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Happily Ever Avatar: How HBO Max series found love connections in gaming world

HAPPILY EVER AVATAR (Official Trailer) - HBO Max (Premiere)

There are plenty of reasons why gamers spend their time immersed in fictional worlds. For some, the reward is as simple as temporary entertainment when they have time to spare, but for others, gaming can be a way to explore the spectrum of human relationships, from casual interactions to the sort of bond that can make two people who have never been in the same room fall deeply in love.

The new HBO Max documentary series Happily Ever Avatar follows three couples whose relationships began in the games they love, only to make the leap to the real world. The 12-part series explores the way gaming brought them together and shapes the way they approach life, love, and their potential futures together.

Digital Trends spoke to Samantha Hanks, the executive vice president of casting and talent relations at Magical Elves, the Emmy-winning production company behind Happily Ever Avatar, about the series’ exploration of how love can be found — and flourish — in a community where a real person is behind every digital avatar.

Digital Trends: Casting a reality TV show is an element of development that’s a mystery to most people. When you take on a new project like this, what are some of the first steps you take in the casting process?

Samantha Hanks: This was definitely a unique one, but I think a lot of the things that we hold dear really came into play on this one. As a company, we make shows that show people in a great light. Whether it’s Top Chef or Project Runway or Nailed It!, we’re looking for people who have a love and a passion and a positive outlook on whatever the subject is. These are real people and everyone is very savvy to unscripted television these days, so we’re honest with people and want to highlight their best and their uniqueness. They are trusting us with their stories and we honor that by trying to find the most unique, diverse, uplifting people that we can.

Well, you mentioned how unique this series is as far as casting. How did that unique focus — couples who met through gaming — shape the way you approached casting?

I’m not a gamer, but whenever I start a show, I try to learn about the environment we’re working in, because you have to talk to people with respect and honesty. What I realized very quickly is that within the gaming community, there was a negative feeling about television, because everything that had been made about gamers was just making fun of them — as if they’re all living in their basements and don’t have anything else going on. That’s absolutely not the truth. But because of that, we felt we couldn’t cast it in a traditional way with casting producers putting notices out in the world — because people weren’t going to trust what we were doing. So we hired a casting producer who is a gamer and spent many years earning the trust of the gaming community.

By being a gamer and working on projects that the gaming community felt were authentic and showed them in a positive way, our casting producer had their trust, and therefore they trusted me — so we had a relationship that was authentic. We made it clear what the show was about: We wanted people who had met in this world and we wanted to follow their stories. Ideally, we wanted people that hadn’t met in real life yet. So it was a small casting pool. It was definitely not the kind of project where you’re going to get 500 applicants, but we knew that going in, because it’s a specialized group of people. The nature of their relationships was specialized, too. So we just talked to them. They had a lot of questions for us, and we answered them all.

Were the people you initially spoke to a bit apprehensive about being on the show? As you mentioned, the misconceptions about gaming fans has led to some well-deserved skepticism about projects like this.

They were all very nervous at first, and yes, suspicious. But over time, we earned their trust through the interview process.

Did you find that a specific type of game or franchise produced more potential cast members than others? Is there a type of game that tends to lead to more real-world romantic relationships like this? 

Well, definitely the multiplayer games …

Like Warcraft and MMORPGs?

Exactly. When we were casting this, the latest version of League of Legends had just come out, and World of Warcraft was the biggest game at the time. Those games were incredibly prevalent in the gamer community. Elder Scrolls was a close third. We found that the biggest games really gave us the best chance to find people.

Did the unique focus of the show on the gaming community present any particular challenges — either logistically or narratively — when presenting their stories?

Absolutely. Hardcore gamers often have unique lifestyles. A lot of them work all day and then game all night — so finding time that worked for them when we could interview them was difficult. There are also some gamers who are introverts, so we would occasionally find one person who was absolutely willing to tell their story, but their partner was, well … less willing. So we had some trouble with that.

Also, with people who only know each other in the game, it’s a big leap to to meet in person and then also share that journey with the public. So there were definitely some couples we found that ultimately weren’t comfortable with that idea.

You mentioned that you weren’t a gamer coming into this project, so what did working on the show teach you about the gaming fans? There are probably going to be a lot of people watching the show that aren’t gamers, so what do you hope they take away from it?

First and foremost, the stereotypes around gamers were completely broken for me. You realize these are people who could be you or your brother or your daughter. They have incredibly vivid lives both in and out of games, and have the same goals for relationships and the same goals for their life that any of us do. The avatars they create in these games create an even richer life for them, because they have that connection to the characters they created and to each other’s avatars, too.

The other thing I appreciated about this experience was that these people fell in love not based on what they looked like, or how much money they had, or the car they drove, or where they lived, or who their friends were. When they fell in love, it was based on the common love of these games and just talking to each other — hearing each other’s voices for days, months, or years. That’s such a pure love. It’s not based on everything society makes so important. I thought that was really incredible. And they end up knowing each other so well and so deeply, just based on talking to each other for so long.

All 12 episodes of Happily Ever Avatar are currently available to stream on HBO Max.

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