The words didn't come easy in the first moments of their courtship. And even when they did, Stephen Monahan and Britney Hilbun were holding out for the big score.

Theirs was a relationship hatched online, in the virtual world of a game called "Words With Friends." Matched when they hit the game's "random opponent" button, months passed before the two -- who lived 160 miles apart -- even met in person.

Now the two are engaged and living in Tyler, Texas, 90 miles east of Dallas.

"It's kind of funny to think, in retrospect," Monahan said. "If either of us had waited a second later, we may not have ever been paired up."

Look around you: People everywhere are buried in smartphones or computer monitors, making their latest move in multiplayer games like "Words With Friends," which has 20 million players worldwide. Others, less visible, are in front of home consoles, lost in fantasy or in conflict-based games with others across the Internet.

Few, if any, go into these games looking for love. But the ability to "chat" within the contests can spur flirtations much like those in a bar, sporting event, arts festival or any other setting where you might meet an intriguing stranger.

Such relationships will become more commonplace, some believe, as social media redefine our interactions.

"This is probably one of the biggest shifts in the last decade -- the integration of online activities and connections into our social lives," said T.L. Taylor, founding member of the Center for Network Culture at the IT University of Copenhagen.

While online dating sites let potential couples pre-gauge compatibility, online gaming, with its fictitious user names, lacks that initial openness.

"Gaming contexts involve more anonymity and fantasy than online dating sites, which have pressures for honesty and accuracy in self-presentation," said communications professor Jennifer Gibbs of Rutgers University, who has studied the phenomenon.

Courtships, then, proceed cautiously. Chats beget e-mail exchanges that further reveal character, then Facebook friendships that display one's social circles and livelihoods, and, finally, video chats that verify appearances gleaned from already-shared photos -- all before real-life contact occurs.

Monahan, 28, and Hilbun, 25, know the story. Itching for a game of "Words With Friends" in early 2010, Monahan, a news editor who lived 70 miles north of Dallas in Gainesville, Texas, hit the random-opponent button. About the same time, Hilbun, a counselor in Tyler, did the same thing.

A few games indicated they were fairly evenly matched. They began an in-game chat and realized they lived just three hours apart. Of all the word game joints in the world, she had clicked into his.

"We found out we had a lot in common," Monahan said. "We made each other laugh."

Communication intensified; eventually they traded visits. On Christmas Day, he gave her an elaborate five-step gift, peaking with a ring and a photo of a doctored "Words With Friends" board. The words spelled out:


"When you try to wrap your head around it, it's kind of unbelievable that we had to push 'random' at the same moment," Hilbun said.

Can texting, online chats and e-mail replace actual interaction? Jeff Gavin, a psychology professor at Britain's University of Bath, told the Guardian in 2010 that other factors can bridge the shortfall.

People ask more questions online and give more intimate answers, he said, compensating for the lack of facial expressions.

Gavin also contributed to a 2005 study about dating sites, which found men were more committed to relationships started online than women, possibly because the initial anonymity let them "express their emotions more readily than in real life."

It's men who dominate so-called MMOGs, or massively multiplayer online games, which allow competitors worldwide to join the same game in real time with live conversation.

"They're the perfect melting pot for two players from across the globe to find one another," Pennsylvania-based writer Josh Loomis wrote in the Escapist in March 2009. "Which is exactly what happened to me."

Loomis joined a team, or guild, of other online players in the role-playing game "World of Warcraft" and struck up a conversation with a woman who lived in Canada. They've now been married for nearly three years.

"I still think that forming relationships online is quite viable," he said. "Meeting someone through a common interest provides solid, fertile ground for feelings to grow, and the relative protection of distance and a measure of anonymity can shield one from emotional backlash."