Helene Utterback is a practitioner and advocate of polyamory, or transparently having multiple romantic partners. As an alternative lifestyle to traditional monogamy, polyamory allows individuals to have various emotional and physical needs met by more than one person. It’s a form of romance rarely seen in video games, a medium that instead allows or encourages players to “romance” no more than one non-player character (NPC) at a time.
In this podcast, Helene and I chat about the communication tools and skills necessary to participate in polyamory; how polyamorous individuals work through feelings of jealousy, insecurity, and possessiveness; why society stigmatizes polyamory, leading it to be rarely represented in gaming; the game mods and expansions that allow polyamory to exist in games such as The Sims 4 and Stardew Valley; and how polyamory doesn’t reduce storytelling opportunities, but greatly expands it.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
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- Helene Utterback on Twitter and Instagram
- Multiamory podcast
- Making Polyamory Work podcast
- Opening Up book by Tristan Taormino
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello, and welcome to the Polygamer podcast episode number 127 for Wednesday, July 20th, 2022. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. When I named this podcast eight years ago this month, I was aware that it had the potential to be misinterpreted. Polygamer, you look at it the way it’s spelled, could be polygamer, or even if you do pronounce it correctly, polygamer, I’ve had people say, “Oh, it must be about polyamory,” or, “Ken must be polyamorous.”
Neither of those things is true, but there are places where polyamory and video games intersect, and that is not something we have covered in the eight years of this podcast — until today. I am pleased to welcome to the show Helene Utterback. Hello, Helene!
Helene Utterback: Hi, Ken!
Ken: How are you tonight?
Helene: I’m good! How are you?
Ken: Good, thank you! For our listeners, you and I have been friends for about six years. Is that correct?
Helene: Yes, I’d say that’s about right.
Ken: We met in grad school, and we often play video games. It occurred to me as we were playing Mario Kart the other night that you have an insight and experience in a topic that has not yet been covered on Polygamer, and that topic being polyamory. I’ve read some books about it. I’ve listened to some podcasts about it, but I haven’t lived the lifestyle. I think that for some of our listeners, they may not even know what I’m talking about yet, because even 10 years ago, this may have been a new concept for me as well.
Let’s start with the basics. Helene, I understand that if I ask 100 people what polyamory is, I’ll get 100 different answers. I’m not asking you to represent everybody, but in your experience, what is polyamory?
Helene: I think that answer would differ even just amongst the people I know. Polyamory can represent anything from open relationships to ethical non-monogamy to dating many multiple people to being not necessarily legally married, but romantically married to more than one person in a commitment ceremony context. For me, that just means I have a lot of love to give, and I’m not afraid to have that outside of the monogamous context.
Ken: It means that you are able to date multiple people, and this is all transparent among those people, so we’re not talking about cheating.
Helene: No. You can’t cheat in polyamory. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, polyamory is just a way to get away of cheating.” If you don’t tell your partner things, it’s still bad. If you don’t tell your partners stuff straight up, that’s still not good even in polyamory. There are people who practice basically a don’t ask don’t tell in polyamory. But for a lot of people, that’s frowned upon. But no, all of my partners know about other partners, and know about the general gist.
Obviously, I don’t get into all the details of my intimate conversations with those other people, because being respectful of your individual relationships are important, but they all know each other. A lot of them are friends with each other. I live with my fiance and her boyfriend. So in that context, I live with someone I don’t date but dates my partner, who’s basically my best friend.
Ken: You mentioned some other terms that this is similar to but different from, open relationships and ethical non-monogamy. Can you tell me what those things are, and how they’re different from polyamory?
Helene: They both exist under the bigger bubble. Like the way that bisexual can be a term for a lot of other terms under that umbrella, like pansexual, et cetera, these things tend to exist under it, but open relationships tend specifically to refer to one primary relationship, two people who are dating, married, whatever who tend to sleep outside of their relationship, who tend to have sexual relationships with other people outside of their relationship. Then ethical non-monogamy can be polyamory as a broader context, depending on how you define it.
Some people don’t identify as polyamorous if they are practicing ethical non-monogamy. Some people do. Some people just use it as a term for dating casually many people. I actually have a friend who wouldn’t call herself polyamorous necessarily, but she says she practices ethical non-monogamy. That’s because she has about four casual partners, none of whom live with her, none of whom she calls by any particular. There can be a primary and secondary in certain people’s relationships. That’s also a controversial discussion in the polyamorous community, but she just doesn’t give anybody labels. They’re just all people she sees.
Ken: You said that in open relationship, there may be multiple sexual partners. Is that also true in polyamory?
Helene: Yes, but it also can be true that you just have multiple romantic partners. So if you date people who are asexual or like you can be asexual and polyamorous, those are all things that can interact. You can be aromantic and polyamorous. Because basically in polyamory, you’re able to build relationships in the way that makes the most sense for you outside of necessarily what’s a societally-accepted standpoint. I have dated asexual people where we didn’t have sex at all when we dated. We went on dates. We had a great time. We had some romantic feelings for each other, but we didn’t sleep together.
Ken: How did you become aware that this lifestyle is a valid choice? Because I was raised in a traditional, conservative Catholic upbringing, and I had never heard of polyamory in high school, in college, and not until many years after college. When I first heard it, there was some natural resistance to the idea, some natural inclination to say that’s wrong. I have very easily overcome that when I’ve seen how wonderful it works for the people who practice it. But nonetheless, my point being, it seems to be a subculture that not many people are aware of, so how were you introduced to it?
Helene: Similarly to you, I was raised in a conservative Republican religious family. I’m the only person on my dad’s side who is openly queer even, but my dad’s the most supportive about it. But how I was first introduced to like polyamory in a healthy context outside of media was I worked for a shadow cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show when I lived in Boston. Actually right around the time that I met you, every Saturday night, I would be in the working props on the shadow cast. I would get to meet people who had these healthy polyamorous dynamics, people who were married but had a partner on the cast, people who were dating two or three cast members.
