Did I have a boyfriend in middle school? Yes I did. A very serious one, in fact. We would just hang out outside school where the teachers would not see us. Not the theatre; it’s too adult. Not the playground; we would get caught by my mom and that would be embarrassing. And no, not at the mall; mall was not a thing in suburban Seoul. A tween like me had a busy life; you had to go to school, and after a short break in the afternoon, you headed off to another private-class session that would normally end around 10 pm. If you wanted a relationship, you would either have to occasionally skip these classes, which I never imagined doing, or date online. My boyfriend and I would hang out inside Mabinogi.
Mabinogi is a niche Korean MMORPG, massively multiplayer online role-playing game, vaguely based around the Celtic mythology. And emphasis on vaguely; one of the imaginary towns is called Tir Chonaill, now Donegal in Northern Ireland, while another town right next to it on the map is Dumbarton, a very real place located near Glasgow which is very not close to Donegal.
The title of the game means ‘stories’ in Gaelic, but in Korean, it is reminiscent of the word ‘to paralyse.’ And that was exactly what my parents were concerned about. Launched in 2004, when I was barely eight years old, Mabinogi reached my circle of friends circa 2005. The game was in 3D, unlike many other 2D RPG games at the time, and encouraged freedom amongst players. If you preferred fighting monsters, you could spend the entire game time clearing dungeons. If you wanted to be a musician, you could compose your own music and play it in front of other players in the square or in the church. If you wanted to be a fashion designer, you could learn to spin and weave and enter your designs into competitions. There was a housing market where you could sell and buy properties, if you had the means. You could sign yourself to guilds. It was so immersive. The first thing I would do after school was to log onto Mabinogi and the first thing that I would talk about with my friends at school the next day was Mabinogi.
While I was leading a fantasy life career as an archer and wizard with a passion for cooking, I got a boyfriend in real life. Both of us liked playing games. In fact, it was also in-game that I wooed him. We played another game before we started dating, called TalesRunner. The title is pretty self-explanatory: you run like hell inside a map that is loosely based on Korean fairy tales. It was a one-off play-by-play type of game, so although it was fun to play with a group of friends, it was never as immersive as Mabinogi.
Unlike TalesRunner, Mabinogi was just for me and my boyfriend, with no other friends playing alongside us. Perhaps because of this, the game somehow made our relationship feel a bit more mature. With just us, we could talk about our feelings and have more intimate conversations over a campfire. Strangely, the more melodramatic we became online, the less contact we had in real life. It was almost as if the real thirteen-year-old us were embarrassed about being in a ‘mature’ relationship. By the end of the first year of our online relationship, we were barely saying Hi in the hallway.
The game itself is also a more ‘adult’ game, as it requires more responsibility to grow your character. When I introduced my boyfriend to the game, one of the first things I taught him was how to make money other than slaying monsters. One of the best gigs you could get as a newbie was at a church in Tir Chonaill and your mission was to deliver ten eggs (unbroken) to the pretty nun who will then give you five Blessing Potions in return. You would then sell these to wealthier players who haven’t got the time to do part-time jobs.
The ways to invest and flaunt your wealth were diverse in the game. These well-off players had houses in the outskirts of Tir Chonaill, just before you reach the bountiful city of Dumbarton. They also never wore clothes off-the-rack; their clothes were always colour-coded in all-black, all-white, black and red, or, the most coveted black and white, also known as ‘cookies-and-cream’ to players like me. To get the correct colour a player had to have enough resources to get enough rare-colour pigment ampoules to dye the already expensive clothes. This not only required Gold, but also social connections you could build only by spending enough time in your guild. These players would leave their characters standing still, like statues, in front of the Dumbarton square to show off their outfits.
Despite being developed mostly by men for men (initially), the game always had intricately-designed fashion items. They were both coveted by young female players like myself who wanted to see their characters fight monsters in cute mini-skirts, as well as male players who wanted to see their girl avatars in scantily-clad outfits. In all honesty, curiosity would get me too and I would also occasionally pivot the camera to see upwards from the ground to see what underwear my character was wearing.
I should say that the game was age restricted as ten years old and up. As a tween, I didn’t understand why, but thinking back on it, it might have been because the girl avatars had unrealistic bodies, to say the least. The age of the characters ranges from ten to seventeen, and the female avatars, created by mostly-male developers, always had fully-developed, gravity-defying breasts. I wasn’t offended; I was rather glad to see my ten-year-old character pull off outfits that my thirteen-year-old body never could.
In addition to the game’s social-financial aspect and provocative illustrations, I also felt that I was a ‘proper girl’ next to my boyfriend because I was a worse player than he was. In TalesRunner, I was as good as he was, sometimes better. When we switched to Mabinogi, he caught on so quickly that about six months in, he was a stronger character than the character I had invested four years of my tween life in. His character was robust and good at close range combat, whereas I was a pale elf with mediocre archery and magic skills. I would roam around behind him in dungeons and let him do the hard work. In real life, I was a tomboy who would get into physical fights with boys if they crossed me. Inside the game, it felt nice to be ridden around on a horse without having to click my mouse.
