfriend/girlfriend in the real world. The intimate experience of online dating is not so different from what occurs in the real world, except that it is mediated by a computer interface. In contrast, in-game marriage can provide many more intimate experiences and possibilities than online dating in addition to a transition from the online to the offline. Games enable players to create a new life (e.g., new appearances and personalities) online, a nuanced part of which is marriage. As some game players comment, “Game relationships occur between game characters and not between the actual users,” and “Users can engage in relationships online and never meet in person.”[1]

Furthermore, the ultimate goal of a friendship is to know, like, and trust a person. This type of intimate experience is not characterized by legitimated commitment (i.e., there are no legal procedures to start or end a friendship) or sexual encounters (i.e., “friends with benefits” are usually not considered pure friendships).

Based on Sternberg’s (1986) triangle of love (intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment), friendship includes the intimacy component but lacks the passion and commitment component. In contrast, the ultimate goal of cybersex practice is to perform sexual activities. This type of intimate experience is not characterized by legitimated commitment (i.e., there are no legal procedures to start or end cybersex practice) or emotional connection (i.e., two strangers can have cybersex if they are willing to), and it is associated with loose social regulations (e.g., people are more likely to perform deviant sexual activities such as BDSM in cybersex due to the anonymity of virtual worlds). Thus, cybersex includes the intimacy and passion components but lacks the commitment component.

A love license and a ring for an Audition couple
A love license and a ring for an Audition couple

In-game marriage is imbued with more social meaning, cultural value, and/or emotional connection than either friendship or cybersex. In the real world, marriage is considered “a human universal” (Regan, 2003, p. 181) across different cultures. Historically, several marriage systems have occurred in human society: polygyny (i.e., one man marries multiple women), polyandry (i.e., one woman marries multiple men), polygynandry (i.e., husbands and wives share spouses), and monogamy (i.e., one-to-one relationship between spouses) (Fisher, 1989; Goodwin, 1999; Murdock, 1967). In modern Western society monogamy is “the primary marriage pattern for both men and women” (Fisher, 1989, p. 333).

A definition of marriage is “a long-term mating arrangement that is socially sanctioned and that typically involves economic, social and reproductive cooperation between the partners” (Regan, 2003, p. 181). Thus, marriage is supposed to be a legitimated commitment (legal license, ceremony, and vow) to a stable and responsible intimate relationship (involving faith, trust, and care). This definition includes Sternberg’s (1986) intimacy and commitment components, but the passion component (love and affection) is optional. The assumption is that marriage is similar to instrumental collaboration – cooperation for financial support, for social status, for community acknowledgment, and for reproduction. A typical example is the strong tradition of arranged marriage in China, Africa, Russia, and Middle East (Regan, 2003).

However, modern marriages have been changing and involve many more factors than their traditional counterparts. Besides economic security, public affirmation (Cott, 2009), and reproduction, modern marriages also involve sexual autonomy (Stacey, 2011), egalitarianism (e.g., women have more economic independence and thus stay in marriages because they want to, rather than because they have to; see Amato, Booth, & Johnson et al., 2009), and a growing emphasis on personal happiness and free individual choice.

An early survey showed that many young men and women refuse to consider marriage unless they have fallen in love with their partner and regard the fading of love as an appropriate reason for divorce (Simpson et al., 1986). A more recent study also found that Americans today are more likely to agree with statements such as “The personal happiness of an individual is more important than putting up with a bad marriage” (Amato et al., 2009, pp. 198–199). These studies show that the modern conception and realization of marriage is more complicated than before. Love and affection are increasingly important in starting and maintaining marriage. Thus, marriage can be an outcome of romantic love, an emergent and long-term emotional involvement between two people.

In-game marriage offered by online games such as MOGs is designed based on the modern marriage model. In these games, two gamers can get married through a sophisticated in-game marriage system. The married couple will usually go through a virtual wedding ritual and receive a virtual marriage certificate from the game, which is an analog of legitimated commitment in the offline world. Ideally, this official procedure is supposed to endow the married couple with more responsibilities, commitment, and a higher emotional attachment to each other, and possibly a higher loyalty to the game, which is an analog of the stability and responsibility of the intimate relationship (involving faith, trust, and care) in offline marriage.

