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Game Relation Gestalts, part 2

January 13, 2012

Dear Reader,

Last time, we looked at the five dominant relationship patterns that usually occur between couples and applied them to, instead of people, games.  Today, we’ll look at five more that are defined by their creators, Daniels and Lynch, as “transient” types of relationships.  While it makes more sense at the semantic level that these would apply to games than the previous “dominant” patterns, having scanned the list I wonder if that will hold true.  Once again, for more reading on the subject, you can check the Sonoma University site.

One interesting realization developed (well, I hope more than one for you, dear reader, but one surprise development for me) as I was going through these; I found that the term “escapism” clearly applies to at least two of the following patterns.  That means that we should avoid using escapism and more clearly define the reason what “escapist” gamers are trying to escape.  Yesterday, we saw the validation relationship as a type of escapism, where people who don’t get the meaning from their real world escape into games to find the meaning there.  Today, we’ll see some more escapist behaviors, so remember, dear reader, next time someone (including you) talks about escapism, drop that general term and be more specific.

Five Transient Patterns


In a healing relationship, the partners are together solely for the benefit of shared mourning.  Whether it’s due to a bad break up, a tragedy, or an intense shared experience, the relationship’s primary function is to provide a partner with which to readjust to life.  From a gaming perspective, this could very easily be one type of “escapism” gaming.  By going into the game world, you find the balance, routine, and catharsis that the real world may be unable to provide.  The game, then, acts as therapy, which could be very healthy (if it works) or unhealthy (if it’s prevents readjustment).  Either way, the relationship is destined to either end when the healing is over or evolve into a new pattern, whether it be a dominant type or an avoidance pattern (more on that below).

I’ve known two couples who played WoW and then got divorced.  One always quit the game (probably a scripted-response player), and the other played more than ever.  I always wondered who was better off, but I suspected the one who’d gone back out into the real world to put the pieces of his life back together (I only use his here because it’s the typical singular “non-gendered” pronoun, not because the guy was the one who quit WoW) was actually adapting in a more healthy way.  Since I eventually lost touch with both halves of both couples, I won’t ever know.


As its title and the connotation of the word suggest, this type of relationship is very much about going outside of one’s pattern and trying out something new.  In a gaming sense, the player is trying something completely new for some reason, whether it be fatigue of the same old game, excitement about the hype of a new game, or genuine curiosity about something new (or, most likely, a combination of all three).  This type of relationship may end very quickly if the experiment “fails,” or it might evolve into a dominant pattern if the player feels that his needs are being met by this previously unknown game genre.

I think we’ve all experience various “experimental” game relationships, be they successful or failed.  I know Steam has GREATLY contributed to many failed relationships as the sales get me to buy games I felt iffy about (Two Worlds 2, Brink, Recettear), but it has also provided many experiments that became great successes, as have been previously documented (Bastion, EYE, Limbo).  I expect that our jump into MMOs was very experimental; I know I was staunchly against a monthly payment plan for years before I started WoW, but upon playing, I now accept it as an exchange for new content and the portal to play with others.


Transitional relationships work as a gateway between old, failed patterns and behaviors and the changes that we seek to bring about.  I would guess that many “3 Monthers” (I forget who coined that, now, but kudos to whichever blogger did) are actually transitional relationships that eventually fail.  We seek from other similar-genre games what good things we had in WoW while simultaneously seeking the changes we’d like to see in WoW, and as a result are engaging in the transitional pattern.  When we don’t tire of a new game and instead take up the new game with great gusto as many did with Rift or LotRO (I can’t include SWtoR as it’s too new to know whether the relationship will evolve or fail), the relationship evolves into a more dominant pattern.

I have no doubt that many of my own WoW vacations were transitional relationships that not only failed, but during which I decided that the irritating patterns of WoW weren’t that big of a deal and returned without finding the change I needed.  As a result, I frequently made other changes: servers, guilds, characters.  In the end, though, none of those really addressed the core problems I was facing, causing, eventually, the need for another WoW vacation.


Avoidance relationships may be the most “dangerous” or “unhealthy” of the transitional relationships, though keep in mind my qualifications as an English teacher, not a psychologist.  In an avoidance pattern, the partners involve one another in a distant relationship, avoiding emotional intimacy both with their partner and themselves.  Their reasons are wildly diverse; it may be a fear of abandonment, loss of a loved one, or any of the “healing” situations mentioned above.  Whatever the cause, the effect is a superficial relationship based on time-filling, anti-conversational activities, a lot of mistrust, and the likely avoidance of incorporating partners into other facets of their lives.

In a gaming sense, this is certainly another form of escapism.  The player, filling his time with constant game activities, prevents himself  from having to deal with his fears or emotional distress.  I certainly know people who play games at times to avoid dealing with problems in their own life, so that they have the superficial friendships that many online relationships comprise without the danger of loss or rejection that real-world relationships carry with them.  Because of the ease with which people can move between groups in a game environment, the game adds an extra level of self-defense, allowing the player to avoid people who confront them about their avoidance simply by moving to another social group.  This extremely unhealthy pattern can go on for a long time, too, like an addiction, until eventually the player “bottoms out” and has to face the real world.


This relationship pattern is probably the most truly “normal” (for lack of a better word) when we think about games.  Gaming is something that should be done to fill time in an enjoyable way, perhaps with friends, between the larger and more exciting avenues our real lives present.  Like a summer fling, passtime relationships with games are self-aware; the player knows that this game is just for now, just for fun, and that no deeper connection or meaning is needed.

I think, though, that MMOs have a built-in ability to force evolution from passtime players into more dominant patterns.  Many of us used to play computer games simply to pass time but have since evolved into a more permanent relationship.  Compared to the transient nature of a game of Scrabble (for most of us – last night, my wife hit 318 on a pretty fair distribution of “good” tiles (she had Q, X, and Z, one S, and one blank, so 5 of 10 good tiles.  Damn her.), a MMORPG almost demands a deeper commitment, even of casual players.  I wonder if this was built into the genre as a money-making strategy or if it’s simply an unexpected outcome of their popularity.

At any rate, I think this list of 10 patterns for relationships works very well in talking about games, and I hope it helps people reflect on how and why they play.  Escapism, in the light of these patterns, is clearly a garbage term with too general a meaning, as is the idea that people who play games are somehow socially “abnormal.”  Each of these provides a talking point about how and why we play, and I’m interested to hear from you, dear reader, about your relationship to games.


Stubborn (and cold; it’s 15 degrees here)

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 15, 2012 10:33 am

    Interesting analysis and great style!

    May I add a very common older players game relationship: Nolstagic.
    Players renew their relationship with older (often their first) online game, no matter how obsolete or deserted may be. These relationships may be short but they are recurring!

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