Can there be any question that dating is a game? Someone, usually male, who excels at it is a player, capable of playing the field. There are objectives, and strategies, and other players to compete with. But if dating is a game, what can games teach us about dating?
To answer this question, just look at the subgenre of computer simulation games devoted exactly to this pursuit, appropriately known as “Dating Sims.” These games, as one might imagine, intend to simulate some aspect of actual or imagined reality of interpersonal relations. And although these games can take a variety of forms, the objective remains fairly consistent: the player must select a partner to pursue romantically.
But just as real-life dating has considerable consequences, so do dating sim games have much to say about life’s biggest questions, such as fate, destiny, and agency.
I realized this early on in my experience, as I was putting the moves on Ariane from the game Virtually Date Ariane. The game starts with a generous dose of creepiness, with the player treated to a voyeuristic glimpse of Ariane in a tight low-cut shirt through a window. Approach Ariane, and she flirts with you. Move the cursor across her face or her breasts, and the option of complementing her becomes available. Move the cursor across her collar bone, and a hug is in the cards. I chose the polite path, and complimented my pixilated paramour. Ariane must have liked that: she led me on and gave me the green light for a kiss. After the kiss she wanted to talk, but the only options made available to me were physical advancements. Which means I could only be a one-track-minded chauvinist. Ariane didn’t like that. Equally as troubling, I couldn’t figure out how to “win;” alas, it seemed as if I was fated to “lose.”
Perhaps this game, like many others that I experimented with, is a commentary on the established trope that women are impossible to read. This same trope that depicts women as being emotionally fragile, with unintelligible triggers, and impossible to reason with. This is as false in games as it is in life; after all, why bother with the whole sim experience if every interaction is preordained?
In a sense, of course, every video game is preordained, with the course of the game already codified into systems of algorithms. And unlike life, the wooed generally have a skewed, or utterly non-existent, sense of history. I could play the same game, or even replay the same interaction, over and over without consequence. The person I’m attempting to court has no idea that I said the “wrong” thing to the same question twice already. Thank goodness: how could we ever win in this system without this amnesia, without characters with personalities that are profoundly vague, unobtainable, or even non-existent?
Some dating sims, however, do attempt to tempt players with big, virtual personalities. These games give players points to distribute amongst different skills and personality traits. Later in these games, my avatar could perform certain tasks to earn points that would add value to certain skill sets. I could improve my strength by 10 points if I ran on the beach. If only real life was so simple, with a visit to the gym rewarded by instantly visible and quantifiable results. That might keep me motivated.
Of course, the tendency to quantify relationships isn’t exclusive to computer games. Long before first player courted the first virtual character, women’s magazines offered quizzes with definite scores and corresponding categories. But their promise was false: The scores to the quizzes never did much to really elucidate to me if my crush actually liked me, or the extent of my sex appeal; all they did was reveal an arbitrary system of evaluation. Online dating sites do the exact same thing, asking their participants to categorize themselves in personality tests that are subject to data mining in order to find their ideal partner.
This type of approach works nicely in a game, but not so much in real life. “Do you floss?” was among the questions asked in a survey to generate a profile on okcupid.com that qualified me for some mates over others. My answer would influence the algorithm that would then help me choose my romantic partner and shape my destiny. In real life, none of my partners have ever asked me such trivial questions as a measure of assessing whether or not we were suitable.
What happens when we categorize and quantify ourselves for another person? Firstly, categorizations alone don’t reflect personal histories and context behind the behaviors or values at hand. This kind of categorization appears to also have a degree of finality about it. It seems to limit the role of mutual growth and adaptation between individuals, an important aspect of relationships. I am of the belief that we are not “made” for another person; instead, it’s a question of give and take.
Love is something often left to the fates. But in these games, it’s the jurisdiction of code. The player may have some opportunities to exert agency in these games in pursuit of a relationship, but only within the prescribed systems of algorithms and assumptions. This deterministic quanitfiability may offer the player some degree of comfort in externality. Dating becomes a low-stakes game. The player doesn’t have to suffer from what can be crippling anxieties surrounding forays into romance. One can play a scenario a number of times to explore one’s own successes, boundaries, and fantasies about different selves.
The game’s code may be loaded with an agenda and morals, but we also come “loaded” with similar dispositions and assumptions. So perhaps these games are not as foreign of an experience as we may presume. By playing a dating sim, we consider a perspective on relationships that may or may not be like our own. At points, I was struck by the profound commentaries of some of these games, be they intentional or not. My experience with Ariane taught me a thing or two about the “male mystic.” Another game, puura academy dating sim, challenges hegemonic constructions of gender and sexuality (and speciesism!) through gameplay. And this may be the greater virtue of these games: like dating, it is about understanding the perspectives and predispositions of others. And that’s no small thing.
Samples of Dating Sims: