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The Soapbox: Diagnosing and understanding Girlfriend Syndrome

Eliot Lefebvre

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

You see them more often than you probably want to admit. They're remarkably easy to spot, most often lower-level characters dressed in the best possible equipment, limply following behind higher-level characters like some sort of ersatz satellite. When you talk to them, they give short answers before the higher-level characters answer everything. You see them trudging along, going through the motions, but not showing any signs of interest.

You've witnesses someone suffering from Girlfriend Syndrome.

Girlfriend Syndrome is a disease that affects any number of people worldwide, and it is thankfully wholly curable. But in order to cure this debilitating ailment, you have to understand why people suffer from it, what can be done for them, and whether or not in-game euthanasia is really the best option. Girlfriend Syndrome, you see, is not airborne; it's transmitted, willingly, by someone who already has the gaming bug.

No, I've got it, honey.  What do you mean you're not doing anything?  You're here, right?Despite the name, Girlfriend Syndrome can be caught by anyone. All you need to be infected is a loved one who is really into a game that can be played cooperatively, which frequently means MMOs. If you suggest to your loved one that you wish to spend more time together, said loved one may very well suggest that you start playing the game, likely offering to help you get all of the best equipment and do all the hardest quests.

Of course, many of the people reading this article would think nothing of this and would happily give the game a try. That alone doesn't cause Girlfriend Syndrome. What brings about that unpleasant state of affairs is generally a combination of three factors.

1. Lacking interest in the game. Sufferers of Girlfriend Syndrome are not terribly enthusiastic about playing the game. They just want to spend time with someone -- for the purposes of this article, let's call him "Phil" -- and think this is the easiest way to do so without prompting any arguments. Phil is the one who actually enjoys DC Universe Online, while at best you don't specifically dislike it.

2. Outclassed in every game-relevant way. Even if you don't normally like video games, you might be able to find your way into liking the game by playing with Phil, except that Phil and you can't play together. Phil is playing a level 85 Death Knight in World of Warcraft and you're struggling to get your Gnome to level 10. Your interactions with Phil are limited to Phil running you through dungeons and getting you armor, treating you in much the same way that you would treat a younger brother or particularly bright dog.

3. Treated as a satellite. Phil introduces you to his friends, but he doesn't introduce you by your name. He introduces you as "This is my girlfriend." (Or brother, or sister, or parent, or parole officer. You get the idea.) You are being defined entirely by your relationship to Phil, not by any of your achievements or qualities or anything. Not that you have any in-game achievements to be proud of in the first place, since all of them consisted of Phil doing things for you.

This is what leads to Girlfriend Syndrome. You're denied any opportunity to get invested in the game because the whole game is essentially being handed to you by Phil, and as a result, you develop no connection to anything within the game beyond the connection you already had to Phil. Rather than showing you what he loves about the game, you're being shown all of the notes with none of the actual music.

If you're an achiever, you can't achieve. If you're a killer, you can't fight. If you're an explorer, you can't explore. And you certainly can't socialize beyond the sphere that Phil has created for you. You don't even get the usual chance that players have to determine whether the game is fun or not because Phil has inadvertently created a bubble of the game surrounding you and him and not letting you go nearly off the rails enough.

Okay, so our plan for this fight is that you stand back and don't get in my way at all, just like every other fight.  Sound good?So what can be done for this? More often than not, Girlfriend Syndrome festers and continues until one party or the other finally erupts in anger, which isn't pleasant for either party. Proper treatment, however, is eminently possible, requiring actions on the part of both parties. But as the source of the disease, Phil is critical to the start of proper treatment, which involves letting go.

Phil, fundamentally, wants to show off a game that he finds really fun. He's afraid to let the sufferer of Girlfriend Syndrome encounter the parts that aren't really fun out of fear that it would kill the enjoyment of the game. But you can't make someone like a game by insulating her from any sense of penalty. You have to let the person in question play the game.

The best thing Phil can do is make a new character and do his level best to level alongside someone he's introducing to the game -- and that means leveling straight, without all of the assets that Phil's higher character enjoys. That means meeting new people, playing through the game, and generally playing the game as if for the first time.

Meanwhile, the sufferer of Girlfriend Syndrome needs to take the initiative to do things independently, and quite frankly, to make mistakes. After growing accustomed to a Phil-shaped safety net, the afflicted partner might find it hard to actually engage in something that might be dangerous or challenging, but that's the stuff that's actually going to sell the game in the first place. If you suffer from Girlfriend Syndrome, you need to get used to actually playing the game completely on your own, enjoying it without Phil's presence.

Implemented correctly, this treatment will lead to you enjoying the game on its own merits... or determining that you aren't actually that fond of the gameplay and stopping, which is also entirely fair. It might be that you don't actually enjoy the game after all, even when you don't have Phil looking over your shoulder at all times. That's also fine. Not every game is for every player, after all.

More than anything, it's important to recognize that Girlfriend Syndrome is a real problem that affects real people. It creates an unfun environment for both players because the sufferer can't enjoy or even really play the game, and the Phil of the situation can't understand why the sufferer isn't having fun. Advancing knowledge and treatment is the best way to counteract this non-lethal but seriously unpleasant set of circumstances.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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