By trading off more Blessing Potions and slaying more monsters than I ever could, he also became wealthier than me. One day, we met around the Dumbarton square where I was window shopping as usual. I was looking at one particular item, a ‘Valencia Military School Uniform (Short Type)’ in red and black. It was a dress you occasionally get by killing a Giant Black Spider, if you were lucky. It also caused quite a controversy because for a military uniform, the skirt was short and had garter belts that served no use in a bloody battle (the game developers eventually added underpants to this item). Anyhow, I could never afford it because the metal chestplate was what made it hard to dye and thus expensive.
what were you doing
i was looking at some clothes
the red and black one
A few seconds later, I get a message in the game system.
bluepaperairplane1219 wants to trade with you
He drops the Uniform into the box and ends the transaction. I had been drooling over the dress for four years and it was suddenly mine.
Over time, my boyfriend became more immersed in the game but spent less time with me. But the gifts kept coming. Another obscure feature of Mabinogi was you could embed a Spirit in your weapon of choice. I got one in a bow that was dyed white. In return for adding an extra bit of strength, your Spirit will demand every ten minutes you feed it rubies, sapphires and diamonds. For a period of time, I would invest the majority of my game time in the beach of Iria harvesting for gems with a sieve. If my boyfriend wanted to hang out with me, he would buy a bunch of gems for me so I could stop my labour for the day.
I eventually had one of these gems on my finger. Few people from my guild were getting married to each other (some people for fun, some in real relationships, some in in-game relationships that would turn into real relationships). They had their ceremonies at a grand church in a city called Eamhain Mhacha, named after the ancient capital of the Ulaid Kingdom in north-eastern Ireland. Having attended one of these, I became envious and slowly coerced my boyfriend into having a ceremony of our own. Like in real life, the wedding was expensive and it also cost money to register ourselves as a couple. And like in real life, we got a certain title (Wife to bluepaperairplane1219) and had synergy when we engaged in battles together.
I was quite pleased when we got married, but my boyfriend didn’t seem so enthused. Perhaps it was because he had to use a lot of his Gold. Soon after, our relationship fizzled and I lost touch with him as we advanced into high school. We never talked about it, so I have no idea how he felt during that time. Did he feel used? Or did he feel like a ‘proper man’ too, buying gifts and paying for a wedding party for his wife?
Even after he left, I kept on playing the game; it was my game after all. As the game became more deserted and even fewer girls were online, and as I became older, a pattern became apparent to me. Gamer men in their late twenties and thirties were happy to find out that there was a young woman behind their screen and happy to share their resources, whether it be clothes, useful items or information. And even better if she was a slightly worse player than they were. Men would reprimand me for ‘not playing the game right’ and in return, I would get something nice from time to time.
I don’t think I would have let these men shower me with backhanded compliments and free stuff in real life. Maybe I was indulging these boys and men because I knew that there wouldn’t have been real life repercussions. I considered myself to have too much self-respect for sexist pampering in real life; my friends would not have believed that I was leading a double life online.
I haven’t logged into my Mabinogi account in about six years. I lost touch with my fantasy life over the years to pursue a real life career. Instead of getting ridden around on a horse, I walk with my two legs to the library and gather my own food at the grocery store. I have also started dating a real person in real life since I left the game.
My real life boyfriend is four years younger than me, in his early twenties, and in the beginning of our relationship, more often than not I’d be the one paying for things. I liked the feeling of treating someone I adore. In the first summer into our relationship, I noticed his wallet was quite literally disintegrating and, part out of love and part out of second-hand embarrassment, I bought him a new wallet from Maison Margiela in Milan. I asked him a couple of times if he’d mentioned it to his friends or if they’d noticed it.
Our dynamic recently shifted a bit as he landed on a very stable occupation after finishing his studies. Nowadays, my gifts are significantly less nice than his. This year, for my birthday, he gave me a bracelet with a blue stone from Swarovski which he wrapped in a trash bag to throw me off. For his birthday, I gave him keychains (in my defence, it came with the key to my place). I’ve always stood by the ‘it’s the thought that counts’ side of things in real life and never wanted anything extravagant or fancy. I even remember secretly being put off by a friend of mine when she told me that she wanted a certain bag for her birthday gift from his boyfriend.
But I would be dishonest if I said I wasn’t exhilarated with joy when I saw the sparkly bracelet on my birthday. I am equally delighted whenever someone notices it and asks me about it. That question would often lead to questions about how long I have been with my boyfriend and what he does. Where is he from? Oh, he’s French. How did you meet him? In Paris. That’s so romantic! I had no idea that I was such a stereotypical girl, in real life too, feeling a twinge of pride in a conversation that I would roll my eyes at if I overheard at a café three years ago. Recently I told a friend that I didn’t realise how heterosexual I was until I received this bracelet. I guess I’m learning to be somebody’s girlfriend all over again, only this time IRL.
Monica Jae Yeon Moon is a writer in London. She served as Vestoj’s online editor in 2023.