They met in an online video game. Today they are living happily ever avatar.
She was a government foreign policy analyst in Argentina who cast magic spells to defend against the dark powers.
He was a computer animator in Pennsylvania and skilled in the use of mace, sword and shield to protect the vulnerable from enemy attacks.
Wearing headsets and clenching controllers, Yanina Remersaro and Scott Ellwanger were two of roughly a dozen playing “Lord of the Rings Online.”
The only ring either was interested in was the one forged by the Dark Lord Sauron.
During the online quests and campaigns, Remersaro found one voice — belonging to a guardian named Abidan — always caught her attention amidst the typically loud and fast banter of players strategizing.
She remembers thinking, I could listen to that voice for the rest of my life.
“He was the only one I had to strain to hear what he was saying,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh now wait, the quiet guy is talking."
In a world where a constellation of new and ever-evolving dating apps promise long beach walks, intimate conversations and soulmates, the online gaming community has long been one step ahead, forging lasting relationships, including marriage.
With zero romantic expectations, gamers are free to develop deep connections through shared experiences among a pool of more than one million active daily players worldwide, depending on the game.
A sense of accomplishment
As an 8-year-old growing up in Argentina in the late 1990s, her computer teacher introduced Remersaro to video games when he lent her a CD game called “Twins Odyssey.”
Soon she was playing whatever games she could get her hands on: “Tetris,” “Highlander,” “Super Mario,” “Zelda.” Consoles and personal computers.
“The thing with video games and especially back then, they were hard for us as kids,” Remersaro said. “So you would spend many, many hours just trying to reach that one level. It was a sense of accomplishment that was outside your chores as a kid.”
Growing up in Bucks County, Ellwanger remembers playing Nintendo and Sega as a preschooler, sparking his lifelong love of video games. Like Remersaro, he considered himself a social introvert, so it makes sense that video games became a primary recreational outlet.
“It’s a nice way to socialize more and you can do it at home. There’s always people on anytime you want," Ellwanger said.
He was in college in 2004 when one of the first uber popular massive multiplayer online games, “World of Warcraft,” was released. He was immediately tempted.
“I knew if I started playing that I would not want to do anything else, but play it. So I’m like, I better not even touch it until I’m finished college,” he said.
Like her future husband, Remersaro also didn’t get into online multiplayer games until the final year of her Master’s program in 2013, when she logged into “Lord of the Rings Online.”
At that point, Ellwanger had been playing the game for six years.
“Lord of the Rings” is a role-playing game where players control character avatars that interact with objects, non-player characters and other players. Players communicate using in-game voice and text chat channels. They accumulate points and advance by earning experience, acquiring new skills and traits. Members of a kinship or fellowship can send and receive private instant messages.
For the three years, Remersaro did not attach her avatar,“LaurelinArien,” to any one group of players that come together for a common long term purpose in the game, “because I’m always alone.”
One day in 2016, though, she was hanging out in the game’s virtual world when the leader of a kinship messaged her. Would she be interested in joining a fellowship, which is a temporary group created for a quest?
Afterward, Remersaro was invited to join the small kinship.
Ellwanger was not playing the day Remersaro joined the group, but he was introduced at the next game.
After a while, "LaurelinArien" and "Abidan" found themselves pairing up for missions and quests. They learned they had a lot of things in common.
They preferred solitude to socializing and considered themselves homebodies. They also shared a preference for strategy-based games, the fantasy genre, and competing against a game’s artificial intelligence rather than other online players.
After Ellwanger unexpectedly didn’t log on for several nights in a row, Remersaro found herself missing him and worried about where he was and why he wasn’t playing.
As more time passed, they started teaming up in other multiplayer game spaces, which led to them spending more time talking outside of the game world.
“I rubbed off on him,” Remersaro said.
Co-workers started teasing Remersaro about her rushing home at quitting time every night to be with her virtual boyfriend.
After work the couple logged into an online voice chat platform where they talked for hours. Though 5,000 miles and one time zone apart, they ate dinner together, and watched TV or movies while connected through voice chat.
They were playing “World of Warcraft” when Ellwanger said something to her — she doesn’t remember what now — but it made her wonder: Could he like me the same way I like him, which was more than just a gaming buddy?
In 2018, Remersaro learned her boss picked her for a two-week ,work-related training in Massachusetts. She let Ellwanger know about the trip and mentioned that she had one free weekend, if, you know, he wanted to meet in person.
Ellwanger immediately arranged to meet Remersaro at a train station in New Jersey. She took the Vermonter from Northampton, Mass. to Trenton. (She still has the ticket.) By that point in their relationship, they had exchanged photos.
Afterward they went to Ellwanger’s apartment in Fairless Hills where he made her a lamb dinner. (Yes, he is a great cook, she said.)
The next year she made her second visit to the U.S. and she and Ellwanger visited Disneyland. A third U.S. vacation was planned for 2020, until COVID-19 happened, canceling it.
But the pandemic lockdowns inspired the couple to start making more permanent arrangements.
Research shows online gaming builds core relationship skills?
