Reality Bytes

Reality Bytes
Grinding the Dating Scene

Robert Yang | 18 Aug 2009 12:59
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Leveling Up

MMOG designers use quests and experience meters to direct players' skill mastery and progression and to make sure players master introductory skills before progressing to more advanced mechanics.

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Meanwhile, OkCupid uses its own versions of quests and experience meters to systematically erode your sense of propriety and social norms; the initial resistance to putting so much personal information online, the fear of meeting online strangers in real-life, the creeping anxiety that your date will grin and ask if you want to see their knife collection.

In short, OkCupid slips you a digital roofie by exploiting your completionist streak, your desire to see that "experience meter" at the top of the page all filled up.
Add a profile picture to reach 35%! Well, that certainly sounds reasonable Message another user to reach 60%! Whoa, hey, BenOrJerry11, I like eating ice cream too! Arrange a meeting at a local dive bar to reach 105%! "I'll be the busty brunette wearing the pink carnation," you will say, imagining their lips barely discernible in the smoky twilight. And then they'll grin and ask if you want to go back to their place to see their knife collection.

Hunter and Hunted

In real life we derive so many cues from the eyes - from a ferocious wink across the bar to accidental eye contact with that creepy introvert dressed in all-black sitting in the corner - so why not apply that in the context of an MMORPG or a social network? Why not make the act of "looking" into a game mechanic?

Imagine Facebook, except it reveals who views your profile. (On OkCupid, viewing another user's profile is called "stalking.") Then you, in turn, view their profile - or stalk your stalker, if you will, creating a potentially endless chain of stalking.
The act of "looking" now has a cost, and being "looked at" has value. "Looking" is now a meaningful verb on this social network and it makes all the difference because that's how you know if someone else is interested in you.

This is the primary mini-game in OkCupid: the stalker feed.

In my head, I keep track of how often SwimFan20 looks at my profile and at what times. If SwimFan20 repeatedly "stalks" me, it's reasonable to assume that there's interest (or desperation) - but I don't want to show my hand. I want to "play it cool." So I look at SwimFan20's profile only once or twice and remember any important information, such as the fact that they truly enjoy "hanging out with friends," though their true passion is "listening to music sometimes" - wow, we have so much in common.

This is the optimal strategy in the MMORPG that is OkCupid: to look at your crush's profile as little as possible lest you betray your own awkward and desperate interest. And it's also exactly the way the designers want you to play: It forces you to carefully read someone's profile and think about who they are - and naturally, those with longer profiles provide more fodder.

Of course, we of the Facebook generation are used to stalking people and inferring their personality from a few words on their profile - but what about the 30-somethings and 40-somethings who use OkCupid? That's the brilliance of OkCupid's stalking system: It teaches users how to analyze other people's profiles without relying on an on-screen textbox tutorial explicitly outlining how it works.

Ideally, this is how videogames function as well - you learn to play the game the way you're supposed to play, because that is strategically the best way to play. That is good design.

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