Romancing the Pixel: Our Obsession With In-Game Relationships

Elwood Edgemon still hasn’t accepted my Spacebook friend request.

It shouldn’t bother me, but it does. It really, really does. After all, I need more friends if I’m ever going to progress in my career, and we both share an interest in Xenogastronomy. I mean, it’s a no-brainer, right?

But deep down, I know he won’t accept it, and I’m going to be bummed out when the nice computer lady announces that my friend request has been denied.


Such a crushing rejection is not uncommon in Redshirt, a comedy social media sim with a sci-fi twist. Using social media as its core mechanic, Redshirt tasks players with establishing relationships with people around the station on which they live in order to build up their popularity. It’s a commentary on the shallow and fleeting nature of social media itself, and although you’ll see the parallels and satire come at you full force once the game boots up, it’s still damn near impossible to not get sucked into its virtual world.

Thus, every relationship you start, friendship you lose, and rejection you face is accompanied by trace emotions that feel a bit too similar to the ones we experience in full with the same situations in reality.

Once I realized how the game was manipulating me in such a way, I started to think of all the other times I’ve engaged with virtual characters in an attempt to start, end, or maintain any number of relationships, be they family, friendly, romantic, or platonic.

And the only thing I could think about was…why? Why do we care about the affections these bits of programmed code might have for us? Why do relationships often come across as some of the most powerful and memorable parts of a game?

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine about Mass Effect 2, which he found to be “really disappointing”. Being a big fan of the series, I couldn’t imagine why he didn’t like it, especially considering the fact that he shared my interest in third person action games and expansive RPGs. He responded bluntly with “It’s a good game, but I got so tired of all that love sh**.”

Why, then, do I find the relationship aspects of Mass Effect to be so endearing? Attributing it to the fact that I’m a woman seems a bit reductionist and irrational of a conclusion, especially because I have plenty of male friends who loved the relationship angles as well. Also, the sheer volume of people who engage with this system in the game suggests that it’s not just an awkward few that look to games to make up for painful holes in their actual social life. So, what is it?


Take a step back for a moment and consider all the games that have released with core game elements centered on relationships one builds with every other character. Many of us have enjoyed creating veritable soap operas in The Sims, tried desperately to get any one of our desired crew members on the Normandy to notice us in Mass Effect, felt some sense of accomplishment when establishing a new social link in a Persona game, and even stressed over how other characters felt about our actions in The Walking Dead.

This might be attributed largely to the success of the writing in these games. Characters might be endearing and well-developed to the point where we find ourselves connected to them by any mix of emotions, and when we’re provided with the option to develop them a bit further in a personal sense, the incentive to try and build that relationship becomes magnified.

It’s also likely that these relationships hit on some sort of innate human need within ourselves as well. We are social creatures, after all, and are naturally driven by a need to be accepted into one form of a social relationship or another. In the past (and we’re talking cave man past), this has promised survival. Today, it promises success and  sense of normalcy. Toss a player into a world with the possibility of characters changing their opinions of them based on their actions ,and suddenly you put that person’s virtual self-worth at stake.

Often, Relationships in these experiences feel like a game in and of themselves. In reality, relationships are a complicated and delicate phenomenon that one has limited control over, and can often be sources of great stress. But in a game, where you’re able to adopt different personas and dictate how many of your interactions develop with other characters on-screen, you feel more in control of your environment and have the ability to manipulate relationships based merely on the binary choices you make. In a game, relationships feel like a quasi meta-game, and one that can be easily manipulated depending on your decisions. This is especially true of The Sims, a game where I took an unhealthy amount of satisfaction from successfully forming relationships between my Sims and causing infidelity to break them apart. It was like controlling my own little soap opera in real time, and I simply couldn’t get enough.


In my mind, these relationship angles probably resonate more with those of us who are more inclined to enjoy narrative-based games, be they linear stories with a predetermined plot or more open simulators that allow us to create our own fiction. We love the escapism of them, engaging in a world completely separated from our own and put into a position of power where the story and fate of the world revolves around us. When we’re in a situation like that, it’s easy to get caught up in the balance we strike with other characters within that world and whether or not they appreciate us as much as we do them, especially when we have a more significant amount of influence on the overall outcome in a game than we do in real life. It’s escapism at its finest, and an interesting element that has added an extra layer of value to so many of the great games we’ve seen released in history.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Dion Kriebel has just sent me an invite to join him at Blaster Burger. I don’t want to keep him waiting.