“We were in Gnomeregan,” says Liz, the mid-afternoon sunlight pouring through the window onto the living room floor covered with toys. “I’m trying to find Acid Walkers for my main and this nice guy from my guild – he’d been playing World of Warcraft since the start – offers to take me through a dungeon run with his sister.
“I take him up on the offer, and his sister proceeds to ninja loot everything, including my fucking boots. Doesn’t matter what class or if the item is good or not, she’s rolling need on everything. At this point I’m on chat with him, telling him to get his sister in line, but it gets so ridiculous that he ends up promising me that he’d take me through again, this time just him and I.”
“I basically became her in-game sugar daddy,” Russ cuts in as Liz rolls her eyes. “Pretty soon we started exchanging emails, then moved to Skype calls, then…”
Russ trails off as the squawk of the baby monitor fills with the sounds of a waking Ember. He hops off the couch and climbs the stairs after his youngest, while their other daughter Cilla is trying to get my attention (very successfully). It’s a quiet Easter Sunday at their Calgary home, and the kids are working off their chocolate benders.
I’ve known Russ and Liz a long time; when they first got together they were a strange oddity among our friends. In the days before Match.com, before Tinder, before texting, hell – before Facebook – here was my buddy, meeting and falling in love with a girl from Minnesota over World of fucking Warcraft. We were bemused, but intrigued. When we found out that she was going to move to Canada to be with him, that he was in love, it seemed improbable – bizarre, even.
Sleeping through a sea change in romance
When Ruzz and Liz were meeting and falling in love online, I was doing it the old-fashioned way – in a dirty nightclub with $2 beers, 80s retro night hits blasting over drink-soaked, sticky dance floors. By the time I started dating again after my divorce, I felt like the world had moved on, that I had no idea how to meet someone else, or how to keep them once I did.
The biggest change was how so much interaction was done online and via texting. Within my first month of dating Nicole, I had to change my mobile plan because I was racking up ridiculous overages on my iPhone. Worrying about the appropriate time to ask her to be my Facebook friend, stalking her LinkedIn profile, carefully selecting photos of me to send to her that make me look like a fun and charming person and not the mentally drained and emotionally destitute husk of a human that I felt like at the time – it was all new, and a shocking amount of work.
In a way, I had been asleep for ten years. There were new social codes to follow, new rules of behaviour to adhere to. I felt like Rip Van Winkle, emerging from a slumber into a changed world. Did I mention that I had a bright orange mustache through most of this period? How did this woman ever think dating me was a good idea?
The physical is secondary to the digital
Now, when I talk to my friends about how they meet people, online dating is at or near the top of the list. The expectation is of connection online first – prior to meeting in meatspace.
“By playing WoW with Liz, I got to know her beyond first impressions – to know her through her words and actions, to work together and listen to each other,” Russ says. “The anonymity of the game let me focus on her as a person without all the other stuff.”
Liz agrees; “I learned traits about Russ that I don’t think even he would have even recognized in himself,” she says. ”He was friendly, patient and personable – so willing to help others and go out of his way.
“He was a good caretaker – and he’s been a great dad in just the same way.”
Living our online and offline lives together
In many ways Russ and Liz were way ahead of their time, finding something they both enjoyed (WoW) and had their first dates in a public, social place (like the capital city of the Gnome race). If you listen to them tell the story of how they met and strip out the overlay of it being online, it could have been at a bar, or a coffee shop, or a football game. The fact that they did it digitally is just the medium.
My experience of that medium – the frog into the boiling water – made me realize how much things have changed. We live in this interconnected web of people and services and places, and they nest together to form our online and offline selves. Our digital selves follow us everywhere – and the maintenance of those relationships that were forged online continues long after the first few dates.
Russ and Liz continue to live a digital life together, two beautiful kids, two houses and years later. When the kids are quiet or asleep they still pop on to WoW, side by side in their office, spending time with their old guild and making new friends along the way.
Just as their offline life has changed, their time online has too. More often than not, you won’t find them alongside one another, doing the same thing, but engaged in their own respective activities – one fishes while the other cleans out her bags. They orbit each other, both in game and out, their natural comfort with each other acting as the gravity that holds them together.
Despite all the years of playing, the WoW-themed wedding cake, the children named after their characters, Russ still laughs about the parallels of their love mirrored online. Sometimes he still messages her via the in-game chat, despite her being seated only three feet away.
Just like old times.