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That being said, how does this approach account for players who argue that they feel something akin to romantic love with an NPC? Waern (2015) recounts fora entries by people describing their Dragon Age: Origins experience. As Waern references, players detail their romance experience as having fallen in love with characters that the players themselves call non-real. They even recount instances of jealousy when they watch images and videos of their chosen beloved with other players’ avatars online. There are people who feel guilty when they romance one character while being in an established relationship with another character. The same happens when they choose to romance a different character in their second playthrough; they say that they cannot resist their first love and end up romancing the same companion again despite their original plan.

Players can indeed feel strong emotions for virtual characters, which they themselves describe as love. They are positively aware that those characters are not real but they still love them. Whatever love for those players

is, they argue that they feel it for virtual characters. They do not use any other word; they say love. The feeling and/or experience they have come to know as love from their personal life is the same as what they feel in the game world. Since they call it love it means that what they themselves consider and perceive as love, erroneously or not, is ascribed to their experience both in the physical world for other physical beings and in the virtual world for virtual NPCs.

How can this happen? Waern explains this phenomenon with the term “bleeding,” which has primarily been used within role-playing communities and expresses the experience by a player of their thoughts and feelings being influenced by those of their character and vice versa. In order to achieve that from a game design perspective, game designers build roleplay scenarios, in which the distinction between player and character is deliberately blurred, or they emotionally manipulate their players so as not to be able to fully distance themselves from their characters.

As Waern notes “bleed” is a vague term that demands further refinement if one is to use it to describe the experience of love in a game context. She distinguishes between: “a bleed-in effect, when the players emotions and personality traits affect the way the role is performed, and a bleed-out effect when the player cannot distance himself/herself from the (simulated) emotions of the character” (2015). As such, Waern situates the bleeding of romantic feelings in the interplay between players who are already willing to emotionally engage with a game and a game design that facilitates this engagement. She attributes this player willingness to the safety of romantic experience in games. She claims that this practice is similar to the idolization of male celebrities by female teenagers: “it offers a relatively safe form of romance in situations where you are not prepared or able to engage in a real one.” She particularly contends that “Dragon Age allows us to fall in love safely and just a little.”

Waern raises many essential issues pertaining to romantic love in games. Her bleeding exegesis, however, positions romance in digital games only as a pretense. In Waern’s piece, the fictionality of the romance in games is a given, the romantic experience the games offer is never treated as being on equal terms with the real-life experience. It is seen as a safe substitute for people who are not ready or unable to feel the real thing. The romantic experience in games is portrayed as the result of a suspension of disbelief by the player in the context of role-playing. Based on Waern’s account, the players are very eager to experience romance in games, but in order to do so they must be ready to consciously delude themselves that what they experience is real when it is not. In this effect, the players do not fall in love in the context of games; they play the role of someone in love.

For the players to be able to feel love in a game, the game should include agents that can love. To understand the logical steps of this argument, one must connect Sartre’s existential love with the embodied perception of other agents discussed in the previous section of this chapter. For that, a key term is Merleau-Ponty’s “intercorporeality” (1962). Following on his theory that we have a body that inhabits a world, it is through this body that we experience our world and we make meaning of it, a process through which our consciousness is shaped. However, our subjectivity, namely our subjective perception, is not an entity in isolation that comes to know objects in the world. Instead, our subjectivity is constantly informed by our relation to the objects of our perception including other bodies of the world we inhabit: “I have the world as an incomplete individual, through the agency of my body as the potentiality of this world” (408).

Thus, each one of us is a person in virtuality constantly actualizing themselves by relating to the world and the agents in it; not by objective relation, but by intentional relation, meaning by doing and behaving intentionally, in simpler words through interaction. For Merleau-Ponty, this comparison and identification can only be achieved intentionally, as in actively, meaning through a movement of my body towards the other and theirs towards me. As long as we stay inactive our consciousness and thus the consciousness of others remains incomplete, a thing in poten-tia. It is in this context of intercorporeality that we experience love. As Diprose contends, Merleau-Ponty “does not think love or sexual desire is any different in structure to personal existence in general” (2002, 90).

We have a body and because we have a body we can have a world and in this world we can love. Yet, we can only love as a conscious experience when this love is realized in this system of intercorporeality we share with the other bodies of our world. This is a matter of reciprocity not in the sense of reciprocation but potentiality. We can know love by loving. This loving is an intentional loving towards another person. This person is another person because we recognize our own behavior in their behavior. If their behavior cannot actualize the potential of love then we cannot actualize our love and we cannot have a conscious experience of love in this world.

