Personal Essays

Photograph by Jonathan S W Tin

The Game of Love

Anyone who says video games shouldn’t appeal to adults, let alone women, has never flirted with General Carth Onassi. Exploring a virtual courtship.

From the beginning, my character was an ideal version of me, a ravishing Asian ectomorph, who was handy with her weapons and who had a mysterious past that seemed to haunt but not completely cripple her—any issues she might have were easily slain by that great Jedi power, Force Push, which involved using the Force to knock an opponent back five meters, and stunning them for three seconds during which she could utilize her light saber. I crash-landed on a planet and soon met a handsome virtual man with a husky voice to keep me company. I assembled a crew of aliens, Wookies, and droids, and battled futuristic space gangsters. I trained at the Jedi Academy under the tutelage of a short, pointy-eared creature who looked a lot like Yoda. And I talked. All the way through the game, I was given dialogue options. I always chose the righteous and noble path for myself, making sure that I insulted no one, that I defended and saved the innocent, and correctly solved all puzzles, which curiously resembled dumbed-down standardized test questions. My part-time job as an SAT tutor was good for something.

My boyfriend did the same in his own separate game; he reached the end long before I did. I was taking my time to buy and sell trinkets, to collect weapons, to explore each nook and cranny of every planet. I was addicted, but I didn’t take things too seriously. Until the day that the husky-voiced male character in the game told me I was beautiful.

“He’s flirting with you,” said my boyfriend. “You should flirt back.” I thumbed through the dialogue options. I could ask Carth to: 1) address me by my real name, 2) not call me anything, 3) call me “gorgeous,” or 4) drop the conversation topic entirely.

“Tell him to call you ‘gorgeous.’ Obviously.”

Carth asked: “What are you going to call me in exchange?”

I had two options: “pushy thug” or “sexist worm.”

“Sexist worm.”

Carth replied. “Is that it? Surely you can do better than that!”

So I told him he was a lobotomized, lice-ridden bantha, and thus, a romance was born. As we crossed the galaxy and fought side-by-side against a rising army of Sith, my virtual companion, Carth Onassi—decorated war hero and widower estranged from his son (if that doesn’t just tug at your heartstrings, girls, what will?)—and I grew closer. Carth wanted to protect me from growing dark forces he could sense. He wasn’t sure the Jedi Council had my best interests at heart. Our mission had become personal. Seated beside me in real life, my boyfriend egged me on. We wondered: How far could I go with this virtual affair of mine? Would we kiss? Have sex? Would one of us use the “L” word?

I could mold my features to look like anyone I wanted. There were instructions I could follow in case I wanted my character to look like Halle Berry.The game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, otherwise known as K.O.T.O.R., was released in 2003 for the PC and Xbox and is considered a classic. Even today, when I walk into my local GameStop to ask a 15-year-old employee for a recommendation and name K.O.T.O.R. as my all time favorite, I am immediately hailed as a kindred spirit, a person of taste, a connoisseur of all that is good and great in video games.

In fact, it was a 15-year-old who turned me on to the game in the first place—one of my SAT students. He was funny, smart, and sensitive and lived with his family in a wealthy community on Long Island where I’d recently started to work as a tutor to keep my writing habit afloat. I taught my student how to look for patterns on the SAT test, and how to spot the usual errors people made when answering questions. He liked learning how to outsmart others. But he was a teenage boy, and didn’t always want to concentrate. He wanted to talk about his Xbox, which my live-in boyfriend had coincidentally just given me for Christmas. My student wanted to know if I had played the video game Knights of the Old Republic. It was set in a mythical version of the Star Wars universe, and would train me in the ways of the Jedi: a private universe where I could build my own light saber, even have my own Wookie sidekick, and become that enviable thing—a cross between Han Solo and Luke Skywalker—all while still remaining a girl. Or a boy. I could mold my features to look like anyone I wanted. There were instructions I could follow in case I wanted my character to look like Halle Berry.

It was January and I was bored. The low sky and constant snow made the cramped city borough where I lived even more claustrophobic. But out here in the neighborhood I visited twice a week, wide windows looked out over an icy lawn and Manhasset Bay. It was doubtful that any residence I ever owned was going to have the luxury of a vast, scenic view outside the dining room window. But now there was at least the allure of becoming a Jedi to pass the winter months. My boyfriend thought we ought to give the game a try.

Weeks later, while winter still raged outside, I was entertained, playing at love.

Romance—in addition to killing off Darth Malak, and rescuing enslaved Wookies from the evil Czerka Corporation—was a quest. It was part of the game. But of course: Haven’t literature and film taught us anything? Every Frenchman knows that there is nothing better at curing ennui than a good, old-fashioned affair. In Les Liaisons Dangereuses, courtiers of all ages maneuver through sophisticated games. Innocent Danceny and Cécile are blindsided by an impossible love affair, while the more experienced Valmont charts and plans his conquests, analyzing through purple prose the individual delights of each woman, how the peaks of his sexual encounters lead him to the brink of ecstasy, so he is eternally searching for a greater high. Love is most interesting when it is sport. Don Giovanni knew this. So too the tabloids stalking politicians and celebrities, and thus chronicling for us how the mighty, outwardly so preoccupied with public service, actually have an insatiable appetite for exploring and conquering the most intimate of activities. We like this as readers and audience members. Deliver us via catharsis, via the emotional torment and longing of others.

