Call me old fashioned, but I still raise a skeptical eyebrow whenever I hear about a friend falling in love with someone he or she met on the internet. I’m not alone – making fun of online dating is a staple of mediocre sitcoms and Archie comics. Yet these relationships have become a fact of life in the gaming world. Hop into your favorite MMOG, and you’ll probably encounter real-life couples who game together, couples that met in-game but took their relationship outside it, or couples that are strictly an online fantasy.

For the past three years, my MMOG of choice has been Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, by Three Rings Design. Puzzle Pirates is unlike any other MMOG on the market. Most items in the game are inconsequential – instead, your performance revolves around your ability to play puzzle games. There is no grinding, and all outcomes of PvP and PvE battles are determined by pure skill. But what makes the game most unique is the way in which it’s become a breeding ground for meaningful relationships, both online and off.

By appealing to a niche audience, Puzzle Pirates typically attracts players that share common interests as well as a level of intelligence and maturity well beyond that of the stereotypical gamer. According to the most recent player census, the vast majority of players fall into the same older demographic.

Puzzle Pirates isn’t perfect. Its cartoonish design also attracts a young crowd, not to mention plenty of casual female players. There are still strangers who publically request a girlfriend or boyfriend. In a way, it’s like Unichat all over again, where big-eyed avatars announce loudly to the room that they’re about to engage in some cyber-play before proceeding to do so in ways that defy even the Kama Sutra.

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But look beyond the immature and inexperienced population for a second, and you notice the sheer number of successful bonds that players have forged. In the last three years, I’ve watched many players hook up in-game, whether they be in their 20s, 30s or 40s. They flirt and giggle in game chat and stay up all night talking in Ventrilo. They frequently organize in-game marriages, even though Puzzle Pirates doesn’t have a built-in system for it. I suspect that for many, it’s their first time living out their wedding fantasies since they played with pillowcases on their heads as kids.

Many of these relationships seep into real-life and work out extremely well. The official Puzzle Pirates wiki has a page dedicated to telling the story of real-life couples that met through the game. As of this moment, around 20 known couples have gotten married. But by far the most notable of the group are the two Ocean Masters, Hypnos and Hermes.

Ocean Masters are game admins and moderators that Three Rings hires to provide customer service and community management. Hypnos and Hermes met in game before they became admins. Later, they met in real life at a Puzzle Pirates gathering, and less than a year ago they got married. They both still work for Three Rings.

Many couples in Puzzle Pirates were dating before they started playing together. Plenty of guys have tried to share their favorite hobby with their girlfriends, only to be rebuffed. I had a slight advantage: While growing up, my girlfriend played many hours with her hand-me-down Super Nintendo. By the time she outgrew the console, she was already a Tetris expert.

Her skill at puzzle games carried over into Bejeweled. We used to play our scores against each other on MSN messenger, and it always surprised me when she mopped the floor with me, sometimes even managing to double my best score. It bruised my fragile ego, but it also encouraged me to keep my eyes open for another game that we could enjoy together.

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It was chance encounter that brought my attention to Puzzle Pirates. I played it on my own for a month before I was convinced that it was the perfect game to introduce to my girlfriend. It was colorful and full of cute cartoon avatars. My girlfriend immediately fell in love with the familiars – animals that sit on your avatar’s shoulder – which were the most prestigious items in the game, attainable only by winning special events.

More importantly, the puzzle games in Puzzle Pirates were extremely appealing to her. The first game that I introduced to her was the one for bilging, or pumping water out of a ship. It’s reminiscent of Bejeweled, and I knew that she would both enjoy it and excel at it. Conventional, grind-heavy MMOGs would bore her; Puzzle Pirates had none of that and, as a bonus, incorporated a game she was already good at, which instantly increased its appeal. Before long, my girlfriend and I were playing daily. We even had our own circle of friends in the game. It took about a year before we managed to claim our own familiars, but we did it together in a team event.

Through Puzzle Pirates, we met many other couples like us, including those who were married and brought – or dragged – their spouses into the game. Some of these couples succeeded while others returned to one partner playing on his or her own with while the other only logs on periodically, if at all.

Every day, the ratio between successful and disastrous relationships in games gets closer to par with the real world. So the next time someone talks to you about their in-game relationship, don’t be too quick to dismiss it. People may still raise their eyebrows, but if masquerading as puzzle-solving pirates brings people together, who are we to judge?

Murray Chu is a writer living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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