supermariowii.jpg[“The Blue Key” is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch exclusive column from Connor Cleary that explores the wide arena of gamer culture – where it's been, where it is now, and where it might be going. This week, part one of a two part series exploring the potentially difficult and potentially rewarding act of gaming with a romantic partner.]

Many of us have tried to get our loved ones involved in our favorite hobby by introducing them to gaming. On the surface it seems like an absolutely fantastic idea. What a great way to spend some quality time sharing a fun experience with your significant other without spending a lot of money.

However, there are many potential difficulties in this that we may not foresee. So what follows will be an examination of playing video games with your girlfriend or boyfriend in the form of four case studies, and hopefully the lessons learned below have some universal application.

We will see that playing with a significant other can be quite a bit trickier than playing with your buddies, but there are a few things we can do to avoid some of the potential hazards, and ensure a positive, healthy, and rewarding experience. Additionally, there are steps that developers can take to promote gaming across the experience gap, and our first case is a great example of a developer that successfully addressed this issue:

Case 1:
New Super Mario Bros. Wii Co-op Mode with the Wife – a.k.a. “Divorce Mode”

My friend Jimmy Wellington was kind enough to share his experiences and thoughts on this matter. But first, a little background is necessary: Jimmy would consider himself an experienced gamer, and being an experienced gamer usually means that one has developed an innate sense of how games work.

This is difficult to explain to non- or casual gamers, but it is the experience and intuition that lets you know, almost immediately, how a puzzle is probably going to work; that allows you to automatically analyze a boss's weaknesses and patterns; that tells you that you have to backtrack with your new item to hit that button a few rooms back to open the gate, and so on.

This kind of instinct is so embedded in us that it can be frustrating to watch someone play a game, if they don't have the same knowledge-base to draw on. And this is where Jimmy ably identifies one of the key problems that might arise while playing with your significant other: “I think it completely depends on how much of a gamer disparity there is.”

Jimmy's wife grew up playing Super Mario Bros, but never really pursued gaming as a hobby when she got older. She tried to play Grand Theft Auto IV when it came out, “but had trouble with the amount of buttons. People like [us] grew up with all the buttons and the gradually increasing complexity of controls, so it's much easier for us to adapt.”

So the Wii's simplified controls really appealed to her, and when New Super Mario Bros. Wii came out, Jimmy saw a great opportunity to share his love of gaming with his wife. He was hoping that the old-school side-scrolling style would be simple and familiar enough to her that she wouldn't have too much trouble with it. Unfortunately this wasn't quite the case.

This difficulty led to Jimmy's very simple realization: “As an experienced gamer, you have to make the decision that you are just playing to have fun.” I think we all find ourselves taking a game way too seriously every once in a while, but it's especially important to remember you're playing for fun when you decide to play with your partner. But he admits “That can be difficult for people who get so mad in Modern Warfare 2 they tell 12-year-olds they should have been aborted.” Though I'm sure he was speaking hypothetically.

Thankfully for Jimmy – and for all the husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends out there who had the same idea when they grabbed a copy of New Super Mario Bros. Wii – Nintendo included a brilliant mechanic to address just such a skill disparity in co-op mode. “In some parts, we tried to go through the level together, and just couldn't do it.

So, luckily, there is a feature where one person can put themselves in a bubble while the other player or players get past the difficult part.” So on the other side of the scenario, sometimes it is important for the less experienced of the two gamers to acknowledge that fact as well, and defer to the more skilled player. Occasionally it becomes necessary to lean on the better of the two gamers to get through certain tough parts.

Jimmy says that gaming with his wife requires a certain delicate manner of speaking, whereas the dynamic would be entirely different if he were playing with, say, his brother. In that case, he could make comments with no need of self-censorship, and might say something like “What the **** was that?” but, he says “If there's nothing else I've learned in 5 years of marriage, it's that those words should never come out of your mouth in that order. Ever.”

tediz.jpgCase 2:
Conker's Bad Fur Day Multiplayer – Mariel the Teddy Bear Terror

Our next case comes from long-time gamer and friend of the author, Mariel. During our interview, she spoke at length about a particularly interesting case of gaming with a boy she was going out with in her late teens.

At the time, her group of friends was “obsessed” with the “murdering free-for-all” mode in Conker's Bad Fur Day – in which she “always played as the murderous teddy bear.” During this time she started dating Dan, who also played with the group regularly. This scenario is made all the more interesting because not only was Mariel the only female involved in these regular gaming sessions, she was also far better at the game than any of her male friends and usually netted the most kills per round.

Often when she was in the lead, or after “a particularly righteous head-shot or something” they would make excuses about their joystick being sticky, or call her a cheater – usual fare when it comes to gaming with your friends. She “tried to be a good sport” but would occasionally be “a bad winner” and gloat or talk trash – again, par for the course when it comes to competitive gaming amongst friends.

But, she says, she never trash-talked her boyfriend, never. She explained that one time she made a condescending comment to Dan along the lines of “Oh let me guess, your controller isn't working?” and he turned off the game like a little kid.

This experience taught her that taunting her boyfriend was off-limits, even though he never reacted this way to similar taunts from the other guys. If you've ever spent time in a similar situation – maybe playing GoldenEye obsessively or something like that – you know that trash-talking is part of the event, you could say it's half the fun. So what is it about the couple-dynamic that created such a taboo?

On the off-chance that Mariel would lose, she says the gloating and condescension from the guys was ruthless. But even though it was “usually all in good fun,” at times it would be absolutely infuriating “because it usually turned into teasing me because I'm a girl, not because they were better than me at something.”

She uses the example, “Instead of saying something like, 'Maybe you should try it on the novice setting.' they would say 'Maybe we should play Kingdom Hearts instead.'” On the other hand, this made it all the more satisfying when she would decimate them in-game.

“I think relationships improve significantly whenever you can share an interest with a lover. And in gaming, it's sometimes like going on a mini vacation. When me and Charles,” her current boyfriend, “play Halo in story mode, the co-op is great. We congratulate each other and compliment each other and all that. We become a team, and that's a really healthy thing. Competing can be good in the same way, so long as you can keep your ego in check and not be affected by the fact that you will lose some, just like you'll win some.”

[This concludes the first of two installments, so come back in two weeks when we'll be looking at two more cases of the joys and difficulties of gaming with a romantic partner through MAG support roles and Left 4 Dead teamwork. But for now, do you have any advice for your fellow gamers? War stories or heartwarming tales to share?]