Sometimes, when we are lying in bed — after the giggles subside and our hands finally give it a rest — my girlfriend likes to joke about how video games prepared me for a life where I "go out with all the cuties".
Cuties, as in, cute people — gender doesn't matter to me. And girlfriend as in... one of my girlfriends. I'm poly — short for "polyamorous", which basically means that my partners and I are consensually not exclusive (not to be confused with "polygamy", which centres around marriage). In other words: we can date or sleep with other people, provided we talk about it with each other first. This way, we can all negotiate what we're comfortable with as well as talk about any insecurities and jealousy. They're not conventional relationships, but thanks to the level of transparency, support and understanding my dating life requires, my current relationships are definitely the best ones I've ever had.
I've been poly for a few years now, but it wasn't until recently in which I've actually meaningfully explored it. Before, poly functioned more as the understanding between my partner and I that I could have other relationships if I wanted to. Nothing beyond flings and casual encounters with other folks materialised for a couple of years, though — and so there wasn't much negotiation about what what me and my partners were comfortable with when it came to other serious relationships. There was just the transparency of who else I was casually interested in and sleeping with.
Games, along with anime, are some of the only places where I regularly see non-monogamy represented at all.
Things are different now. Two girlfriends — two people I am interested in seriously seeing in the long-term — means a lot of juggling, a lot of talking, a lot of negotiating, and a lot of compromises. We're talking like, the kind of issues and scenarios I can't really turn to Cosmo about and get shitty advice for. So this all feels new to me. Sure, I have plenty of friends who are also poly — and are also willing to offer me a lot of advice — but navigating polyamory can still feel like a minefield, even for people with experience (and even when the people involved are super loving and caring).
- When your family asks you about someone special, how do you break the fact there's more one "special person"?
- If your partner is seeing other people, how do you stop yourself from constantly comparing yourself to their other partners?
- How do you respectfully and safely suggest/carry out threesome that involves multiple girlfriends?
Discussing this sort of stuff can be a bit of a headache — there's a lot of stigma about the sort of people who gravitate toward the lifestyle, even though love is not a finite resource. And its not like most mainstream media has given me much to work with, either. In a show or movie, its perfectly plausible for someone to have strong feelings about multiple people at once — but for the sake of (a very specific type of) drama, characters are still forced to choose. Katniss from The Hunger Games struggles between Peeta and Gale. Bella from Twilight goes between Edward and Jacob. These tensions — the will they or won't they, the who will they choose — are so strong that you could almost say that monogamy is one of the biggest villains in popular media. It's kind of unfortunate — imagine how much more interesting things could be, drama-wise, if, say, Ashley didn't walk out on Shepard in Mass Effect 1 when a player suggests that maybe he shouldn't have to choose between her and Liara? I'd take that over the boring Reaper storyline any day.
Actually, it's interesting. Games, along with anime, are some of the only places where I regularly see non-monogamy represented at all. Anime has the "harem" genre, which typically means a character is surrounded by love interests. Visual novels and other games that are heavily influenced by anime sometimes provide a "harem" route for players, which is basically a playthrough in which one can have multiple romantic relationships. The thing about these depictions is that they're usually more in the realm of fantasy than they are depictions of healthy negotiated relationships. They're more interested in titillating you with the idea of a bunch of gorgeous women all fawning over you than they are in presenting you the messier, complicated reality of having multiple serious relationships.
Beyond visual novels, it's not uncommon for games that include romance to give players a chance to romantically pursue multiple people at once. Actually, thinking about it now, I almost kick myself for not realising I was poly sooner: my antics in games over the years are always very telling.
There was this one time in Fable 2 where I set out to romance every single villager in every town. I mean, why not? I was curious if the game would let me do it. I'd spend hours going up to people and wooing them with kisses and hip thrusts, I'd spend all sorts of money on gifts and taking people out on "perfect dates," I'd pore through their preferences and try to cater to their every desire. Eventually I couldn't go into any town without having a small army of lovesick villagers asking me to take them someplace quieter, or more sweetly, asking for my hand in marriage.
I wasn't just some Don Juan, though: I was also a huge thief (of things that aren't hearts, I mean). I remember walking into a shop, intent on stealing some potions...only to have my very own loves turn against me after witnessing robbery. Even though I was carrying awesome equipment, there were so many villagers that they easily overpowered and killed me easily — the lesson here being, I think, that love keeps you honest. Also: don't sleep with everyone ever, because someone — likely you — is bound to get hurt. And: don't steal stuff, you jerk.
