Feature

How Video Games Are Keeping Long-Distance Relationships Alive

by Javy Gwaltney on Oct 04, 2016 at 10:30 AM

In today’s digital world, having a long-distance relationship and staying connected is easier than ever. Couples no longer have to wait extended periods without seeing each others’ faces or knowing the thoughts of their significant other. Thanks to the rise of online and digital platforms in the last two decades, we’re always connected to the world in some way. Electronic messages have replaced snail mail as the preferred method of communication, FaceTime and Skype have made phone calls more intimate, and social media allows us to get a glimpse into people’s lives.

Dating has also undergone a visible transformation, with Tinder and OkCupid becoming common avenues for people to find each other and form romantic relationships, replacing personal ads, group dating, blind dates, and hoping to run into your future partner by chance. Even certain video games, particularly those that stress the importance of online communities, have become matchmakers thanks to in-game chat systems. Believe it or not, gaming is emerging as a tool for countless couples around the globe to stay in touch and keep their relationships together in spite of the distance.

Amanda and Rich are just one of those couples. The two have been married for nearly four years. She lives in Maryland and he lives outside of Reading in the UK – that’s 3,400 miles between the two of them. Except for a brief 10-month window when Amanda was in the UK, they have spent the entirety of their five-year relationship as a long-distance couple due to the their respective careers.

The couple, who met online in 2009, says they owe much of their relationship to video games. Both of them are self-proclaimed gamers, with Amanda bragging about playing the original shareware release of Doom. “I’m not quite that OG,” Rich says somewhat sheepishly. “I jumped in during the PS1 era with Crash Bandicoot.”

Now they use games as a way to spend time together and narrow the gap between them. “When we started dating, I bought my brother’s Xbox 360 so we could play Borderlands,” Amanda says. Now they’re playing Overwatch together as much as they can, as well as Diablo III and Evolve. Occasionally, they also play through single-player games together, with one of them watching the other play the game through Skype, like Dead Space 3 and The Last of Us.

We heard dozens of stories of people using gaming in long-distance relationships as a way to bond just like Amanda and Rich do, but do couples that game together stay together? We investigated the different ways couples are using a beloved hobby like gaming to ease the hardship of a long-distance relationship.

Closing The Gap

In spite of their rising occurrence, the subject of long-distance relationships (LDRs) lacks any digestible, trustworthy source of statistics. The last study of note was conducted in 2005, with numbers that are woefully out of date by this point. The Center For The Study of Long Distance Relationships, perhaps one of the most exhaustive resources dedicated to studying couples miles apart, has since closed. The biggest and growing resource on the subject comes from those who have done the grind and offer their advice online, providing everything from tips to cautionary tales. Outside of that, people in long-distance relationships don’t have much information available to them on the subject, which makes the professional resources that are out there invaluable.

Megan Bearce is a licensed marriage and health therapist who began researching long-distance relationships after her husband started commuting for work. She eventually wrote a book on this called Super Commuter Couples: Staying Together When A Job Keeps You Apart and continues to counsel long-distance couples. She says the evolution of digital technology has resulted in an increase in long-distance relationships as well as ways to maintain such a relationship. “Technology allows people job opportunities they wouldn’t have had 20 years ago,” she says. “But if you apply that to relationships, there’s also like a million more ways to stay connected. One of the couples I interviewed actually has Skype dinners together. Obviously it’s not the same as like reaching over and grabbing their hand or something, but it works for them; it helps them be together doing something that ‘normal’ couples do.”

As far as video games are concerned, Bearce feels they have a lot of potential, especially as a tool to help long-distance couples manage their relationships. “I feel like games would be a good recommendation for therapists to throw into conversation, like, ‘Is that something we can use to help you guys?’ Games aren’t on a lot of therapists’ radar, and I think that’s mostly because a lot of them are just behind on technology.”

Harris O’Malley, a dating coach in geek culture who’s written for The Guardian, Slate, and Wired under the alias Dr. NerdLove, believes games are strong devices for building a sense of unity. “Long-distance relationships are difficult because there’s a physical component that’s missing that makes it hard for couples to feel connected sometimes. The thing that helps make couples make long-distance work is them knowing that there’s going to be an endpoint where it quits being long-distance and becomes more in-person. When that’s not a factor, then the best thing they can do is work on communication, visit each other whenever possible, and spend quality time with each other in whatever ways they can when not together. And gaming can actually be a valuable way of doing that.”

Harris points to Portal 2 and other games that encourage co-op play as being strong tools that encourage team-building. A number of the couples we spoke to listed co-op games Destiny, Overwatch, and Final Fantasy XIV as their mainstays.

For Rich and Amanda, Borderlands has a special place in their relationship, giving them an experience they both enjoy sharing. In the video chat windows I view them through during our interview, they both start pointing to various deluxe editions of Borderlands in their respective rooms. There’s an unexpected synchronization to their actions. The series clearly means a great deal to them and they talk about it a lot. “It basically acts like a surrogate when we don’t want to use Skype or Facetime,” Rich says. “We would just get on and play a game together and chat about what we had been doing during the day. It was great. It meant we could actually do something while chatting.”

The Virtues Of Synchronicity

A hard part of a long-distance relationship can be feeling like you’re missing out on doing things together. Alex and Naz, who have been dating seven months, have found that gaming together helps them alleviate some of this, making them feel closer, which is vital since right now the two are on separate continents.