That exposed me to being like, “Oh, this is possible.” Then I’d spent some time ruminating on it, and realizing that that was something that I had wanted all along.
Ken: Can you elaborate on that? How did you know you wanted it when you didn’t even know it existed?
Helene: I feel like society teaches us when we’re in a monogamous relationship, it’s super weird to even have a crush on someone else. You can’t even think someone else is cute, and tell your partner about it. This gets even weirder if you are a pansexual person, if you are in the bi+ sphere, because sometimes if you are in a hetero presenting relationship with straight men, to be honest, they can make it weird, where they’re like, “Nah, it’s cool. We can check out girls together.” It’s not what I’m talking about as far as it’s cool to nerd out about your crushes together.
Not here for that. But in monogamous relationships, it always felt like the one and only. I think people are cute, and sometimes I want to make out with their faces, and so…
Ken: When you phrase it like that, is that either objectifying or sexualizing other people?
Helene: I would say that oftentimes, people can do that in a unhealthy way where they do objectify and oversexualize people. But honestly, usually, the people that I have crushes on are people that I’m friends with. So usually, it’s personality traits I get a big crush on, where I’m like, “Wow, that person makes really good cookies, and seems to be super passionate about the environment. Man, I hope we end up at a party together.”
Ken: Does finding other people attractive, and wanting to act on that, does… I apologize that I’m asking loaded questions, but I think these are the questions that people who have never heard of polyamory might have. Does that imply a deficiency in your primary relationship that you need to fill?
Helene: Not at all. I have a very full life with my fiance. Honestly, it shouldn’t be one person’s job to fill every space in your life. That feels… I understand that that’s a big part of monogamous culture, but it feels really unhealthy to me. I’m a person with… I like to call myself a lot. I’m like a lot for one person to handle, not just in the making out ways, but also just emotionally, putting all of my emotional work on one person. I feel like that’s not fair to that person. Even that person is my therapist, I’m like, “I am sorry that you poor souls to hear all of the crazy stuff.”
So, having these deep, emotional connections with other people in different ways really allows me to share who I am more, and be myself everywhere. Does that make sense?
Ken: I think so. But when you see… Let’s flip this to the other side. When you see your partner seeking to have their needs met in ways that you can’t provide, how does that make you feel?
Helene: Well, honestly, my skillsets don’t always live in the ways that my partner needs me. I see this a lot in my own house, because I do live in a polyamorous household, and so there are ways in which my fiance’s boyfriend supports her that I cannot. There are ways that I support her that he cannot. Honestly, even though we are metamours, we do not date. We support each other when our sweet introvert partner needs some alone time going and playing video games, and leaving her alone. There are just all these ways of giving people the things they need, whether it’s like you need attention, and your partner’s at work.
The nice thing about polyamory, it means that there’s probably someone around to talk to if you are like, “Wow, my boss is being such a big jerk. I really need someone to vent to, but I know that my fiance is in a meeting with seven children, because she is a teacher.” I guess, meeting’s not the right word, but you can’t exactly call her up in the middle of the school day, and be like, “Oh my gosh, this thing my boss said.” She’s not going to answer, because that’s how a child gets runs off, right?
Ken: Now, you used a word there that needs some definition. What is a metamour?
Helene: Metamour literally means the love of my love, so like classical polyamory terms like Kath would… That’s my fiance. She would be considered my paramour. She is my partner, and her boyfriend would be considered my metamour. He is my partner’s partner.
Ken: Got it.
Helene: So someone I don’t date, but is in basically my constellation of my polyamory life. If I drew a chart of me and all the people I dated, and all the people that they dated, he would be in that chart, but not directly connected to me.
Ken: That constellation I’ve also heard referred to as a polycule.
Helene: Yes. Yes. So in my case, because of the diversity of my relationships, I generally refer to my polycule as my immediate household, which is called a V, because it is two people who date one person but do not date each other. They’re the people that I make life decisions with, right? We are choosing where to go on our future path together because we all cohabitate. We want to parent together one day, those sort of life goals.
Ken: So when you see somebody else meeting your partner’s needs, the response, whether this is natural or something taught to us by society, I think in many cases is jealousy. Do you ever feel jealousy? If so, how do you get over it?
Helene: I think that especially initially before I had taken some time to figure out where my jealousy was coming from, that definitely would happen to me. I would be like, “Oh my gosh, why can’t I do this thing for my partner?” But now, it generally tends to give me a sense of reassurance that, “This isn’t the right role for me, but someone can do this for my partner, and so that she has support wherever she goes,” but working through jealousy was a big part of entering into polyamory. It’s always an ongoing process, right?
Sometimes things are going to strike you, and you’re like, “Ooh, I didn’t know that I can’t do that thing.” But working on things like a sense of secure attachment where, I think, that jealousy often comes from a sense of like, “Oh, if this person can do this for my partner, then maybe my partner doesn’t need me.” I think that, especially in a monogamous society, that’s super understandable, because that’s often what that leads to, right? Say I’m never home there for my partner. In a monogamous relationship, that means that they leave me for someone else who can be there.
But polyamory, if I’m, say, someone’s less serious partner where we see each other more casually, we know that that’s our relationship, and then they can have someone else who supports them in those other ways they need. It’s okay, but I really, really spent a lot of time working on having a sense of secure attachment rather than anxious attachment, which is my natural default. I’m a person with an anxiety disorder, so the world makes me anxious. Honestly, I think that everyone should work on their sense of attachment because it’s really…
There’s a fine line in monogamy between loving each other and becoming codependent. I think that people who were with their partners during the pandemic especially saw this, where you spend so much time around each other that sometimes, these new dynamics begin to form between the two of you. My partner and I did have to work through some codependency issues after we ended up spending so much of our night times together. We were like, “Oh, we can socialize independently now out of the house. What is this?”
Ken: I went to a co-dependence anonymous group for a few months, maybe 20 years ago, to see if it was for me. It wasn’t. But co-dependency, if I understand it, is the essentially inability to do something without your partner. You want them there to share every moment and every experience as opposed to being comfortable acting as an individual. Is that accurate?
Helene: I would say that’s totally accurate. I would say that if you have codependent tendencies that maybe polyamory isn’t for you, just because if you know that your partner is out doing something with one of their other partners, and that is making you deeply upset every time that you’re not out there doing it with them, that’s maybe something to work on within yourself, or to just know that polyamory is not for everyone. It takes a lot of work. Honestly, some people just don’t have the logistical capacity to have multiple partners.
We’re busy people, and so it’s… Whether… Some people think that polyamory is a choice, and some people don’t. But either way, it’s not for everyone.
Ken: So when you say some people think it’s a choice, and some people don’t, the people who don’t, they think it is an orientation?
Helene: Yes. I would probably consider myself within that. The minute that I discovered that polyamory was a lifestyle that I could engage in, I immediately felt better about the way I had felt about myself my whole life.
Ken: Wow. So, what had you felt about yourself your entire life? You talked about wanting to make out with other people’s faces, but I think it’s more than just that though.
Helene: It’s more than just that. I build… You know this. You’re friends with me. I tend to build really deep relationships with a lot of people, right? I have a lot of friends. I’m exceedingly social. When you have a monogamous partner who wants to spend all their time with you, and tends to make you their whole world, it can be really hard to feel like, “Oh, I’m going to go have a girl’s night. No offense, but it’s just me and these people that I’ve known for 15 years. We’re going to, I don’t know, a Wizard Rock concert, which is not your thing.”
I have definitely had partners who’ve felt like they needed to tag along anyway, because that’s the monogamous thing to do. You go to your partner’s things. But if that’s not your thing, that’s not something I want you to do. I would rather us have quality time doing something we really love doing like gardening, or going out to eat at a new pop-up or whatever.
Ken: The first therapist I ever saw said that I had a unusually large social network, and that most people as they get older, their social network narrows, and they focus on deeper relationships with fewer people just because people get busy, and their time becomes more limited. In some ways, that has been true for me, but I’ve also maintained, I think, an excessive number of people compared to other people in my demographic. So, I almost feel like what my therapist was predicting is more typical of a monogamous relationship, where you have a lot of friends, and then you find one person, and you don’t need anybody else anymore.
As you said, that can put a lot of pressure on that one person to be all those things. Yet, we see it happen. I know that the divorce rate is very high, but we also see people who meet one person, fall in love, get married, and spend the next 50 years together.
Helene: The different lifestyles are right for different people, right? But having that many friendships the way that you do or the way that I do is what’s right for me. I would be very sad if I couldn’t spend as much time with my friends as I do, because a partner felt the need to monopolize that time.
Ken: I once asked a friend of mine. She was in a polyamorous marriage. I asked her, “What would happen if your husband decided to become monogamous, and want you to do the same?” She said, “Well, I would still be happy to spend the rest of my life with him, but not as happy as I am right now to be polyamorous.”
Helene: No, I think that’s true for a lot of folks.
Ken: What skills does it take to be polyamorous? I went to a poly 101 session a couple years ago. This was just before the pandemic. It was an in-person session. They pointed out some skills, both emotional and practical. But I’d like to hear from you, what should somebody who’s going into poly relationship expect to have to learn?
Helene: Communication, which everyone should. I’m sure they told you this in the poly 101 course, but everyone should communicate anyway, but the amount in which you have to communicate in polyamory because there’s just more people involved, right? Whether it’s logistics, emotions, things like that, because especially depending on where you or a potential partner or a current partner are in your polyamorous journey, how much you’ve been exposed to, you can encounter some emotions you didn’t expect to feel. Sometimes you’re like, “Oh yeah. I’m so excited for you to have your night out.”
Then when you’re by yourself in the apartment, you’re like, “Maybe I’m less okay than I thought. Maybe I need to talk about this with her.” Stuff like that can really hit, and you want to be able to be in a space with your partners where you can communicate about that. Don’t put the responsibility on them to change what they’re doing, but to just let them know that, “Oh, I could use a little extra support in X, Y, Z way after a date night with someone else,” or, “I have this need.”
Some people in open relationships are like, “Please change the sheets. Please take a shower,” things like that. Then in the polyamorous spirit, it can be like, “Hey, can you bring me leftovers from the date, so I get a little bit of the feeling of going out?” That’s a big one in our house, which honestly I just do whenever, because usually, I eat really good things. Then I’m like, “Ooh, I bet that my metamour would love to eat this.” Because the other day I had this barrio ramen when I was out, and we’re super into ramen, me and him. I was like, “Ooh, I’m bringing the leftovers home.”
Ken: Nice. I mentioned to somebody, I was describing to them the polyamorous lifestyle and how important communication is. They said that that is what they would find exhausting. So if they had, for example, two partners, and they had a really crappy day, they don’t want to have to relive that day by telling it to two different partners. They just want to go through that process once. How would you handle that situation?
