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Breaking "the Rules": Finding Love in the Digital Age

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When it comes to love, "the rules" have changed.

Over the last few months, I've seen a slew of articles on the decline of marriage, laying out a spread of solid reasons why the age old institution is disappearing: It seems everything has been named as a factor, from gender roles and education, to washing machines and the economy.

The truth is, I didn't need a magazine article to tell me that this was the case. As a professional woman on the brink of turning 30, most of my best friends and colleagues are single.

This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone; in many ways we were raised to be single. Our generation was taught that independence was the gold standard. As children we were rewarded for finishing projects by ourselves, and now that we've grown into adults, we know how to look out for number one. That's all good and fine, except that it's not enough to make us happy.

Marilyn Monroe once remarked, "A career is wonderful, but you can't curl up with it on a cold night", and say what you will, those are words of wisdom coming from a woman whose career success made her an iconic legend. Even though we were raised to be autonomous, we all still have the desire to share our lives. Thanks to smart phones, wireless Internet and social media, we're more connected than ever... but we just can't seem to really connect.

And that disconnect isn't limited to marriage. Community has been in a decline for a long time. In what has become something of a social-media-maker's bible, Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam talks about the collapse of community since the 1950s. In the era of family values, everyone got cars and TV's and moved to the suburbs. But as our lives became more comfortable, we lost the human connection to our neighbors. For the decades that followed, there was a steady decline in face-to-face activity, from bowling leagues to bake sales.

As our technologies advanced, so did the pace of our lives, and that had implications on everything from politics, to community, to love.

It all starts sounding very depressing... and lonely. But fear not, the future looks bright. You see, we want to connect... and not just to technology, to each other. We may not be bowling, but we are finding each other in new ways. Facebook, Twitter, video games: Our tools are evolving but our needs remain the same. We still need roofs over our heads and food in our stomachs, and we still long to be loved for who we are. Somewhere along the way, we may have lost that primal, tribal sense of identity and belonging in real life, but now we're fulfilling our human needs to connect with one another in the digital realm.

Having been introduced to the game-culture beat while working as an interactive producer for Digital Nation, what struck me most was the incredible sense of camaraderie amongst gaming communities. It was quite literally, a life changing experience for me, when I first attended Blizzcon, the annual video game convention in California. Thirty-thousand people converged on the Anaheim Convention Center, dressed as their avatars come to life, and no one was alone. People had traveled across the country to meet up with online friends, and happy couples walked hand in hand. This massive gathering was nothing like the mainstream media images of solitary, anti-social players. Not only were people finding friends, they were forming strong bonds with other players, based on shared virtual experiences.

I couldn't shake the feeling that this community was onto something, and I wanted to see for myself how games like World of Warcraft foster loyal community, trust and collaboration. So I decided to join the billion other people playing online games, and delve head first into the rugged digital terrain of World of Warcraft, in search of human connections and real-world wisdom. I logged in, created an avatar and started playing.

Over the course of my journey into the game world, and the trials and tribulations of virtual crushes and hardware malfunctions, I gained a vault of knowledge about myself, and about perseverance, communication, and relationships. My avatar is a healer, and early on I realized that to be successful in the game I needed to find a partner with complimentary skills, a hunter. Leveling up through the massive virtual world together, we quickly became a symbiotic unit. My "game guide" protected me from attack, and in return, I healed him when he got hurt. That, to me, was the essence of the experience and the essence of what has been lost by so many of us in real life. As Arianna Huffington said in her recent keynote address to the WE Festival in New York, "We all need someone in our tribe."

It all sounds so simple but it's hard to ask for help, to allow ourselves to trust another person. It took just a few hours of playing for me to learn lesson number one: If I wanted to survive in the game, I couldn't do everything alone. And that perhaps the "gold standard" of self-sufficiency we've been living by in real life, is in fact a myth. By allowing ourselves to be reliant on others, we can share not only the burden, but the bounty.

The irony in all of this, of course, is that while much of the dynamics of real world courtship have evolved into game playing, video games are evolving into an increasingly immersive medium in which we can learn to foster our best selves, meet friends, and find out what we're looking for in a sustainable partnership. By learning the rules of the game we can arm ourselves with a new set of skills to find real-world happiness, and "level up" in real life... and possibly even, in love.

Ramona Pringle is the host and producer of "rdigitalife", an online series examining the evolving relationship between humanity and technology. She is part of the new media faculty at Ryerson University and runs a boutique multiplatform production company.

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