There was also that one time I played through Persona 4, the role-playing dungeon crawler with some life-sim elements. My goal: romance everyone. Natch. The thing about Persona is that you have to choose how you spend your time wisely — some characters can only hang out with you on certain days. Scheduling can become a slight nightmare when you're trying to juggle twelve different people, some of which will want to hang out on the same day as someone else — and you can only do one thing outside of school every day. It's kind of similar to real life, actually, except that in my case, you have to substitute "school" with "a job."
On top of forming friendships and romances, you also have to make sure your character has a part-time job and does extracurricular activities — you know, so you can have a well-rounded life — and you also have to clear dungeons and save the world. No biggie, but choices must be made. I was so dedicated to making it work, I made a chart that detailed the perfect schedule in which I managed to keep everyone happy. I don't even keep a planner in real life, but that's how important having a billion girlfriends was to me, apparently. PRIORITIES.
The thing about relationships in Persona 4 is that, although it lets you romance everyone of the opposite sex, all the characters act as if you're exclusive with them — as if they're your one and only true love. That dishonest premise kind of makes you an arsehole if you choose to not remain true to a character. Thing is, even if you're not inclined toward non-monogamy, many of us do have the compulsion to see everything we can while playing a game. Why replay a 70+ hour game to see the different romances available to you when you can get them all at once, even though the choice is kind of gross?
In Persona 3, by contrast, it wasn't so easy to swing a ridiculously active love life. Once you fully romanced a character, if they ever found out about someone else, the character would get mad at you. You'd kind of have to beg and promise you'd be a better partner to get them back. Characters could find out you were cheating on them in Persona 4, but all it meant was some kind of silly scenes where a girlfriend would start bickering with another girlfriend. Despite these scenes, your relationship with either girl was never impacted — a far cry from the intense conversations you might have with a partner about their feelings about another partner.
Games like to make you choose a single partner, unfortunately.
More often, though, games like to make you choose a single partner. You pair characters together for long enough in Fire Emblem: Awakening, for example, and they can get married — which closes them off from any other relationships with other people. It's kind of a bummer, since the romance portions are the best parts of the game if you ask me.
Sometimes, you can work through these sorts of limitations: technically you're not supposed to be able to fully romance more than one character in franchises like Mass Effect and Dragon Age in a single playthrough. Not without doing some horribly convoluted stuff first, though — like making sure you do quests in a certain order, making sure you talk to people at very specific times and you answer in very specific ways. I'm not even sure you're supposed to be able to have, say, both Morrigan and Lelianna completely in love with you in Dragon Age, but there is a way to do it!
It would be nice to not have to consult a FAQ to figure out how to honestly and respectfully romance more than one character in a way that seems more mature than the gross, underdeveloped fantasies of a 13 year old boy. This isn't a call for the catering of a small minority of people who have a certain lifestyle, to be clear. It's just that stuff outside of non-monogamy can present interesting situations for people to safely explore, and if games really pride themselves in interactivity, providing another choice for someone can only be a boon, right? And lets not pretend like fandoms on Tumblr don't already make ridiculous saucy love triangles/octagons/pentagons/etc among characters.
Real people aren't machines you can insert kindness coins into until they're in love with you.
Based on what they've provided so far, though, I wouldn't say games have taught me much that is practical about how to approach polyamorous relationships...not beyond the idea that scheduling can be really hard sometimes. Sure, I'm happy that games are sliiiightly better than other media when it comes to depicting stuff outside of monogamy, but heck, games aren't very good at depicting monogamous relationships either. To loosely quote a friend, real people aren't machines you can insert kindness coins into until they're in love with you, like you typically can in games. And I don't have a FAQ to consult when I have to figure out how to tell my girlfriend that the idea of her sleeping with a mutual friend makes me feel weird, or a guide on how to talk to my other girlfriend about my fears that she might like her other girlfriend more than me.
And you know what? I like it this way, even though I don't really know what I'm doing. I don't have scripts to follow about how relationships are "supposed" to work, I can't fall back on bad habits learned from horrible advice columns. In a good poly relationship, as far as I'm concerned (and mind that not all poly relationships work the same!), nothing is unspoken. I have to talk it out every time, no matter how hard or scary it to admit to insecurities, jealousies and vulnerabilities. And that's the way it should be, really.