In some works on Audition I published earlier (Zhang & Herring, 2013; Zhang, 2014), I identified three characteristics of couple-mediated collaboration (i.e., romance-driven collaboration, in-battle and out-battle collaboration, and in-game and out-game collaboration). I also proposed that in-game marriage should be conceptualized as the synergy of intimacy and collaboration in virtual worlds. Unlike large-scale and institutional groups, in-game marriage is small-scale and involves intimacy, commitment, and/or a certain degree of passion (not just friendship). Thus, it is intimacy and provides intimate experiences. Unlike individual players who are independent of one another, in-game marriage ties two players together, providing them the possibility to share experiences, feelings, and activities. Thus, it is collaboration and offers collaborative experiences.

In addition, in-game marriage may be interpreted as the complex interaction between technological affordances (e.g., the gaming environment, or the interface, “including its material and perceptual qualities as well as its broader situatedness in visual languages and culture”; Bardzell, 2011, p. 604) and human factors (e.g., players, or users, “including the meanings, behaviors, perceptions, affects, insights, and social sensibilities that arise in the context of interaction and its outcomes”; Bardzell, 2011, p. 604). The reason is that a game is also a cultural object that uses semiotic systems. An in-game marriage system signifies corresponding values and norms in the offline world (e.g., who can get married, how a couple gets married, what the responsibilities are after getting married).

However, how to understand, interpret, and use the in-game marriage system depends on “the sense-making activities” (Bardzell, 2011, p. 616) of players. According to Kant, as summarized by Bardzell (2011), the meaning of cultural objects relies on the role of the individual reader’s (in the context of this study, the player’s) subjectivity. Thus, players may have various attitudes toward the same in-game marriage system, leading to different approaches to the evaluation and use of the system. In other words, they will have different understandings of in-game marriage and related behaviors.

This leads to my current project. Recently, I am working on a paper analyzing the interaction between game designers’ intention and players’ emergent experiences. Specifically, I am exploring that how, on the one hand, the marriage system in Audition simulates and gamifies “marriage” as part of a playful or ludic digital environment; and how, on the other hand, in-game marriage, as a gamified feature originally designed for monetary and fun purpose (e.g., a point/level system to show reputation, to encourage spend real life money, and to play the game more), lead to players’ unpredictably gaming behaviors and intimate experience (e.g., genuine relationships, painful experience when they break up).

A dancing screenshot from Audition

A dancing screenshot from Audition

 

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References

Amato, P. R., Booth, A., Johnson, D. R., & Rogers, S. J. (2009). Alone together: How marriage in America is changing. Massachusetts, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bardzell, J. (2011). Interaction criticism: An introduction to the practice. Interacting with Computers, 23(6), 604-621.

Cott, N. F. (2009). Public vows: A history of marriage and the nation. Massachusetts, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fisher, H. E. (1989). Evolution of human serial pair-bonding. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 78(2), 331-354.

Goodwin, R. (1999). Personal relationships across cultures. London:Routledge.

Huynh, K. P., Lim, S. W., & Skoric, M. M. (2013). Stepping out of the magic circle: Regulation of play/life boundary in MMO‐mediated romantic relationship. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication, 18(3), 251–264.

Murdock, G. P. (1967). Ethnographic atlas: A summary. Ethnology, 6(2), 109-236.

Regan, P. (2003). The mating game: A primer on love, sex, and marriage. London: Sage.

Simpson, J. A., Campbell, B., & Berscheid, E. (1986). The association between romantic love and marriage. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 12(3), 363-372.

Stacey, J. (2011). Unhitched: love, sex, and family values from West Hollywood to western China. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review93(2), 119-135.

Zhang, G., & Herring, S. C. (2013). In-game marriage and computer-mediated collaboration: An exploratory study of Audition. Internet Research 14.0 (IR 14.0): Resistance + Appropriation. October 23-26, Denver, Colorado.

Zhang, G. (2014). Can you marry me?: Conceptualizing in-game marriage as intimacy-mediated collaboration. (Poster). In Proceedings of the 17th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW 2014) (pp. 273-276). Feb 15-19, Baltimore, MD.


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