Helene: Well, depending on the dynamic of your relationships with those people, you may not need to share all the details of that whole interaction with both those people. If someone is someone that you’re very, very close, and very, very involved in, and knows all of the players in whatever bad thing happened in your day, that may be the right person to tell it. Then the other person may just be the person to be like, “Man, I had a stinker of a day at work. If you could send me any dog memes, I would greatly appreciate it,” to be able to have different relationships, and to not necessarily feel like you’re…
They’re all equal playing field. In my particular case, it’s not necessarily like my metamour nor I are more… We’re not more important to my fiance in any way, but the way that she would treat different scenarios would be different, because I know this coworker better than my metamour does. She would tell me a story about ex-coworker in a little more detail, but they know people because they’ve been together four years longer than I have that I don’t know. So, no offense, I don’t have any input on tales from people that they know from back when they lived in Massachusetts.
Ken: I think that’s true for any number of social interactions that even a monogamous person might have is that you don’t treat everybody the same. The other night, I was telling you about something that’d been stressing me out. I took five to 10 minutes to tell you, Helene. Then two days later, I got on Zoom with a different friend of mine. I told them the same experience, but in a minute, because they didn’t need as many details. I didn’t need to go into it with them, because we had other things to talk about.
Helene: I think that polyamory, and learning that communication style, and that way of bonding with people has made me more than just a better partner. It’s made me a better friend to people. It’s helped me to grow closer with my friends by just opening myself up to the opportunity of being able to see friends in a way as platonic partners, where this doesn’t have to be a thing I just tell this one person. Whereas in monogamous relationships, sometimes it feels like, “Oh, these stories are only for your partner.”
Ken: Let’s say that somebody listening to this podcast is learning about this alternative lifestyle, and they say, “Gosh, I think that’s for me.” How does one go about this? I’ve read a book, for example, that said, “Rather than just being a single individual, especially if you’re a guy who wants to announce the world, “I’m now available to date multiple people,” sometimes it’s better to be in a monogamous relationship, and have a discussion with your partner about opening up the relationship in a polyamorous, transparent, ethical fashion.
Is there a… I know there’s not any one way to do this, but is there a way that you recommend?
Helene: Well, I could see why the book would say that, because then you don’t have to explicitly have the conversation every time if you’re not seeing anyone of being like, “And by the way, I’m polyamorous, and I might date other people,” Because your partner is already there. Your partner is the explanation, right? I think that just being upfront with people, don’t hide the fact that you are polyamorous is usually your best bet. Get it out as early… When you’re dating someone, get it out as early as possible. Otherwise, that’s how hurt feelings happen.
Also as a polyamorous person, I want to know if someone that I want to date doesn’t want to try, can’t handle the fact that I have a fiance, the fact that I may see other people. I want to know how much they want to know about other aspects of my life too, and respect them in that manner. So when it comes to dating apps, making sure you put it in your profile, there are some dating apps that are better when you’re a polyamorous person than others like, “Would recommend OkCupid. Would not recommend Plenty of Fish. You can get in from the platform.”
Different things for different people, but also going to polyamorous mixers, which are a thing if you live in a space that has those resources, which if you live in a rural place, that may not be accessible to you as much. But if you live in a big city like I do, I live in New York, so there is an organization called Open Love New York that hosts mixers, that holds polyamorous movie nights, where basically they are movies that are either created by polyamorous folks, or about polyamory in a way that is healthy depiction of the lifestyle, whereas media can sometimes be not so kind to polyamorous folks. Things like that are good ways to start to get into polyamory.
Ken: What about in those… What about for individuals who also identify as demisexual? Now, my understanding of that word is that sometimes it takes a really long time to warm up to somebody, because you need to develop an emotional connection first. Is it possible to be demisexual and polyamorous?
Helene: Yes. Someone I date is. So for that person, as how some relationships in polyamory don’t have any sex at all, or don’t have romance, and just have sex for demisexual people, sexual attraction is formed after romantic attraction forms. So for those people, they would form their relationship with you the way that is comfortable for them. But also, they are aware that you may be sleeping with other people, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what the two of you have. Did that help?
Ken: It does. Thank you. By the way, for what it’s worth, at that poly 101 I went to, they basically said the same thing as you, that communication is the most important thing, but they phrased it in a different way perhaps for comedic effect. They said the two things you need to be really good at to be polyamorous are calendars and apologies.
Helene: Yes. There’s a running joke about Google calendars and polyamory. If you ever join a polyamorous meme group, it’s like a whole lot of stuff about Google calendar. Ironically, I am the only person in my… anyone I date who uses Google calendar.
Ken: How do you coordinate schedules among each other?
Helene: Because most of the other people that I see actually are people who are a little more long distance, it’s generally not a big problem like trying to come up with a weekly schedule. Then I live with my immediate polycule, and so we actually sit down, and we have a polycule meeting every week to talk about schedules just for life stuff in general. But it’s also when it’s like, “All right, this is a really good night for Helene and Kath to go on a date night, and this is a really good night for Kath and Ben to go on a date night. This is when somebody has the house to themselves. Congratulations.”
Ken: If I may ask, why don’t more people in your polycule use Google calendar?
Helene: Because they are more paper based than I am. I know. I know. If you know me at all, you know I really love digital organization, but my fiance uses a paper planner. Other people I see, they just use other calendar apps. They have an Apple calendar or whatever, et cetera, et cetera.
Ken: I was wondering if it was more a matter of format, or if it was a matter of integration with each other, because I was in a relationship where my partner and I did a lot of things together. Every time we did, I would have to send them a calendar invitation from my calendar to put on to their calendar. I suggested, “This would be a lot easier if we just shared a calendar. We still have our own separate calendars, but then we would also have a joint calendar.” They said, “No. I do not want to do that.”
So for some people, in some relationships, integrating their finances is a very sensitive topic. For this person, integrating schedules was a sensitive topic. Ultimately, it implied a lack of other kinds of integration as well. That’s one of the reasons I was asking. In your case, though, it’s just a matter of preferring analog to digital.
