PAX ONLINE offered an interesting array of panels to watch. I was excited to catch the “Gamifying Romance: Why Hearts Should Be More Than a Prize” hosted by Ty Galiz-Rowe (@ty_grrrrrrrr), Monti (@friedmonti), Jeffrey Rousseau (@JRpotential), Zhenghua Yang (@ZhenghuaYang), Jessica Howard (@justjessisfine), and Tanya Short (@tanyaxshort). The reason I was so attracted to this panel was because of my lack of knowledge about romance in gaming. My only exposure is to romancing game mechanics would be in Catherine, from Atlus Studios, and Dragon Age Origins. Both of these games, I really love but have not played them in a very long time.
All of the panelists described their first experiences in gaming as well. There was a lot of diversity within people’s first remembrance of romance. Ty mentioned Dragon Age (alongside Fable and Skyrim) while dropping tidbits about the male power fantasy present within these games. In a similar fashion, Jeffery spoke about his play history with the Persona games and how, despite their enjoyability, there are many problematic romance troupes presented throughout. Z talked about how he played a Genghis Khan war game where romance interests were akin to concubines, Jess described the Aeris vs Tifa love triangle present within FFVII. Gaming professional, Tanya discussed how even though there is no romance in Link’s Awakening, she still felt like she should have been able to romance Marin.
This nicely transitions the panel into the focus. I was completely enlightened by listening to Uppercut and their guests discuss some presents issues within gaming. Present within many games, the mechanics set up for romancing characters is heavily swayed to your player character. In the Witcher 3, Z explains how there is this sense of entitlement that can be instilled in gamers. All the females that Geralt meets want to be with him. The fantasy of always being desirable can bleed into people’s understanding of romancing real people. Tanya, as a game developer, described how it is difficult to program romance in games because to some degree, you are always selling players a fantasy. This leads to discussing Stardew Valley and how it tackles romance.
Stardew Valley does not have invisible stats during it’s romancing. Players can figure out what an NPC wants and repeatedly give them their items until they fall in love. Our panelists explain how this interaction, which they called akin to a vending machine transaction, can cause real harm. For certain characters, you just have to give them their favorite flowers, foods, or items and over time they will simply fall in love with you. While virtually harmless within Stardew, it can have real implications. They go on to describe how the gaming community has a strong sense of entitlement to people who are streamers and content creators because sometimes, there are monetary exchanges within that relationship. The illustrated how this plays into the gamer power fantasy and how very few games offer the game protagonist the ability to be romantically denied.
I found it so wonderful that they offered what they would want to see changed within the gaming. Some of them are the ability to have romance be multi-faceted and not attached simply to present-giving. They discussed how there should be more player-choice to get to know various characters and NPCs so that you can see more relationships that would mimic real romance better. They, also, call for more nuanced conversations from developers when they do insert problematic relationship issues. Often times, people cannot separate the fantasy from how it would translate to reality, But mostly, they call for more discussions on how romance can be a wonderful edition to gaming but should strive to be better.