Japan, 2010: I am kneeling around a low table in a noisy izakaya with three other women in their early twenties, one Brit and two Americans. As conversation turns to the anime series we watched as teenagers, one of us makes an admission. Leaning conspiratorially across the table, pushing a bunch of tiny empty beer-glasses aside with her elbows, she confesses that she spent a significant portion of her teenage years on Fullmetal Alchemist fan-forums where people wrote fiction smooshing all of the show's characters together in every possible romantic and erotic combination. "I've never told another human being about this before," she says, going slightly white. She needn't have been remotely embarrassed, because it turns out that every single one of us round the table had done exactly the same thing as teenagers. For my other two companions, it was Harry Potter and Star Trek. For me it was – no joke – heavy metal bands.
Shipping, or playing matchmaker with characters from favorite video games, TV series or books, is not remotely a new phenomenon. It's what happens when you combine fandom, people's imaginations, and the Internet – a perfect example of the Rule 34 meme ("If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions") in action. The word itself, a truncated form of "relationshipping" came from newsgroups (specifically the X-Files fan community in the mid-1990s), but people were coming up with romantic and erotic fanfic and fanart long before that. One of the oldest and most famous pairings is Kirk and Spock. When I was a teenager, people posted their stories about Harry Potter or anime characters on forums. Today's shippers cheerfully share their Sherlock/Watson "Johnlock", Zarya/Mei and Neville Longbottom/Luna Lovegood art and fiction on Tumblr.
There are several different types of ship. There's "canon" shipping, which involves characters who are actually in a relationship in the fictional universe in question (Han Solo/Princess Leia). "Slash" refers to gay pairings, like Snape/Harry (an eyebrow-raising but popular pairing in Harry Potter fandom) or Steve Rogers/Tony Stark (one of the more obvious ships from the Marvel universe). "Crack" pairings bring characters from different series together. It doesn't all have to be about drawing dirty pictures, though – these relationships take on a rich life in the collective imagination of the fandom, and shipping is part of a long and often delightfully subversive tradition.
In video game fandom, shipping always felt kind of underground until recently – mainly because shipping has always been driven by women, girls and the queer community, and women, girls and the queer community have not always been a particularly visible segment of internet video game fandom. But it exploded last year with Overwatch, whose fans are obsessed with pairing off its characters. It's slightly baffling that a game with none of the kind of long-running storylines that usually inspire people to create elaborate fictional relationships in their minds should have been the one to inspire such an outpouring of cute romantic art and fanfic, but then the paucity of 'official' background on the characters is perhaps the very thing that's created the space for things like Widowtracer to flourish.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's often the video games with a greater proportion of female fans that seem to inspire the most creative shipping. One possible exception is the super weird world of Sonic fandom – Sonic shipping is both quite popular and weirdly persistent, and back in the mid-00s I saw some Sonic/Mario fanart that I can never unsee. The Mass Effect and Dragon Age series both enjoy a whole lot of enthusiastic conversation around their various romantic combinations – do you have any idea how popular Garrus is? The Final Fantasy community finds reams of material in the games' huge casts and ambiguous translations; people still can't decide whether Aerith/Cloud or Aerith/Tifa is Final Fantasy VII's One True Pairing, and it's been 20 years. Fire Emblem provides a cornucopia of options. For the old romantics, there's always the age-old pairing of Link and Zelda, though some young upstarts prefer Link and Midna. Obviously, those people are mad.
The most popular pairings are often the ones that are hinted at within the fiction, but never confirmed. Take Iron Man and Captain America: interpreting the tension between them in the recent Marvel movies as something erotic isn't much of a stretch. Players love analyzing games in minute detail, exploring them for hidden secrets; uncovering evidence for relationships between characters and creating a narrative out of them is really another form of easter-egg hunting. In video games, most relationships or attractions (especially queer ones) are implied, but never confirmed, which – as well as inspiring shippers – can also piss off fans fed up with queerbaiting).
If you're wondering why some fandoms derive such joy from pairing characters off, consider that people are basically just filling in the gaps left by video game storytellers. Games often prioritize action over the inner lives of their characters, if they give their characters any kind of inner or romantic lives at all. What's more, queer people especially are so underrepresented in games that it's hardly surprising that people would seize upon hinted-at relationships in the absence of gay relationships in games' official fiction. In a medium that mostly caters explicitly to straight men, everyone else ends up making up their own entertainment. Shipping, fanfic and fanart create a vibrant space for people to explore not only the imagined romantic lives of favorite characters, but also their own romantic preferences.
In that context, the awesome variety of fan-made art and stories around Overwatch makes more sense: Overwatch's characters have such a wide variety of body shapes, personalities and clothing styles that there's something there for everyone, and a huge variety of combinations to explore. Fans currently do a much better job than any video game developer of creating believable, entertaining, relatable relationships between characters. One day soon, hopefully, the actual creators will not be so afraid of exploring their characters' romantic lives. For now, in the spirit of Valentine's Day, we can all enjoy Zarmei. Or more Garrus, if that's your thing.