Alex lives in Missouri and Naz lives in Istanbul. Both of them will be moving soon, but they still won’t be in the same place. He’s going to North Carolina and she’s heading to Vancouver in Canada. “Same continent at least,” Naz says in a way that suggests she repeats it often as a means of comfort.

The two were introduced to each other by a mutual friend during a session of Destiny. “We just ended up playing all night,” Alex recalls. “Eventually I asked Naz if, she wanted to be together.”

After their moves are complete, the couple plan to fit their schedules together so they can see each other every month. When they can be together permanently is still up in the air. In the meantime, they find video games – the thing that brought them together – is what makes them feel not so far apart.

“We do a lot together with games,” Alex says. “It feels like you’re a lot closer when you’re playing them because it’s an interactive activity you can do with someone and it doesn’t matter how far apart you are, but with voice chat and just interacting in the game together, it’s like you’re a lot closer than you actually are.”

“Yeah,” Naz says. “It’s like,” she pauses to formulate a thought. “For hopeless romantics, it’s like in the old times when people would write letters to one another and be like, ‘When we look at the moon, we see the same moon,’ and now it’s we can look at the same screen and do the same things and it just brings us closer together.”

The two often play games, sign off, and then talk about them for hours on end. “We both play games because we both want to go into game development,” Naz explains, “so whenever we’ve finished playing through a session of a game we’ll talk about it for like two hours, just debating it, discussing how it can be improved.”

The pair also branch outside of games in search of ways to spend time together online. “We’ve been working through Brooklyn Nine-Nine together,” Alex says. “We’ll watch episodes of that and stuff on YouTube and use third-party apps to make sure everything syncs up for both of us. Synchronization is important in games and shows and other stuff. [It] feels pretty important in a long-distance relationship because it helps sell that we’re at the same place in whatever we’re doing and it’s not like we’re doing the same thing separately, but we’re doing the same thing together.”

Carrying That Weight

Other couples go outside of video games, finding ways to make tabletop and card games an integral part of their relationship. Kat, who lives in London, spent a fair amount of time playing these with her ex-boyfriend, who lived in Wash ington, D.C. when they were together.

“We spent a lot of time on Skype sometimes playing Magic: The Gathering on Skype with physical cards or we’d chat over Xbox Live while we played different games. We also wrote letters back and forth. Very capital-r romantic of us. The distance was tough, but we were both really busy. Playing games made the distance easier to compartmentalize, I suppose. There was a designated time for us to be together; it was doing an activity in which we had a shared interest, and that worked for us.”

Ultimately, the relationship didn’t work out. “We tried to keep it up, but the combination of the time difference and all the work I suddenly had, and all the people I was meeting...eventually it made playing games together feel like this chore that we had to do to maintain something that didn’t feel like part of our normal lives anymore. Trying to fit in time to talk to each other – in-game or out of game – just stopped being fun. Nothing matched up; it felt so dissonant, and we were worlds away.”

Like other romantic relationships, sometimes long-distance just doesn’t last no matter how much passion or effort there is behind it initially. According to Bearce, technology can actually damage these relationships just as much as it can help. “A lot of the time people can’t disconnect fully or quickly, so if you and your partner are on together and you’re too busy updating your status or checking your email or playing Pokémon Go that can cause issues, and sometimes context or nuance can be misinterpreted in text so it’s easier to get into fights.”

Kat still occasionally finds traces of the end of her relationship in the games she plays. The two had started playing Borderlands 2 before they broke up. “I still haven’t gone back to play it,” she says, “or any of the other games in the Bor derlands series – it’s just too weird for me now. I’m generally a completionist, but I left the game in this fairly fractured state, and I can’t return to it, since the entire geography of the game is one we started on together. It sounds kind of dumb, but I still feel the weight of that save file.”

The Waiting Game

Not all relationships have the same goals. Some people are happy to be together under whatever circumstances they can afford as long as that unified emotional crux is there. However, the vast majority of couples we spoke to do want to be geographically close one day. For Amanda and Rich, when that day may be isn’t clear.

“It’s…challenging,” Rich admits, the ever present cheer in his voice suddenly giving way to weariness. “But at this point, I’ve done it so much; it’s part of my day-to-day life that I don’t want to be part of my life. I just want to be with Amanda, but at the moment it’s challenging, and you just have to get on and do it.”

Amanda nods in agreement with the sentiment but cracks a joke to keep things from getting dour. “Can you write about how I have to carry him through Overwatch? He’s really bad at it.” Rich sighs and hangs his head in admission. Self-deprecation and humor are clearly just as much of the glue holding their relationship together as video games.

Some may find a relationship like Amanda and Rich’s or Alex and Naz’s baffling. How can two people subject themselves to that kind of separation? Bearce believes every relationship is a unique machine with its own rhythm and logic. “There’s so many variations on how these people live this lifestyle – whether you travel two days a week or live apart six months at a time – which I think lends itself to an overarching message of, ‘Do what you do as long as it works best for you,’ since there’s no one right way to keep a relationship afloat. And it’s okay to change it as well, so what might work this month might not work several months down the road, you’re really just giving yourself permission to create the relationship that works best for you.”

Like Amanda and Rich, countless couples around the world are trying to reach a point where they can be together in the same place and build a life. Until then they rely on whatever tools they have to keep things stable, and for many of them, video games are there to do their part in helping provide some light during the darkest parts of that long, arduous journey to stability and happiness.

Want to read more about long-distance relationships and video games? Check out this column I wrote about my own relationship and No Man's Sky.