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Feeling Lonely? Wearing Cat Ears May Help

The first time I met Jessica in person was when she walked out of the sliding doors of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport wearing …

The first time I met Jessica in person was when she walked out of the sliding doors of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport wearing a flowing skirt, beaded necklaces and a paper bag over her head.

My first words to her were: “Jessica! Why do you have a bag over your head?”

Our first encounter had been a year earlier, on a white stone plaza overlooking the ocean under a cloudless sky, but there was no smell of saltwater, no ocean breeze. We met as avatars in Final Fantasy XIV, a multiplayer online role-playing game.

She was new to town and seemed a little lost, so I teleported to her location and asked if I could help.

Her name was Zutki; mine was Nabian. We were both Miqo’te, a “race” of people with cat ears and furry tails. Online, we felt so close, but in the real world we were 2,000 miles apart, I in Minneapolis and she in Miami.

Massively multiplayer online games, or M.M.O.s, involve virtual worlds populated by thousands of avatars that are controlled by real people. (You’ve probably heard of World of Warcraft, one of the longest running.) Unlike traditional video games, these are more like second lives: always changing, still ongoing even after a player logs off and primarily social, team-oriented experiences.

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These days, when people ask how Jess and I met, I say “online,” but I always feel a little sheepish about it. We hadn’t connected on a dating app, as most people would assume. At Christmas, I had hoped to get away with telling my family we had found each other on the internet.

“What website?” my mother asked.

“I’ll tell you later,” I said.

Online dating may have lost its stigma, but I wasn’t quite sure how to explain that meeting online for us meant as moon-eyed, cat-eared creatures on the shores of Limsa Lominsa while gaming on PlayStation 4.

Although, as I see it, meeting in an M.M.O. is actually more like meeting in real life than using a dating app. You’re not judged by a profile designed to present your best traits. There’s more room to be yourself, to meet someone by chance.

The most obvious advantage of meeting in an M.M.O. is discovering a shared interest from the outset. With that comes many possible related interests: other games, fantasy and science-fiction, and in the case of Final Fantasy, Japanese culture and anime.

And there’s another benefit: To succeed in the game, players must work together to overcome difficult challenges. It’s easy to get a sense of how well someone adjusts to the team, how selfless or selfish they are, and their communication skills.

As Zutki and Nabian, Jess and I went on many adventures before things got personal: We explored dungeons, fought monsters, raced Chocobos (large, chicken-like birds). It wasn’t romantic; we just enjoyed each other’s company. She made me laugh by talking like a pirate: “Want to do this quest?” “Yar!” We would dress our characters in ridiculous outfits — heavy-metal armor with sunglasses and sandals — and dance on the beach.

When she and I met in-game, I had recently broken up with a partner of three years and was living by myself, lonely and depressed. It felt good to laugh with someone, even if the person was an anonymous player, someone I hadn’t seen or even heard.

In fact, it was months before I heard Jess’s voice. The first time we spoke was over a gaming chat service. A user name popped into the channel, and I waited for her to find a working microphone.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hello,” she said with a slight accent that surprised me. You don’t always think about how a person’s voice sounds when reading a text channel. Aside from a few typed Spanish words, there was little indication that she was, in fact, a native Spanish speaker. I enjoyed peeling back those layers of identity more than having them posted on the front page of a user profile.

There was a moment, months after we’d met as Zutki and Nabian, when our characters found themselves wandering the upper decks of a city by the sea, sitting at a table overlooking the harbor. We were typing private messages; she was telling me about how her mother raised three children on her own, how her father was estranged from the family and often in legal trouble.

As I sat in my chair watching our avatars on the screen, I realized that I was on a date. But unlike a real date, I didn’t have to worry about body language, clothes or coming up with a quick reply. Instead, I was sitting in my pajamas, thoughtfully typing each response.

Eventually, we started texting each other outside the game, which changed everything. Before, our interactions had been limited to the time that both of our avatars were online. When one of us logged off, our avatar disappeared and could not be reached until it was logged back in. The best we could do was send virtual letters to each other to receive the next time we were on.

Now, being able to text, we were connected all the time. Having already spent countless hours together in the virtual world, we knew we were close in age. The first real clue that she was interested in me as more than a gaming friend came soon after we started texting.

I was lying on the couch one evening when my phone buzzed with a message from her: “How tall are you?”

“Five-nine,” I typed. “Why?”

“I’m tall for a lady.”

I learned two things then — that she’s five-foot-eight, and she prefers men taller than she is.

Not long after, we shared pictures of ourselves.

After nearly 18 months of online communication, we decided to meet in person, or as we sometimes called it, “the real-life server.” She bought a plane ticket to Minneapolis. As I anticipated her arrival, I was riddled with anxiety. What if she’s totally different in person? What if we aren’t even attracted to each other? And even if we are, what’s the feasibility of dating someone so far away? How can I possibly explain this to my family?

She was worried too. On the phone, she said, “I’m fat and ugly.”

“I’m bald and skinny,” I said.

“What if you can’t stand my stupid face?” she said.

“I’ll just put a bag over your head,” I said, “and pretend you’re Zutki.”

On the day of her arrival, she emerged from the airport with an actual paper bag over her head, shuffling forward blindly. Passers-by glanced at her incredulously as I became embarrassed by the scene she was causing.

But when she pulled off the bag, I relaxed. There was my moon-eyed, cat-tailed gaming partner, except in real life she was the woman I had seen in pictures: a fair-skinned, dark-haired Latina with a sunflower tattoo on her collarbone.

A year later, after a few more visits, she moved from Miami to Minneapolis to live with me. Our first year together wasn’t easy; we experienced all the fights and claustrophobia you don’t in the virtual world, where the stresses of cohabitation don’t exist.

In a way, I got to know the same person twice. The first time, I got to know the person behind the avatar, but always in the context of the game: someone who greeted other players with an animated hug, who would sit for hours just chatting with online friends about their real-life problems. But getting to know her in person revealed the woman who volunteers at animal shelters, insists on cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family, plays the guitar, sings and writes music.

The longer we live together, the less time we spend together in-game. Sometimes I almost forget about that day Zutki and Nabian met by the pixelated sea. And that’s OK. I prefer thinking about Jess and Erik and the memories we’ve made in the real world.

We got married in Miami last February, just weeks before the pandemic made M.M.O.s among the safest places to gather in large groups. The day after the ceremony, we took a long walk on Miami Beach, which was refreshingly breezy and unpixelated.

Erik DeLapp is an instructor in the English department at Hennepin Technical College in Minneapolis, Minn.

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