When Wearn suggests that in games we can fall in love in a safe way, the safety lies in our inability to experience love in its full actualization. We may experience something akin to love but because the agents in this game world cannot offer love then our sentiment can reach up to a certain point, after which it remains virtual since the intercorporeality afforded by the embodied agents inside the game world does not allow for romantic love. This is why Leino calls love in games love in bad faith. According to Sartre when one practices bad faith, one “is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth” (1956, 47). Its difference from the lie is that in bad faith “it is from myself that I am hiding the truth” (47). So when we play a video game we are practicing love in bad faith because we are hiding from ourselves the truth that we cannot actualize our experience of love since the agents that are available for our intercorporeality in this world cannot afford romantic love. We may perceive them as embodied agents but when it comes to their capacity to love, they are proven to be no more than passive objects. In this, what we feel for them may be better compared to the feelings of attachment we have for non-human entities or items we care for. When we say that we love our car the emphasis is given on the attachment we experience because we allocate time and resources to it. Equally, while playing the game we spend a lot of time and energy for or with the NPC. It is then understandable that we grow attached to it, which is a facet of love. Romantic love, however, demands reciprocity that the in-game agents cannot afford.

What Leino deems fictional love in games is when we are aware that we cannot experience romantic love in games and we accept it for the type of experience that it is; safe and just a little as Waern suggests. As Leino argues, this experience of love in bad faith is intrinsic to the medium of games. Leino sees medium-specific love as being in bad faith but, in actuality, it is also his fictional love that is medium-specific since it is not a different experience but rather a different conscious stance towards the same experience. Even when we accept that our love cannot be actualized because we target it toward a fictional character, it is not the same experience as that obtained from other media that include fictional characters in love.

The discrepancy lies in the point of perception of the player as part of the game world. They are not witnesses as in other media; they actively actualize the game world through their body, which makes them subjects of this world. As argued above, in digital games the player extends their physical space to the virtual space that affords their actions towards certain tasks and goals. In most games, this expansion is facilitated by a playable character (PC), through which the player experiences the game world. This PC can vary from an empty vessel as vague as a mouse cursor to a fully fleshed-out character that the player has little or no ability to adapt to their own personality. In all cases, the embodiment that the PC allows the player enables a fusion of subjectivity, a subjective perspective onto the game world that continues dynamically throughout the play session.

Vella has coined the term “ludic subject,” which “is not a pre-existing character that the player finds ready-made and simply steps into (though it can be, and often is, tied to a scripted diegetic character)” (2014). Instead, the ludic subject is an amalgamation of the player’s subjective stance in the game world infused with the features, abilities, and limitations of the PC: “As such, the ludic subject is composed of the set of players subjective experiences of engaging with the game world from the standpoint of the ludic subject-position, and is only brought into being by the player’s playing.” In this phenomenological regard, it is impossible to talk about the PC and the player in clearly demarcated terms: “the player simultaneously inhabits a subjective standpoint internal to the game world (the ludic, or virtual, subjectivity) and her own subjective standpoint as an individual external to the game world.”

Our experience of the game world is always part of our subjectivity. In romantic love, if the PC falls in love as part of the game then we perceive it subjectively as our falling in love. Or rather as our self, actualized in this game world through avatarial embodiment with the PC, falling in love. Yet as was argued before, this self of ours cannot experience romantic love in the game world because the intercorporeality afforded in this game world does not allow for such an experience. This experience is the same no matter if we acknowledge it or not, acting in bad faith that is. As such, the inability to experience romantic love becomes a facticity of the medium instead of a practice afforded or imposed by the game system.

This becomes apparent in the other type of love that games include, which is what Leino calls “vicarious love” (2015). In vicarious love the player is not part of the experience of love anymore, it is instead the PC and the NPC who are falling in love. In this type of love the player is no longer a subjective agent inside the game world but instead experiences the game world as a “fly on the wall.” This is the type of love that games offer when they withdraw control from the player; when the player’s actions do not affect the game world, most commonly in cutscenes, a point in which the player releases the mouse/keyboard/joystick and consumes the game world through their eyes and ears in a passive manner similar to watching a film. Indeed, during this time the game abandons the most distinguishing feature that discerns it from other media: the cybernetic loop between the player and the system.

For example, in the game Nier: Automata (Platinum Games 2017) the love story between androids 2B and 9S mostly develops in cutscenes, when the game reclaims control from the player. Whether this story is romantic love or not is open to interpretation, which makes it an interesting case of how games can include thought-provoking and nuanced stories and characters. The challenge is to offer an uninterrupted experience of this to the player rather than constantly alternating between story progression and gameplay.[1] Since they are the non-ergodic parts of the game that contain the vicarious love, the gameplay is then found to not be able to afford any authentic experience of romantic love. Once the player regains control, their subjectivity meshes with the playable character and thus transforms a fictional experience to a cybernetic experience. As such, the experience of romantic love should become cybernetic itself for a game to offer it. What exactly I mean by that is explained in the following section, in which I argue that for games to overcome the challenge of the intercorporeality discussed above, the game should include artificial agents rather than fictional ones.

  • [1] As aptly described by Chris Crawford (2003, 260): “Hie story itself is non-interactive, and the game itself lacks dramatic content. You interact with the non-narrative game, then see some non-interactive story, then interact some more with the game, then see more story, and if you alternate between the two fast enough, it becomes an ‘interactive story’—right?” 2 Ergodic in the sense of demanding extranoematic effort to be accessed, see Espen J. Aarseth ( 1997,1).
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