left4dead_zoeyandluis.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, the second of a two part series exploring the potentially difficult and potentially rewarding act of gaming with a romantic partner.]

In the first part of this piece we took a look at some of the joys and challenges of gaming with our romantic partners, and how we should probably watch what we say in both cooperative and competitive gaming.

We also saw one example of how developers can address the issue of multiplayer gaming with a skill disparity by designing mechanics that help foster a fun experience for all the players involved.

In the next case study, we will look at the difficulties and delayed gratification of introducing a partner to not only a new game, but to an entirely new type of gaming, and see how online gaming can make a couple feel closer when they live far apart.

Case 3:
Long Distance Left 4 Dead

My friend – who we'll call Tara – is a big fan of Left 4 Dead, so we played together fairly often over Steam. Both Tara and her girlfriend – who we'll call Jaymie – were trying to balance school and work while living over an hour's drive away from each other and attending different colleges. They didn't get to spend a lot of time together in person.

So Jaymie, who you could call a casual gamer, decided to get her own copy of Left 4 Dead so they could play together even when they didn't have time to visit. Tara was excited and set Jaymie up with a new mouse and a headset, and before long they were trying to survive the zombie apocalypse side by side.

Jaymie had never played a PC game before, which can be overwhelming if you're used to the relatively limited and significantly more intuitive set up of a console controller. Moving with W-S-A-D is way more confusing than a basic D-pad, and using “Ctrl” to crouch is harder to remember than using, say, “Square” or “B.”

Tara said that at first “it kind of felt like trying to teach a baby how to run before they know how to walk,” and that the whole experience was “a little unnerving for both of us.” So combine the fact that Jaymie was having trouble remembering how to navigate and execute basic actions like using med-packs and reloading, with the technical difficulties they were having with Jaymie's new headset, and the new adventure was off to a rough start.

Tara's advice in this scenario is to “Make time for a tutorial, have a lot of patience, and don't expect to be able to play a PC game with your partner right off the bat. It's a lot like maintaining the relationship; you can't jump right into everything and expect the other person to expect the same things you do.”

The experience also taught Tara something about herself, “I didn't realize until we started playing Left 4 Dead together that I got too competitive. I would get impatient if she fell behind, and I teased her more than she liked. Which she made a point of telling me after a few games we played with other friends.”

But with time and patience, Jaymie eventually got past the learning block, and got to the point where she could take care of herself. Things that used to be frustrating – like getting smacked off the roof of Mercy Hospital by the giant “Tank” zombie – became funny, and she learned how to get in on the jokes and the playful jibes. “Once she grew accustomed to the jokes and gameplay, she'd jump in too. For instance, I always pick Zoey,” (the only female character in Left 4 Dead) “and she would pick Louis, and when Bot-Francis started to heal me, she'd run over and shoot or smack him and say 'Hey, get your hands off of my girl!'"

“Even when our schedules didn't match up and we couldn't play together, it became a part of our daily conversations. She grew enthusiastic about how her stats were improving, all the achievements she received, silly situations she got herself into in-game, and eventually she started bragging about her headshot percentage and things like that, it was pretty impressive. [Left 4 Dead] became a great way for us to bond and have fun when we couldn't see each other.”

mag_two-sver.jpgCase 4:
My Lady is a MAG Medic

My buddy Brendon is a pretty dedicated gamer, and his longtime girlfriend Erin also spends much of her free time gaming. Erin can't come close to his skill level, “But,” he says, “we have a pretty 'verbally open' relationship. If I tell her that she sucks at a game, she will fully admit it,” which negates one of the primary issues facing all the other couples we have looked at. ”I have some friends who I wouldn't be nearly as openly hard on as I am on Erin.”

Brendon and Erin regularly play MAG together (if you're unfamiliar with the game, it is an online-only FPS on the PS3 with up to 256 players in a single battle). Teamwork is everything in MAG, if you don't work well with your eight-soldier squad and listen to your Squad Leader, you are probably going to die – a lot.

Luckily, the game offers various roles and specializations one can take on, including support roles like repair and medic specializations. Since Erin had a really hard time at first keeping up with the hectic pace of the gunfights, and wasn't great at netting kills, she quickly found her niche in a medic and repair-support role.

Eventually, Brendon was able to apply for the role of Squad Leader, and absolutely loved having her on his squad. A dedicated field-support soldier can come in very handy, and might make the difference between getting steamrolled and holding your ground.

“In any game where there might be a heavy skill disparity between players, enabling one player to hang back but still help the team would benefit the game, I think. For all types of games too, and regardless of gender or relationship status. The problems can start to arise when you have games that require two players to be basically equal contributors in the same way,”

But it's not always easy gaming with Erin. “Sometimes – like in Borderlands – I'll be sitting there steaming, and she'll start to laugh. Now, you have a choice there: You can say 'Rawr, why are you laughing!?' or you can go 'You know what? You're right, that was a funny way to die. We just got killed by a giant pterodactyl... Right after you drove us backwards off a cliff four times.”

Sometimes we all get frustrated with games, and Brendon's advice is: “If you do find yourself getting too frustrated in the course of playing a game, just stop, and take a break. I've had to do that with friends as well as girlfriends. In a sense it goes back to a greater problem in gaming that we seem to lose track of sometimes: Games are fun. Now, I can either remember that and act accordingly, or I can be an ***hole about it and it wont be fun for anyone.”

“Sometimes you just have to put down the controller, hug each other, kiss each other, remember that you love each other, and that you're just playing a silly game.”

[Surely some of you out there have anecdotes and advice to share on the subject as well. So feel free to add your two cents below, we'd love to hear it.]