Helene: When you live in a house with three people of various neurodivergencies, any change in pattern or routine can be a little difficult, so trying to get other people on board of Google calendar who don’t use it organically wasn’t going to be something that worked, and isn’t something that I want to pressure people into when we’re already living very busy lives. We have our weekly meeting most weeks when we’re not too busy. We have a regular group chat of the three that live in a house together, and that helps keep us pretty on track.
Ken: I have so many more questions about polyamory. We could do multiple podcasts about this topic. There are people who do that. I believe that there is the Multiamory podcast, also the book Opening Up. These are some of the resources I’ve encountered. I also once went to a sci-fi and fantasy convention in Boston called Arisia. I saw a button there that says, “I am against polyamory. It should be either multiamory or polyphilia. Otherwise, you’re just mixing roots.”
There are some objections to this lifestyle, and that one I can almost understand! But I want to bring this back to Polygamer. We’ve covered the first half, poly. Let’s talk about the gamer aspect. There have been a lot of video games, anything from Mass Effect to smaller indie games like arcade spirits that allow you to romance partners. Stardew Valley is another one. I often see these games as limiting your options to a single partner. I don’t see a lot of polyamory in video games. Is that your experience as well?
Helene: That’s very true. Oftentimes, there is a warning when you reach a certain romance level with a character where you’re like, “This person is going to get mad if you date other people.” That’s how the Persona series works. At Stardew Valley, that’s how it works now. I actually recently found out that when Stardew Valley first came out, as long as you didn’t try to marry more than one person, it didn’t care how many people you dated. But now actually, if you are dating too many people, they will all gang up on you, and get mad at you, and dump you apparently.
The way that I have found more polyamory in video games is actually through mods. Stardew Valley does have a million mods to it as I’m sure you know. Several of those allow you to create multiple spouse households, where it’s basically a V style polyamory where you live with both your spouses. There’s an extra bedroom built onto the house, and you can live your polyamorous homestead life, which is very relatable to my dreams. I live in a family… My current polycule, we’re very into gardening and sustainability and things like that.
They have co-op start new game together. We talked about eventually when we all have a little more free time doing a three-person Startdew Valley co-op. Also, if you don’t have enough people for a D&D party, because there’s a running joke of the golden polyamories to get enough people for a full D&D party, you probably have enough people to take up all the houses in Stardew Valley co-op.
Ken: You said, “I’m sure you’re aware, Ken, that there are so many mods.” To a degree, I am, but I am primarily a console gamer. I grew up in an Apple household, and there was a time when Apples couldn’t play the latest games. Although they can now, I just never developed that habit, so I’m a console gamer. Those games are much harder to mod, especially in whatever the current generation is. You’re saying that on PCs and Macs, it’s much easier for the fan community to modify a game to add these elements that the original developers did not intend.
Helene: Yeah. In games that are a little less plot based that have a little bit more of a free open world-ish style, that’s easier to do, obviously. The Sims also does this really well. Sims 4 actually as a game is doing pretty good things in the polyamory sphere. They’re still working on the gender thing, which is a non-binary person that could go on for days. But in the Eco Lifestyle expansion, they created a free love community plan that you can get your community to vote on, and so if your community votes on it, and it becomes the law of the land, then basically, partners that do not get jealous if you are making out, sleeping with someone else in front of them.
Whereas generally in the Sims, if you’re stepping out on your husband, they’re gonna walk in, and be like, “What the fuck,” but in the Sim way, so some simlish. But now, they’re just like, “That seems legit. I’m just going to go back to my glass of wine now. Have a good time, y’all.” That’s pretty chill.
Ken: That requires no modifications at all.
Helene: I believe you have to have the Eco Lifestyle expansion, which is a bummer, but actually, they are… They just can’t announce yesterday that they are creating an expansion that’s going out to everyone where with the release of the expansion of the High School Life’s pack, you will be able to choose sexual and romantic orientation for your characters, including making them asexual and aromantic. I think that that will create a lot more options for how to depict relationships, especially if you have that free love community plan on.
Ken: Now, I don’t know if I’m talking about video games or real life, but is somebody who is both asexual and aromantic going to be in a polyamorous relationship?
Helene: Probably not. You would probably not have both of those settings on. You would probably have one of those settings on. There are people who have platonic life partners. So technically, if you had multiple platonic life partners, that would be a form of polyamory. Say that you build a co-op of all platonic people together. That’s still technically polyamory, I think.
Ken: Sure. Because people who are asexual and aromantic still have emotions and need for connection.
Helene: Yes, and they still have relationships, just platonic ones.
Ken: We talked about the Sims, and we talked about Stardew Valley. You mentioned Persona. In my superficial research, I found a list of games that have polyamory. I saw Persona 5 on that list. Have you played that game in that series?
Helene: That’s the only one I haven’t played, so my experience from Persona is from Personas 3 and 4, which I grew up on in high school. I did hear that there is some polyamory in Persona 5, which I’m really happy to see. Because in Persona 3 and 4, the minute that you initiate a relationship with any of the girls pass a certain extent. So basically, when you reach… It’s like Social Links six or seven. It will… You make choices about whether you want to take this down a platonic or a romantic path.
It will be like, “This character will now be met if you date other girls.” There is various points in the game where a big cut scene will break out, and these girls will be like, “Why is she also trying to give you a Valentine’s day gift, dude? I did not know about this.”
Ken: I have found that in some games, and I haven’t played many like these. Wall Street Kid, which is way back on the eight-bit Nintendo, Dead or Alive, Extreme Beach Volleyball on Xbox, that sometimes partners in a game are more like virtual pets. You just need to spend time with them to keep them happy, give them gifts every now and then, and that’s sufficient. I know that romance and games has evolved a lot beyond that, but sometimes it’s still just about spending time with people to keep them happy. Do you think that’s a reason why we haven’t seen more polyamory in games is because the relationships are not complex, and there’s only so much time in a game?