Love stories like Remersaro and Ellwanger don’t surprise social scientists.
Available research suggests that online gaming appears to develop and strengthen the interpersonal communication skills that are the bedrock of strong, lasting personal connections. Problem-solving, conflict resolution, listening, negotiation and collaboration are the qualities players routinely practice.
“They have a heightened sense of accomplishment that they can share with the individual,” said Alicia Figliuolo, director of education and training for Geek Therapeutics. “You are in a space that is unique to your hobby and the person in that space understands your hobby.”
The opportunity for in-gaming socializing among players is also vast.
The number of players at any one time depends on the servers. Small servers typically have 300 to 400 players, but it is broken down into smaller groups of maybe a dozen or two players. The massive multiplayer games can have up to 1,500 people playing simultaneously.
Studies and industry surveys have found evidence that the common stereotype of video gamers as antisocial introverted loners is a misnomer. A high percentage of players report more success meeting people through interactive gaming than in-person activities.
A 2020 survey of 500 gamers using in-game chat functions found 67% reported forming a relationship with another player they met gaming including a casual friendship or dating and 8% reported meeting a spouse in a game.
In the United Kingdom, 60% of 1,000 amateur gamers surveyed in 2021 admitted they met a significant other in an online game. More than one-third said they’d prefer meeting a romantic partner through a video game than a dating app.
Relationship experts believe that online role-playing games like "Lord of the Rings," where players create character avatars, can boost self-confidence, imagination and leadership. They are skills players can apply in their offline lives.
Interactive multiplayer games also force players to find ways to effectively communicate needs and wants with others without the benefit of facial expressions, body language and other social cues, said Figliuolo.
The way someone plays a game can also reveal insight into their personality and compatibility with others, she said.
Most people play video games in a space where they are comfortable, reducing the stress of social situations some people may feel. In a relaxed state, a person feels more open to expressing themselves in ways they otherwise might not feel comfortable doing in a face-to-face situation because of fear of judgment, Figliuolo added.
Gaming also provides players a sense of community belonging and team-building. They are encouraged to use imagination and critical thinking skills to strategy.
The Happily Ever Avatar
Once the COVID-19 government lockdowns went into place, Remersaro and Ellwanger decided they could not remain 5,000 miles apart. The separation was made worse when Remersaro lost her father in early 2020.
“We were both pretty distraught,” Remersaro said. ”Back then I remember thinking, well, what if this keeps happening? They opened flights for like three months and then BAM and again they closed. It's like when am I gonna see you again? Like never?”
The timing seemed right to start planning their happily ever avatar.
“The only way to make sure was to get you here permanently,” Ellwanger said.
His proposal was less than romantic, he admitted. He asked her to marry him in an online chat. He popped the question without offering a ring for practical reasons, Ellwanger said.
“There’s a lot of things that can go wrong with a surprise ring,” he said. “So I’m like, you just pick one out with me and we’ll get one that you like."
While Remersaro did not hide her online romance from her family, Ellwanger was more mysterious.
His brother had played online with the couple a few times, so he knew about the relationship. As a wedding present he bought the couple a fleece blanket with a map of Middle-Earth, the ancient mythical land in “Lord Of The Rings.”
As for his parents, Ellwanger said he waited until the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services paperwork was finalized before he told them. Yes, he added, it was a surprise.
“I kind of landed on their laps,” Remersaro said.
During the immigration interviews, Ellwanger remembers he was nervous wondering if the agents would believe how he and Remersaro met. The agent told the couple that he often was assigned the interviews involving international couples through online gaming.
He handled the paperwork for at least three marriages where the couples met in "Lord of the Rings," Ellwanger said he was told.
The couple were married in a Zoom video call in August, 2021 (they were still observing social-distancing protocols, Ellwanger said.) Afterward, Ellwanger made his famous tortellini with sausage and mushroom sauce for lunch. Then, they played video games.
To celebrate their first anniversary, Ellwanger cooked the wedding day lunch. He also bought Remersaro chocolates.
They still play video games together including "Lord of the Rings," and even announced the engagement of their avatars in the game. There is no function for an in-game wedding ceremony, though there is an option for selecting the same character surname, they said.
The couple is planning a trip later this year to Argentina where Ellwanger will meet his in-laws IRL (that's in real life).
When people find out how the couple met, there are always a lot of questions. Everyone is interested, but Remersaro said that she feels people don't really understands it.
“They can’t picture it at all,” she said. “My ex-boss used to tell me every time I would rush home, he’d be like, “You talk to that man more than I talk to my wife.”
But the couple credit the ability of their relationship to evolve, despite physical distance, from teammates to friendship, romance and then marriage to the game, which forced them to learn how to talk to each other.
"I’m not saying that we didn’t make mistakes,” Remersaro said. “We had to learn to communicate for the relationship to progress. There was no other option. So if he was mad at me or I’m mad at him, you can’t just show up or bring ice cream or take someone somewhere. There is no other gesture, really.”
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Online gaming leads to love, marriage for Bucks County couple