Reality Bytes

Reality Bytes
Grinding the Dating Scene

Robert Yang | 18 Aug 2009 12:59
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Young, single, somewhat good looking and probably out of my league. I wink anyway. My would-be future ex winces, immediately regretting eye contact - then turns away and logs off.

Oh well, at least I didn't have to buy anyone a drink.

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In real-life I would've given up and gotten the same hollow reassurances from well-meaning friends ("There are plenty more fish in the sea!"), but here in the wacky world of online dating, I can actually target these fish with laser-guided missiles. I'm still in the game, despite failure after failure. And for that, I have to thank - or perhaps blame - OkCupid.

The idea of "play" has long held a sexual connotation (e.g. foreplay, being a "player," etc.). OkCupid takes that concept to its logical conclusion, borrowing game design conventions from the videogame equivalent of crack cocaine - the MMOG. It is the promise of just one more hit, just one more quest, or just one more QuickMatch profile search; it is the possibility that this time the Rat God will drop the Legendary Skullcrusher of Might, or that maybe this particular date won't end in a gas station bathroom. In this respect, both MMOGs and online dating services exploit our weak and pitiful human addiction to hope.

Before I had even started playing, my well-meaning friends warned me that the minimum system requirements for OkCupid were pretty steep: I needed at least 256 megabytes of RAM, a 1.4 Ghz processor and a breathtaking lack of self-esteem. There was also a one-time subscription fee of my dignity, they told me.

Fine. Who needs well-meaning friends anyway?

Entering the Realm

I begin by taking OkCupid's "What's Your Dating Persona" quiz. Some questions ask what I want in a relationship, as you'd expect from a quiz about dating, while others ask my gender, sexual preferences, marital status, age, etc.
OkCupid mixes actual quiz questions and profile registration fields together on the same page, effectively tricking me into filling out a user registration form without knowing it. By the time I finish the "Dating Persona Quiz," I've already signed up and logged in with my profile mostly filled out.

OkCupid notifies me by email that someone already "winked" at me (the equivalent of a "poke" on Facebook), and I get excited and click on the link in the email to see MagicalNight25's profile picture. Of course, the online flirtation doesn't lead to anything further - MagicalNight25 is so skinny I can practically see a femur - but by clicking the link, I've effectively provided OkCupid with an email validation and the go-ahead for them to continue sending me romantic possibilities.

The best videogames also follow this streamlined approach to the user experience: Portal teaches the player how to use one portal, then both portals, then how to conserve momentum through portals; Braid starts each world with a simple "Pit" level to teach the basic time travel mechanic, then encourages increasingly complex applications of that mechanic in later levels.

While not MMOGs, the similar use of pacing in Portal and Braid lower the initial learning barrier of the task at hand; likewise, OkCupid's disguised registration form and camouflaged email validation transform a potentially excruciating sequence of 20 registration fields into a giggly schoolyard game of "do you like me?"

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