Helene: I could see that being a little bit of it. Also, polyamory presents itself in so many different forms and varieties that it could be hard to find that representation. But I think especially in games with slightly more linear plots, it would be very doable, games that don’t have quite as many romantic options that it could be very possible to put more polyamory in video games than we currently see. I would like to see it.
Ken: So if it is so easy, why don’t we do it?
Helene: Polyamory is controversial a lot, right? It is still very stigmatized in a lot of places, and so I don’t imagine that the market may not always present itself to be there as loudly as other markets, especially since polyamorous people live in the closet sometimes too, right? Some people are very quietly polyamorous. They aren’t necessarily shouting it from the rooftops, which I understand, but also I’m bummed for them. I could see that being a reason also because of the nature of the video game community, not being as diverse as it could be development wise.
It may just be that there aren’t polyamorous people on staff to advocate for that representation to write that representation. Just like any other kind of diversity, if you don’t have the people there to remind you it exists, sometimes it can be really hard to find, and also to be able to do it right because there are a lot of wrong ways to do polyamorous representation, which TV and movies will tell you a lot. If you want to do it right, you should have someone on staff to consult with you.
Ken: As far as diversity and development, I can see what you mean about not everybody necessarily being out. Even if they are like me, for example, a straight cis individual, I try to keep my personal romances out of the workplace. My coworkers don’t know if I’m dating or who I’m dating, because there’s just no overlap. Now, granted I don’t work in game development, but it would be asking a lot for a person to go into their office, and tell their manager, “Hey, I date multiple people. I can speak to that in our next video game.” Because for me, that erodes a barrier I’ve purposely erected between different halves of my life.
Helene: I would say uniquely that polyamory is unfortunately that some people hear the word polyamory, and they immediately think threesome. So, sometimes by opening yourself up and letting people know that you’re polyamorous, they immediately think that like, “Oh, it’s that you and your partner bring a third person to the bedroom, and that’s it.” Sometimes that can open you up to various kinds of workplace harassment, or getting hit on, et cetera, et cetera. So, if that is something that you can’t feel safe about in your workplace, sure as fuck wouldn’t be bringing it up.
Ken: When you say threesome, that is… Having threesomes is totally valid, and some polyamorous individuals do that, I presume.
Helene: Yes. Myself included.
Ken: But what you’re talking about is people who think that there are these two people who are just looking to share themselves with a rando third, and people might say, “I want a piece of that.”
Helene: Yes. I’m pansexual. I date the span of genders, and my fiance is a woman. If people don’t know my other partners, they see that a pansexual woman is polyamorous, and they’re like, “Oh, I can be the dude in that bed.” It’s just… It’s very uncomfortable, and it’s something that you have to know the people that you’re opening yourself up to figure out whether you can be open without having to put up with that kind of behavior.
Ken: Is it possible that if we had more polyamory in games, some of the dramatic tension of storytelling would be eliminated?
Ken: For example, in the television series Riverdale, which is based on the Archie comics. I have never seen the show, but I’ve been reading Archie comics since I was a kid. There’s always the question of Betty or Veronica, which one is Archie going to end up with? I just read an article recently that said, “Why not both?” If they did that, then that eliminates this age-old question. Now, we have an answer, and we can move on. That is anti-climatic in a way.
Helene: Yes. I hate to break it to you, but if polyamory becomes exceedingly mainstream in media, we’re going to have to get a lot more imaginative with our romcoms.
Ken: No more love triangles?
Helene: Quite frankly, it’s just not going to work. I’m actually… We love watching Christmas romcoms. Whenever there are new holiday season romcoms, we love to watch all of them, all three of us. Half the time, it’s like, “Polyamory would’ve solved that. Polyamory would’ve solved that.”
Ken: But I imagine polyamory also presents its own challenges as we were discussing with communication calendars and apologies. Now, granted, I don’t necessarily need to see a weekly drama that consists of everybody sitting down on Sunday nights, and aligning their schedules, but there are other challenges with polyamory.
Helene: Right. There are definitely ways to even getting that representation out there to people who don’t see it, where you see some of the tension of a married couple, and someone’s going out on a date with a new person for the first time, and the other person’s having a night at home, but maybe their mind’s there, and finding their own confidence in themselves. Like, “I don’t know. I guess I just decided to run a movie here,” but things like that, there are… Polyamorous people have problems just like monogamous people do.
We have tensions in our relationships. They just present themselves in different ways, because we don’t always have that tension of being like, “Oh, the person I’m dating really likes Tim, and they’re going to run off at the end of the movie together.”
Ken: Well, brainstorm with me here. Let’s say you have a sci-fi adventure RPG game, and you can romance a member of your crew. Right now with monogamous relationships, you have to choose just one, and you get to see how that plays out. The developers want you to play the game multiple times to see how each romance plays out, so there’s replay value there. If you can just choose all the romances your first play through, then what’s your incentive to go back and play again, because you’ve already seen all the storylines and all the dialogue?
Helene: But what if you date only part of the people, and some of those people are friends, and some of those people are dating each other? You don’t get to see all of the interactions and the intricacies of those beautiful relationships unless you pick the right combination of people to date. Then there’s replayability there, right? Say that you are dating two people on a ship, but they live together, but you’re dating them separately. But sometimes, you guys all go out to dinner, and so you get to see the cute intricacies of their domestic life together that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise, because they were unavailable in a monogamous plot line, because they’re married to each other or whatever. Things like that could add replayability.
Ken: Sure. I can see that now. For example, if you have six partners to choose from, and you have to be monogamous, and that’s six storylines, but if you have six to choose from, then you can choose any combination? Let’s say you choose two. Well, which two? If there are six people, that might be, if my math is anywhere near correct, which it may not be, as many as 720 different combinations. That’s a lot of replay value right there.
