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Kiera the White Mage and Juan the Bard’s first date was at a house party in Mist Ward, on the island of Lower La Noscea. Kiera remembers it clearly: they ordered drinks, caught up with some friends who had made the journey to the same part of Eorzea, and danced.This was 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was in the ascendent, and there was precious little dancing to be done in the real world. Add to that the fact that Kiera and Juan were separated by 7,860 miles of ocean—the former living in Melbourne, Australia and the latter in San Francisco—and this celebratory gathering of Summoners, Paladins and Magi seemed like the most obvious place to socialise.
That’s one of the major drawcards of massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) like Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV): they collapse the tyranny of distance, giving individuals from opposite ends of the Earth the opportunity to interact, build relationships and, in Kiera and Juan’s case, fall in love.“I feel like Final Fantasy helped our relationship a whole lot,” Kiera explains over the phone, “because we were able to just be in a virtual world and feel connected to each other in that way. And being a long distance couple, it's what we would use to spend time together since we couldn't physically do it. We would spend time in the game instead, to be able to bond and hang out.”Kiera and Juan have been in a romantic relationship for six years, but they’ve been playing FFXIV together for seven. The game, which currently boasts more than 20 million users, is a sprawling social simulation that bears similarities to other MMOs like World of Warcraft, RuneScape and Animal Crossing. It’s an open world adventure in the broadest sense: players can just as readily spend their time completing quests and slaying enemies as they can roaming the countryside and decorating houses.
Kiera and Juan mainly liked raiding dungeons and levelling up their characters, communicating via headsets the entire time. And after two odd years of fighting alongside one another, developing a relationship that was cultivated almost entirely in-game, they finally met in person.
“We were both really nervous the first time I went to San Francisco,” Kiera recalls. “But after a couple of hours we felt very comfortable around each other. We went out, explored the city, and during the downtime we would just relax and I would watch him play video games.”The two of them have seen each other in the flesh a small handful of times since then. But last year, when COVID hit, borders closed and international travel was put on indefinite hiatus, FFXIV became the only format in which Kiera and Juan could properly “date”.“It definitely helped keep things strong and fresh, and since we were obviously locked down quite heavily we were able to spend a lot of time together,” says Kiera. “There's just a whole lot more that you're able to do in an in-game relationship, especially during COVID. You can travel to different areas and see different things rather than being in the same place.”Of course, virtual romance is nothing new; online gamers have been going on dates, marrying their characters and having simulation “sex” for years. In a 2007 study looking at social interactions in MMOs, 75 percent of participants said they’d made friends via online games and 30 percent said they’d met a “romantic associate”.But the pandemic, and its attendant global lockdowns, appears to have given the scene a shot in the arm. During the turbulent course of last year multiple reports emerged of people striking up relationships with strangers in games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Kiera tells of a friend who just a few months ago met and started dating another player in FFXIV—neither of them having yet met in real life.
Kiera’s friend, who is named Li and also lives in Melbourne, recently married their partner in-game when COVID scuttled their wedding plans.“We got engaged just before the world went into lockdown,” Li explains over the phone, noting how quarantine and social distancing restrictions prevented them from throwing so much as an engagement party in the real world. “So we actually got the Eternal Bonding ceremony within FFXIV, which is like a ceremony where you can essentially get married to another player.”
The event was live streamed on Twitch, a social streaming service often used by gamers, allowing Li’s mum to tune in via the app. Despite the world being locked down for COVID, Li says, the bonding ceremony provided a somewhat intimate way for them to celebrate their union with all their friends and family. “It was really nice; all our friends could feel included, from all around the world, and their avatars in game could be there as part of the ceremony and cheer with us. Despite all the 2020 stuff, that was like a real highlight for us: to get married in game.”Li met their partner David three years ago, after moving interstate to a place where they didn’t know anyone. The two of them started talking via a dating app. After realising they lived hundreds of kilometres apart, and that they shared a passion for Final Fantasy, they decided to unite for the first time in the fictional world of Eorzea.
“In-game we could hang out together, we could run dungeons and do raids and stuff like that together,” Li says. “And I think it's stuff like that, fighting bosses and doing stuff for a common goal, that is a really fantastic way to work together with your friends. It's a really nice way to see if you can get along with certain people because you’re overcoming obstacles in the game together, and it's a nice way to see how well you work as a team.”This is how things progressed for months, until finally Li and David decided to meet in real life at the “Supanova” comic book convention.“When we actually met for the first time, at a convention, I was wearing Final Fantasy cosplay,” Li says. “It was like, ‘oh, you know, I think I'm gonna go to this convention, and I'm gonna dress as a Final Fantasy character’, and he was like, ‘Oh, okay, yeah—I'll come along too and we'll meet up.’”David usually played FFXIV as a male Elezen, a character class that Li describes as “like the elves from The Lord of the Rings: tall, handsome and noble.” And despite him not being in costume when he arrived at Supanova, Li was “blown away” by how much he resembled his in-game equivalent.“He really is a real life Elezen! Tall and beautiful and of the fae folk,” they say. “His mannerisms and his way of speaking definitely matched his avatar. We were both really attracted to the other one, we both hit it off so well, and yeah: it was just a matter of being involved in the same hobbies and having outlets and a love of Final Fantasy.
“We live together now, but we still hang out in-game together.”
Li speaks about the world of FFXIV as a safe space: not only for the fact that people can go on dates and get to know each other without the intimidation of meeting in a public place—”For me, I'm a bit socially awkward, but in this game, I'm a really awesome kick ass warrior”—but also for the lack of prejudice and discrimination round who an individual can and can’t be. Li is non-binary, identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and insists that “I am very, very passionate about the fact that you can look however you want to look and it doesn't matter.” Highly customisable avatars thus become vehicles for self-expression; fictional worlds like Eorzea become sanctuaries against bigotry and hate. And online communities become welcome, and welcoming, alternatives to real world marginalisation.“Something that was personally very important to me was that there’s no restriction on the wedding ceremony in terms of what you need to look like [in Final Fantasy]; it doesn't need to be a male character and a female character,” Li says. “They don't have that kind of restriction in the game, so I think a lot of people in [the LGBTQ+] community, such as myself, find it to be a really safe and welcoming community because you can just get married without any sort of restriction. I really like that.”With COVID still paralysing society at large, one can easily imagine how this might be an emergent trend: a dating game that makes literal use of the term, and sees players courting one another via avatars from bedrooms around the world. But it would also be a mistake to view in-game relationships as something like a novelty or a fad: second-rate solutions in times of severe social isolation, or an imperfect simulacrum of the real thing. For both Kiera and Li, it was serendipitous: a way for them to enter an alternate universe and meet like-minded people. It’s unsurprising that such tight-knit, passionate communities as those that typically gravitate toward MMOs would yield fruitful romantic relationships.“I don't go on Final Fantasy to find romance, that's not the idea; I go there to make connections and have fun and play the game,” says Li. “It's just so amazing that one of these connections turned out to be someone who I've spent the rest of my life with.”Please note: The interviews that formed the basis of this story were facilitated by Double Jump Communications.Follow Gavin on Twitter