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?”

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.

The Endgame

As effective as the site is at recruiting and training new users, OkCupid: The MMORPG suffers from one glaring flaw: There’s no content for high-level players. After a month, I’ve messaged my share of users and even gone on a handful of dates, but I’m already feeling a little burnt out.

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Now, I check my profile once every week or two at most; my other friends don’t bother to log in for months at a time. There’s no constant user interaction, no publicized number about how many friends I have – in other words, no incentive to stay, gain more experience levels and watch big numbers get bigger. Presumably the “elder game” is posting on the OkCupid forums and writing quizzes and journal entries. But none of those are core to the dating game, and thus, they’re not compelling. Once you exhaust the supply of “mobs” in your area, maybe go on a few coffee date “raids” here and there, then there’s not much else to do but sit and wait for new content. An MMOG would solve this problem with a new quest or instance – but on OkCupid, a slow and hopeless trickle of new users is all one can hope for.

There’s not much OkCupid can do in that regard – it’s dating, not social networking. When you get rejected, there’s little point in maintaining contact. That’s the problem with seeing all the fish in the sea – the damning certainty that yes, you’ve overfished, and there’s nothing here for you.

You can’t blame OkCupid for failing to answer the question that every single person asks themselves on Valentine’s Day: Why aren’t I in a relationship? Is it my fault?

The problem is, the game of “dating” itself is broken at a fundamental level. There simply isn’t enough feedback to keep players interested – no “arousal” bar floating above your date’s head, no red flashing HUD when you make a tactless joke about AIDS over lunch, no on-screen message that tells you “I like you as a friend, but nothing more.” It’s like trying to cast a costly spell without knowing how much mana you have left – and every failed cast reminds you of high school. If dating were a videogame, we would call this poor interface design.

But that’s what makes dating fun; it’s the sheer difficulty of analyzing and interpreting signals, the vagueness (or complete absence) of player feedback that makes it so incredibly compelling, so all-consuming, so worthwhile … well, at least in theory, I tell myself.

So now I sit here, alone, in my darkened room; alone, in my week-old underwear; alone, lit only by the cold, blue, unfeeling glow of my monitor – alone.

Yep, online dating is just like the real thing.

Robert “Campaignjunkie” Yang designs levels and weird pretentious art-house mods for Half-Life 2. You should play them. In his spare time, he’s also an undergraduate English student at UC Berkeley.

Stolen Pixels #117: The Path Will Take Her to The End

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