My boyfriend had to make do with the Jedi heroine Bastila, who, in addition to her shapely (though still ectomorphic) figure, possessed a certain Anglo-Saxon sangfroid.There is a big difference between video games and novels: in a game, you are the actor. Imagine Pride and Prejudice as virtual entertainment: If you say the wrong thing to Mr. Darcy, you might permanently anger him, and forever lose the option to gain “love” as an achievement. But you still get to be Elizabeth Bennett. Not so if you merely read Jane Eyre or Gone with the Wind, where you will forever watch with your nose pressed up against the window. In Knights of the Old Republic, as with other video games, you are in fact the beloved.

Who knows why my boyfriend started a new round of K.O.T.O.R. himself? Maybe he thought that if I was going to have a virtual romance, he ought to be able to enjoy one too. The girl he wanted to charm—a spunky, youthful, and exotic creature—was not available due to her programming; a character had to be specifically given flirtatious dialogue, otherwise, no romance could take place. He’d have to make do with the Jedi heroine Bastila, who, in addition to her auburn locks and shapely (though still ectomorphic) figure, possessed a certain Anglo-Saxon sangfroid.

I was still in my first game, and he was now in his second, and we sat side by side, advising each how to flirt with the opposite sex. Even now it feels unfair to me that while he ultimately got to kiss his paramour, while I would have to settle for a declaration of love in front of the entire crew. For the effort I put into winning over General Carth Onassi, I would have preferred something a bit more meaningful. I’d even helped him rescue my lover’s son from the Sith Academy. If that isn’t potentially good step-mother material, I don’t know what is.

In 2004, I visited the Tokyo Video Game Show and watched as nerdy 30- and 40-something men tested out the latest in eroge, games where the actual object of the game is to win over a virtual woman, and have sex with her. Graphic sex. Unsurprisingly, the genre has its Western adherents, and websites specialize in selling and distributing a steady flow of animated porn to American men.

That the Japanese excel in these creations is not surprising. From Hello Kitty Land to public bathhouses that supply a separate coed room for karaoke, opportunities abound for Japanese citizens to enjoy intricately constructed worlds of play. But lately Japan has caused a stir as to how far the illusion of love can be carried; Western media, ever quick to interpret what seems harmless and fun in Japan as some sort of sexual perversion, has fastened on the proliferation of “hostess bars” in Japan, where women dress up to entertain men over drinks. No sex is exchanged, but patrons leave the evening with the fantasy of having enjoyed the company of an interesting and interested woman. But not all imaginary love originates in the East. In November of 2008, the U.K. was captivated by the story of a man and woman who had met through Second Life. They’d had a virtual marriage and a real one, and things had seemed to be going just fine until the woman caught her husband in flagrante with another virtual woman. He hadn’t had sex in real life, but virtual cheating was bad enough. Now the man was leaving his wife for his Second Life lover—whom he’d never actually met.

It is important, if we are to be grownups, to live in this world.My less playful friends find my forays into video games both fascinating and a little horrifying. Some of them have gently suggested that I combat boredom with the vast spectrum of books and videos geared for me, an adult, in the practical ways I can rejuvenate my sex life and revive my intimate connection to my partner, as though love is something that just requires concentration and a booster shot, a vaccine to ward off the inconvenience of boredom, itself a virus like rubella. I know they think playing video games is the first step down a slippery slope. Sometimes, they will timidly ask, what was wrong with my relationship that I would eschew dealing with any issues I might be having in order to turn to something as adolescent as a video game? Usually I just tell them the truth: “I like to play.” I know that they do not always believe me.

It is important, after all, if we are to be grownups, to live in this world. And yet doesn’t romance—whether of this world or in a book—involve an almost magical appreciation not just for who someone is in reality, but who they are to you?

Gatsby loves Daisy not just for who she is, but who he thinks she is, and she in turn is captivated by his portrait of her in his imagination. His tremendous wealth, we are told, was amassed just to impress her, and generations of readers have believed in and been moved by his grandiose ambition. We as readers believe in the world that Fitzgerald created, just as we believe in Cannery Row, and Tara—not to mention Hogwarts.

Eventually, my boyfriend and I finished our games and said goodbye to our virtual paramours. I spent a week digging around the Internet to find out what else was being said about my lover. Plenty of other people were mourning the end of their affairs with General Carth Onassi. Six years later, the IMDB message board for Rafael Sbarge, the voice actor for Carth, still contains gushing posts from fans. There is also plenty of fan fiction, stories purporting to continue the saga. But for my boyfriend and me, the game ended. Time passed and the snow went away. We forgot about Carth and Bastila. We got married. We are, as far as I can tell, unscarred by our foray into virtual courtship with other people.

On the last day of tutoring, I asked my 15-year-old student if he knew that he had a chance to woo and win Bastila. “Really?” He thought he’d known everything about the game, but the dialogue option never registered as flirtation. His face, usually so focused with youthful liveliness, grew wary. He frowned and blinked. He wasn’t quite sure how he felt about the fact that his beloved game would contain something so foreign. So adult.

“The love story doesn’t change the ending,” I said. But on the L.I.R.R. ride home, I wondered if he would begin again that night, putting himself through the contortions required to win the love of a virtual woman. I wondered how he would feel flattering her, and listening to her confessions of insecurity—if he would recognize the admittedly simplistic rituals of courtship. Then I realized that all this was still ahead of him. He was 15. He’d never been in love before. He was still more concerned with saving the world than loving a girl. All of that—the complications of adult relationships—were still ahead.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s new book, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, is an examination of grief, set against the backdrop of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Tohoku, and her family’s Buddhist temple, 25 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It will be published by Norton in early 2015. More by Marie Mutsuki Mockett