Features & Columns

Dating, Relationships and Gaming

Relationships blossom as more women join role-playing virtual worlds
ROLL OF THE DICE: Michelle and Tony Vargas are part of a growing trend of couples who have met through role-playing games—not those kind.

She was sitting in the foyer of the preschool where she worked, clad in a red cardigan and clutching a paperback copy of For the Love of Evil, the sixth of eight books in a Piers Anthony's fantasy series. Tony Vargas took it as a good omen. Days earlier, his friend beseeched him to invite the pretty blonde bookworm, Michelle, to a Dungeons & Dragons group. Vargas was dungeon master—"DM" in D&D parlance—the one in charge of the game.

"My first reaction was, 'Boy, she's out of my league,'" Vargas says, rattling off details of the encounter with the rhythm of a fable told many times over. "But I managed not to stare when she was looking."

Michelle, who'd dabbled in tabletop fantasy gaming a few times before, agreed to join him for his weekly meet-up. Every week, she came back. But six months passed before she could remember his name. Two years and scores of epic quests later, they married.

"I would say the rest is history, but it's more like a dream come true," says Tony, who recently celebrated his 24th wedding anniversary with the lady in red. "We still game together, obviously."

Over the years, the Vargases saw many others pair up, finding a love connection in the thick of mythical battles between wizards and ogres, witches and grues, fairies and dragons. D&D, which celebrated its 40th birthday this year, has attracted more than 30 million followers—perhaps most notably Vin Diesel, Stephen Colbert and Moby—and generated more than $1 billion in sales from books and accessories. With the renewed popularity of fantasy and superhero movies, role-playing games like D&D and the virtual realities they inspires have drawn a new diverse generation of gamers, many of them women.

"We saw people pair up more often as more women got involved in the scene," says Michelle, 50, who also runs weekly games, including an urban fantasy called the Dresden Files, which puts mythical creatures in modern settings. "We saw couples not just meeting at games, but coming here together for some quality time and friendly competition."

For Tony, 47, the courtship may never have happened without the role-playing game and its legion of spin-offs.

"For me, it's when I'm at my best," he says. "When I'm there, leading the game, I'm the focus. I'm really into it. I'm positive. I'm enthusiastic. I enjoy it. As a serious hobbyist, I can talk about the game with authority. It's much easier to get to know me in that context."

Especially in his younger days.

"Oh, I was painfully shy," Tony says. "Outside of gaming, especially then, I was a morose little nerd who wouldn't want to talk to anyone."

Women are increasingly joining the ranks of online gaming as well, games largely inspired by the mystic medieval universe popularized by D&D, like the massive multi-player game World of Warcraft (WoW). The number of lady gamers embarking on quests in the online world of WoW bumped up from 40 percent of 7.7 million players in 2011 to nearly 50 percent last year, according to Entertainment Software Association, an industry group.

Felysha Sullivan, 26, met her boyfriend, John "Badger" Connolly, 33, in another world before meeting him months later in real life (IRL). She was a tauren—basically a minotaur—and he was a human priest sworn to a warring WoW guild. "Humans and animals can't be in the same guild," Connolly explains.

So he defected to her clan, becoming a high elf priest named Nexstep. Allied, they began to talk, carrying on conversations over their headsets. Hours online inevitably led to non-game-related banter.

"We began to get to know each other pretty well over time," says Connolly. "And since we were on the same team, we had a sense of camaraderie."

They eventually met in Las Vegas, where he lived at the time, for a first date on the Strip. Both were a little nervous to see each other in person, a little gun shy about long-distance relationships.

"We got along, though, face to face and over a distance," Connolly happily reports. Perhaps even better in person than online, considering Sullivan has no problem sharing stories about virtually annihilating her boyfriend. They tease each other about that first beat-down.

"It was an online death match. Randomized," Connolly recounts. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, I'm getting emasculated.'"

Sullivan laughs.

"I get a little competitive," she admits, giving Connolly a sidelong smirk. "He likes it."

Six years later, they still spend a fair amount of time together online as well as over card and role-playing games, like D&D and Magic the Gathering. They host events at their San Jose home.

"It's easier to be in a romantic relationship when your girlfriend is willing to play with you for four hours," Connolly says with a laugh. "You're not checking your phone going, 'Sorry honey, I'll be a while.'"

Though they never ventured into online gaming expecting to find love, looking back it makes sense.

"I never started the game thinking, 'I'll meet the love of my life here,'" Connolly says. "But when you think about it, you know right off the bat you have at least one thing in common."

Every Wednesday evening, for about four hours, the Vargases meet at Illusive Comics & Games in Santa Clara for a couple sessions of D&D role-playing. Tony has been DM for a serial D&D plot called Pixies and Pirates, which puts a sinister twist on classic tales. A Peter Pan storyline, for example, turned Wendy into a vampire and Tinkerbell into an evil fairy. Snow White became an ice witch and the seven friendly dwarves were nefarious deugars, a D&D gnome. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the waters teem with grues.

"I like to take stories that everyone is familiar with and put a weird little spin on them," Vargas says.

About half of the 30-or-so people who populate the comic shop every Wednesday are coupled up. Some met at the gathering, others online or through a friend. About 30 people on a recent evening nibbled on coffee-frosted cupcakes while the DM wrapped up a plot line involving a poetic mushroom-eating troll. Tony and Michelle set up their game board, an image of an ocean and two ships overlaid by a gold grid, on a table outside. Tony wears a straw fedora and strokes his beard while Michelle pulls out an old memento.

"Tony gave this to me for our first Valentine's Day," she says, displaying a dent-riddled pine-green Godiva tin, busted at one hinge. "He's tried to fix it a bunch of times."

The metal box is packed to the brim with multi-colored D&D rollers, including a small handful of her favorite pink and lavender-colored dice, ranging from four to 20 sides.

"Our little treasure box," Michelle says, placing the tin back beside the board, while Tony positions figurines on the parallel ships. "Comes with us every time."