Some people might think it odd to find a soul mate in a place where hunting orcs, battling villains or zipping around in hover cars are the day's primary activities.
Chris Edwards is not one of them. He met his wife Alayne in the virtual world "Second Life," a game in which players design and build almost any reality they can conceive.
"We'd both been in chat rooms before, but (there was so much) extra depth in 'Second Life,'" said Edwards. "It lets you explore other people's creativity, and that was something that really attracted us to each other. She was experimenting with building plants and flowers and trees, and that was really neat, because I hadn't built anything organic."
Edwards is one of a surprising number of people who have found their long-term Valentines in online games and metaverses like "EverQuest," "City of Heroes" or "Second Life."
Such virtual worlds are 3D digital environments where large numbers of people interact, regardless of where they are geographically. Some of these worlds focus on players reaching specific goals, such as completing quests or slaying monsters, while others leave players to do whatever their imaginations lead them to. Ultimately, though, the games revolve around socialisation, allowing people to meet and learn about each other in the context of creative play.
To be sure, not every virtual-world romantic interlude ends up at the altar. In some cases, not surprisingly, players have used the environments to stalk would-be paramours, and tales of nasty breakups are common. But because the games give players so much latitude to become acquainted with others' imaginations and sense of play, they can be a natural place for gauging what it might be like to spend significant time with someone in the real world.
For Edwards, a 36-year-old game designer in Harrogate, England, and his wife, Alayne Wartell, "Second Life" provided a forum where the two, then living across the Atlantic Ocean from each other, could discover a wide range of mutual interests.
They met in the game, Edwards said, because they owned adjacent land, and they began to trek to each other's properties to see what the other was working on.
One of the things Edwards built in his house, he explained, was a floating brain in a jar -- along with tinted windows and a swimming pool that appeared in the floor. "Alayne just came over (sometimes) on the pretense of saying hello to my ... brain in the jar," Edward said. "We always say we fell in love over my brains."
Soon, the couple began to court. They borrowed some friends' private resort -- a digital property in "Second Life" -- and spent a virtual romantic evening together.Romance amid the sunken galleons
"We took a date wandering around their lovely gardens and had nice walks through the wooded areas," he said. "There were sunken galleons, and they'd even set out virtual food for us: a candlelit dinner on the veranda."
Edwards visited Wartell at her home in Philadelphia, and before long, the two decided to marry. Wartell, now 41, agreed to move to England.
But virtual worlds are also a place for couples to explore and expand existing relationships.
The story of Jeff Ruggieri, of Cranston, R.I., and his fiance is a story a marketing executive would have to love.
About a year after they began playing NCSoft's "City of Heroes," an online game in which players take on the roles of superheroes fighting villainy, Ruggieri and his girlfriend found themselves prowling around in the game one day.
They were sitting next to each other in real life, and at one point, she asked him not to look at her screen. "Finally, she says, 'OK, you can look now,' and I look at the computer ... and she had her character kneel down and she just proposed to me," Ruggieri recalled. "Of course I said yes to her in-game and turned to her and said yes in real life."
Now Ruggieri and his fiance are planning their real-life wedding, but at the urging of a lot of friends in the "City of Heroes" community, they're planning in-world nuptials as well.
"Once the 'City of Heroes' community found out about how we got engaged in-game," he said, "they all started begging that we have an in-game marriage. So we'll eventually have some sort of in-game ceremony as well."
To Alan Crosby, the global director of community relations at Sony Online Entertainment, which publishes such online hits as "EverQuest" and "Star Wars Galaxies," in-world ceremonies have been a frequent part of his job.
Crosby, who used to be a senior SOE game master, said he had been a part of at least 20 such ceremonies and that he and his staff were often called on to officiate.
"We'll bring (digital) wedding rings, cookies, milk, ale and wedding cake," Crosby said about the many ceremonies he's seen in "EverQuest." "Usually, we have them in a nice, scenic area. If they were evil (characters), you would often have them in Neriak, the dark elf city. And if they were good ... somewhere nice with a waterfall ... Then we would pronounce them happily elves or trolls or whatever."
Indeed, Crosby said many of the weddings he remembers involved at least one elf, and often two elves marrying each other. "My personal hunch," he explained, "is that a lot of romantics play elves, and they tend to marry other elves."
"Second Life" community manager Jeska Dzwigalski has seen an infinite number of oddball characters getting married in-world, so many that she has put together a mass wedding that will take place on Valentine's Day. She has gathered 10 couples who will take the plunge at a cathedral that was commissioned specifically for the occasion.
"We will probably have same-sex couples," she said. "And the gender of the real person (behind the avatar) is, of course, unknown. So that's an interesting thing, and it doesn't matter to us. It's kind of neat."
With so many couples using virtual worlds as a place to explore love, a lot of the virtual weddings involve couples with no real-world connection. But some, like the one Ruggieri and his fiance are planning, are about an extension of true love.
To Crosby, those are often the most memorable.
"Because you knew that they had already done this in real life, or were going to ... it had some special meaning," Crosby said. "When two characters get married in-game, but not in real life, they're just goofing around. But it's really special when they're married in real life and they bring that attachment into the game world."