Helene: Exactly. Exactly. It could add a lot, because life is full of complexity and nuance. Also, if you wanted to make it so that you can’t date everybody, because just because you are polyamorous doesn’t mean everyone else is. You can have limiting factors, right? Some people may not want to date you just like as… Like when you’re trying to romance someone of the same gender, not everyone is gay. You can have limiting factors like that if you want to not have to write 720 different plot line scenes in your game.
You could also have limiting factors with the fact that you can only connect to X amount of people over the course of a year or whatever the timeline of the game is. You can only build so many deep relationships, because just like being polysaturated, which is the word for when you are at the maximum capacity of people you can date, then you can’t spread yourself any thinner, or you’re not going to get to see where the relationships with those other people get to go.
Ken: Also, developers have limited time just like any monogamous or polyamorous person does. If they’re challenged to write six story lines for monogamous individuals, the challenge to write 720 polyamorous relationships is going to be even greater.
Helene: That is very true. There are probably other ways of narrowing that number down.
Ken: Still, I can see that some types of gamers would just see this as achievements unlocked, and getting high scores. “I’ve romanced all the people all at once. I’m awesome.” It’s not about conquest. That’s not what polyamory is about.
Helene: Nope, but that attitude definitely comes your way sometimes for sure.
Ken: That happens even in monogamy. People will romance everybody one after the other, just in order to get everything that they can out of a game.
Ken: You said one reason why we don’t see more polyamory in games, and in society, and in culture is because it is stigmatized. You talked about how people might misunderstand it to mean a threesome. Are there other cultural misperceptions about polyamory, or if there are no misconceptions, then why would people be against it?
Helene: I think a lot of it is fear of the unknown, but like cultural misconceptions… I live in a polyamorous household, but it is not what you primarily… If you’re a person that hears the word polyamory and media, what you probably think of is either a threesome or a triad, right, three people who date each other. Sometimes people call this a threeple. I don’t love that word. I love the word play, but I don’t love that word, but I actually live in a house that could look like that to an outsider. We’re all very affectionate with each other, right?
My metamour is one of my very best friends, but we’re actually a V. That would be a common misconception. The amount of times that people think that I am my metamour’s partner instead of my fiance is a lot. That’s a common one. I think that for people in monogamous relationships, there’s just, again, that fear of someone running off with your partner can be there, right? Just like why people don’t always have open relationships, because sex can lead to lots of emotions, and people worry that like, “Oh, you’re going to do much more than just sleep with someone else.”
You’re going to get married and start a new family with someone else, or whatever insecurity that depending on your partner may be completely valid. If your partner has a history of trust issues and not being open with you, then that may be a valid thing to be concerned about, and so those kind of fears. Also, there have been really bad representations of polyamory, like polygamy just doesn’t get a good rap including in the polyamorous community, just so we’re clear. We’re not like, “Yes, the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, they’re doing great work.” No.
I think that’s some of the things that come to mind when people think about polyamory is child brides, and one guy with 70 wives. There are all these other negative things that have happened that people picture before thinking of a healthy polyamorous relationship, because they don’t see a healthy polyamorous relationship, because people are less open about it. Does that help?
Ken: It does. There are people out there who are very quick to judge, and lack curiosity. I once mentioned the polyamorous lifestyle to three people I was having dinner with. Two of them, I don’t know if they’d heard of it before, but they just shrugged and said, “They’re adults. As long as they’re not hurting anybody, who cares?” The third person immediately said that he found that concept appalling, and that those people clearly don’t care about other people’s emotions or sexual health. It was clear that he was not open to correction on that point, which I could have very easily offered, but I imagine you could as well.
Helene: I would say that as far as the asexual health point, polyamorous people are more likely to get texted than our monogamous partners, because we know that the people that we are sleeping with may be sleeping with other people. We’re getting that every three month test, and telling all of our partners the results, right? Honestly, that provides a really good sense of security for a lot of people to be able to have that in hand, and know that regardless of everything, your partner is keeping themselves safe, and is keeping you safe.
The same thing goes with emotions. I think that we take even more time to hone in on what our partners really need, especially in some of those very intense, very deep relationships, because we know that there is more room for insecurity and jealousy to fester. We want to make sure our partners are happy, right? I don’t think anybody is doing this stuff to try to hurt their partner. No one is going out there and being like, “Ah, I’m going to go on a date because my girlfriend would hate it.” No, that’s not what we’re doing, right?
Ken: It’s all part of the communication that is paramount to being polyamorous.
Helene: Exactly. I always hope that if my partners weren’t okay with something I was doing, that they would let me know, and if there was something that they need from me that they would let me know, because part of the communication is like, “I’m not a mind reader.” Especially for my more long distance folks, I adore them, but I don’t get to see them necessarily. So if they’re having a really bad day, I’m not going to necessarily just know, because I see them when I get home.
Ken: So how does it feel playing video games where you don’t see this aspect of your lifestyle represented?
Helene: Well, for the party girl in me who would like to make out with everyone, I’m a little bummed. For the person in me who wants to have the opportunity to build all these deep relationships, I understand that. We talked earlier about replayability value, about the fact that you can’t build them all in one go. It creates replayability. I understand that, but also, if the only reason that I’m replaying is so that I can find out the deep relationship that I could build with both of these beautiful characters in this game, but I also have to go through 40 hours of grinding monster hunting might make me less likely to pursue it.
That’s a bummer, because I would love to be able to see everything the writers have made for these well-developed characters, and be able to show them how much I like them, even in a virtual context.
Ken: Does it make you enjoy the game less, or even influence which games you play?
