The Herald was, of course, delighted to have made the introduction - not only because we'd had the chance to bring two people together, but because their story illustrated the true power of online worlds.
We think of these places most often as games, but there is much more going on in them than simply play. What we often forget is that any place in which two or more people can interact, whatever else it is, is a communications medium of a certain sort. Connecting via an online world - whether it's Second Life, World of Warcraft, EverQuest or any other - is not different from connecting via a chat room, via Friendster, via telephone or even in the time-honored way people sometimes connect at a party: Spotting a stranger across the room and knowing, in those first seconds of contact, that here is a person you need to know more about. The things you need to know in that party conversation are the same things you need to know in a virtual world: Who is this person? What are they like? What do they do? Are they smart and funny? Can they be trusted? And, perhaps most importantly, are they interested in me?
All these questions present potential obstacles. A wrong answer to any one of them could easily turn your fantasies of wild romance into a nightmare vision of hell on earth. But they are the same questions, whether the context is online or off. The only difference is the order in which they're answered. At a party, the question of physical attraction is answered first. In a virtual world, it is often the last thing to be revealed.
In fact, it can be argued that interactions in virtual worlds and online games give us more important information at an earlier moment than we could get while standing around at a party. One gamer I spoke to recently, whom I'll call Jake, is now married to a woman he first met while playing Ultima Online. They started out by working together, by cooperating on quests and finding that they complemented each other well, they got along and yes, they maybe even "liked" each other. Is this - the fact you get along in an online game - a good basis on which to form a relationship? I'd argue it's at least as good a basis as the hormonal one that leads to far more unions, and perhaps a better one. How well you chat someone up at a party is not a very good indicator of long-term mutual compatibility, after all. How well you work together to accomplish shared goals, on the other hand, can shed more light on the prospects for a lasting relationship.
Does that mean we should all be looking for love in online places? Of course not; don't be silly. But it does mean the love we sometimes discover there is no less real, and no more an oddity, than that which we encounter for the first time in the physical world.
When it's right, they both end up in exactly the same place. Keep that in mind the next time a hot night elf is looking for help with a quest. Happy Valentine's Day.
Mark Wallace can be found on the web at Walkering.com. His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O'Reilly in 2006.