Helene: Sometimes, I would say yes. Sometimes I will just look up Let’s Plays of other plot lines, rather than to go back and play it myself, because I’m not necessarily in Persona for the grinding. I am in Persona for the social links and for the really great plot that’s been written. They do a pretty good job of balancing it, but other games do not, where you have to replay exactly as you were. I don’t have another 40 hours to spend fighting monsters when I could be playing another game with a really great plot and really cool characters that I could fall in love with.
Ken: Do you think there’s hope for the future to see more polyamory in video games?
Helene: I think so. I think that just as we, people who are queer or non-binary or trans, have slowly seen that become more represented over time. I think that there’s hope for polyamorous folks too, especially since a lot of us live in many of those levels, which means that we are slowly making it into the realm of video game writers, and video game developers, and people who get to say, “Hey, there’s more parts of life we haven’t seen yet. There’s more stuff to write about.” I hope that helps other people.
I would love to know that someday that someone discovered that they were polyamorous from a video game, just like the way that I figured out that I was queer from video games.
Ken: Well, now you told me you figure out polyamory from Rocky Horror. I don’t want to go on too big of a tangent, but video games led you to discovering your own queerness?
Helene: Kind of. I would say a lot of media led me to discovering my own queerness, but definitely, I was like, “Oh my gosh. I romance the girls in this game because all the main characters are boys, and that’s the only reason.” Then I’m like… I start getting into high school, and I’m like, “Oh crap, I’m queer.” I’m like, “No, I’m romancing the girls because they’re pretty. They say nice things, and they like cool stuff.”
Ken: Wow. That is fantastic. I did not know that about you, Helene, that video games were a contributing factor to this journey in your life.
Helene: I think that they honestly helped reinforce my queer identity earlier than it would’ve been without video games.
Ken: Well, I’m glad that video games have had such a positive effect on your life. I hope that they continue to do so.
Helene: Me too, Ken. Me too.
Ken: So for those who are interested in polyamory, I mentioned some podcasts and some books, links to which will be in the show notes. Are there other places that you recommend that they go? For example, I mentioned that I had a polyamory 101 session. That’s very much localized to where I was living at the time. Not everybody may have access to that information or those opportunities, so where can they go online or at their library to find out more?
Helene: I find polyamory TikTok to be excellent, very good and humorous, and wholesome, and shows much more slice of life of the daily life of a polyamorous person than you may normally see. So you just look for the polyamory hashtag on TikTok. You’ll find a lot of really great creators. Polysecure is a book that I recommend to everyone, poly or not. It is about attachment style, which I’ve mentioned a few times over the course of this podcast, because it has had a really big impact on making me a better partner and a better friend to the people I care about by being better to myself.
I recommend that book to literally everyone I see. If I see someone reading it on the train, I’m like, “Yes!” Making Polyamory Work by Libby Sinback is a really good podcast for the daily ins and outs of things that you may encounter as a polyamorous person. They recently did a really great episode on veto power, which is a controversial topic in the polyamorous community, so digging into some of those deeper topics once you have the basics. It’s not quite as long form as Multiamory, which has hour and a half long episodes that are very good.
But if you don’t have that level of time, they run a little bit shorter. Then obviously, if you joined Facebook groups at all face, there’s a Facebook group for everything, but the Facebook groups for polyamory can be very, very sweet, and wholesome, and affirming like cute pictures of people and their polycules, but also great places to ask for advice when you’re struggling.
Ken: It’s interesting to hear you recommend Facebook, because Facebook generally requires that you use your real name associated with your profile. If you are not comfortable coming out as polyamorous, or if you don’t want to be stigmatized by a culture that doesn’t understand polyamory, then putting your real name into one of those groups, even if it’s a private group could be daunting for some folks.
Helene: A lot of them have anonymous member postings. I don’t know if you have ever been in a Facebook group, but you can post anonymously as just group member, and that’s all it will show up as. So if you are seeking advice or you just want to read other people’s wisdom, you can put it under anonymous group member basically. you will still get notifications for all of the replies to what you asked, but no one has to know it’s you.
Ken: I did not know that. I appreciate that Facebook offers that option. As evil as they are, I guess this is one good thing they did.
Helene: I just find it to be a little more approachable for people than some of the Reddit polyamory communities.
Ken: What’s wrong with the Reddit polyamory communities, if I may ask?
Helene: Nothing is particularly wrong with the Reddit polyamory communities, but because there’s just so much less of a filter on Reddit, it can get a little bit more into the nitty gritty, sometimes like a little graphic on the sexual detail, things like that that maybe you aren’t looking for on your first time out of the gate into polyamory.
Ken: Gotcha. Speaking of real identities online, is there anywhere online that you wish to plug for listeners who wish to follow or connect with you?
Helene: You can find me on Twitter @HeleneUtterback, and you can find me on Instagram at physicsgirl250.
Ken: Fantastic. If I may ask, the number 250, does that have any meaning?
Helene: No, it’s just a really good mathematical number, and I’m a math nerd.
Ken: Well, that works for me. Well, Helene, I really appreciate you opening up about polyamory. Pun not intended, but unavoidable. This is a very personal topic for a lot of people. We’ve had polyamorous people on the show before, but they were here to talk about other things, and so we didn’t get into that aspect of their lives. I really appreciate you sharing this aspect of your life with our listeners, so thank you.
Helene: You’re very welcome. I was so happy I could do it.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.
Ken: For those who don’t know, what is a shadowcast?
Helene: A shadowcast is people who act out a movie in front of the movie. Rocky Horror is the most famous one. But basically, people wear costumes that are as close to a movie replica, unless you come on like a theme night. Then they act out the movie in the audience and upfront. It’s a very fun and wacky time. I would highly recommend going and seeing a shadow cast if you’ve never seen one.