I wasn’t really sure what to expect from my first year at Project Horseshoe, but the last thing I imagined was spending most of the conference talking about dating geeks.

I should clarify: I enjoy dating geeks. In fact, they’re my favorite dating material. I just didn’t expect my love life would make much of a conference topic.

Granted, it wasn’t just my tastes under the microscope. Also in the workgroup were Richard Dansky (Red Storm Entertainment), Dustin Clingman (Zeitgeist Games), Steve Meretzky (Blue Fang Games), David Warhol (Realtime Associates) and Jeff Pobst (Hidden Path Entertainment). For the record, they’re all married. And all men. A few other women dropped in occasionally to provide feedback, but most of the feminine perspective came from me. I hope it wasn’t too skewed by my pro-geek dating preferences.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s how it got started: Richard Dansky stood up and said, “Videogames and movies are always being compared to each other, but one of the most important movie genres is the date movie. Why don’t we have date games?” As I looked around, it seemed to me that the men in the room were all thinking “Yeah, why don’t we?” and the women in the room were all thinking, “Hah! You have to ask?” At least, that’s what I thought, and the brief grimace I shared with the other ladies in attendance indicated there was some consensus on the matter.

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That impression is what got me into what came to be known (informally) as the “Wendy and Richard Make a Porno” workgroup. The conversation was serious, though. Just what is it that makes a movie perfectly acceptable as a date option, and videogames a little … wrong?

We started with the easy part by listing all the characteristics that make movies the perfect date activity – including the whole experience of going to a movie, not just the narrative content of movies that are marketed as “date material.”

Here’s what we came up with. Movies are classically good for dates because:

  • Movies are easy to access – There’s no special equipment required; you just show up to the right place at the right time and buy a ticket that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
  • Movies are passive – All you have to do is sit back and watch. It’s not your fault if the pacing is slow or the main character just can’t seem to crack a puzzle. If the movie turns out to be not as great as you hoped, you can still have a laugh about how bad it was. It’s not like your date was directly responsible for the performance.
  • Movies are a non-threatening, shared experience – There’s nothing competitive about a movie. You share the same entertainment experience as the rest of the audience. And even if you don’t really give it your full attention, you can’t fail at watching a movie.
  • Movies theaters are public spaces – Watching a movie is especially good for a first date, because movie theaters aren’t as personal as your date’s apartment. It’s a safe way for a couple to start getting to know each other.
  • Physical contact is acceptable – Everyone is familiar with the “yawn and stretch” move to get your arm around your date at the movie theater. Horror movies are classic opportunities for jumping into your date’s arms. Sappy dramas are great for comforting sensitive souls.
  • Movies provide many well-established genres – Beyond the classic date movie – a drama that appeals to both men and women – there are a lot of kinds of movies to choose from, and you can learn a lot about your date by the movie genres he or she enjoy. For instance, I love going to sci-fi action movies, but you couldn’t pay me to go to one of the new crop of crass comedies. So I can tell from a movie poster or trailer whether I have any hope of enjoying a particular movie. Also, you can be pretty sure there won’t be many car chases in the next big chick flick. You generally know what to expect before you buy the ticket.
  • Movie culture is accessible and welcoming – You can read a movie review in an old-fashioned print newspaper. Amateur movie criticism is an established part of water-cooler gossip. Movies are a perfectly acceptable topic to bring up with that cute stranger standing at the bus stop. There’s a common language and a friendly atmosphere.

When we looked at this list through the eyes of game designers, it became obvious why videogames aren’t considered good for dates. Just holding up those criteria to the average console game gives us this list.

Videogames are not good for dates because:

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  • Games have a not-insignificant barrier to entry – Game consoles and PCs are expensive, to say nothing of the games themselves. Gaming is not something you can do without preparation and money. Additionally, if you’re a geek and want to date someone who isn’t, you’ll have to spend some time teaching them how to use a controller – and they’ll have to be willing to learn.
  • Games are participatory – If the entertainment experience goes sour, it’s entirely possible your date is responsible. Can’t get past a level? Your date may not be thinking you’re a loser, but how can you be sure? Not everyone is great at videogames, but the only way to know if your gaming skills are roughly equal is to play the game and find out.
  • Games are usually either single-player or competitive multiplayer – Few videogames are two-person experiences. Often, one person is left as a purely observational audience member, and that’s usually second-rate entertainment compared to other media. When there’s a two-player option, there’s usually a winner and a loser. So are you the loser? Or just dating one?
  • Games are played in private space – There used to be an arcade culture in the U.S., but it’s mostly dead now. For the most part, the only place to play a videogame is in someone’s home. This may be fine when you’ve been dating someone a while or were friends before you began dating. But it fails completely as a true first-date option.
  • Games don’t encourage physical contact – Console games require two hands on the controller. Online games are usually played at great distances from each other. This might be a convenient way to maintain a long-distance relationship, but when it comes to a first date, there aren’t many advantages.
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  • Game genres are limited and unpredictable – Do I want to play a first-person shooter? Or survival horror? Maybe an open-world game like GTA? Wait … how is your date going to like watching you shoot that hooker to get your money back? My favorite example is in Lego Star Wars. Open a particular door, and you walk in on several storm troopers in a hot tub. That made me blush, and I was just playing it with my 3-year-old nephew, who thought nothing of the Lego characters taking a bath. It could have been very awkward on a faltering first date if I didn’t know to avoid it. These Easter eggs are everywhere in videogames. They’re not inherently bad, just potentially embarrassing in mixed company.
  • Game culture is sexist and homophobic – The Brits call it “lad” culture. In the U.S. we associate it with bad-mannered college fraternities. Put on your headset in any multiplayer console game and you’ll get an earful of graphic trash talk where players who aren’t doing so well are told they play like a girl. Or a fag. Level design that fails in some way is referred to as “ghey.” This may make you look cool to other 12-year-old boys, but women don’t find it attractive, and few adults are inclined to immerse themselves in that kind of culture.

Of course, not all games fail on all these points. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are more cooperative than competitive. Casual games often have a lower barrier to entry. MMOGs are social, but rarely played from the same location. And these are the exceptions, not the rule. We couldn’t think of any game that covered all the same essential characteristics as a good date movie.

This is kind of a depressing list we came up with in our workgroup. It’s easy to throw our hands up and say “Oh well, I guess videogames will never help geeks get a date.” But Project Horseshoe is all about tackling the big problems head on. So we took a look at this list and talked about what could be done about it.

One thing videogames will always be better at than movies is innovation. Movies excel at dates because they’re so well established, but they’re also locked into the way things have always been. In videogames, if something doesn’t work the way we want, we just change it. We invent new consoles, new delivery methods, new genres all the time. So why not invent the date game?

There are certainly some things games could do better than movies. Games could do a great job of helping two people get to know each other – social networking sites are already exploring this kind of territory. What celebrity are you most like? How does your booklist compare to your friend’s? Surely game developers can mine this kind of personal trivia for more social fun.

Games also provide opportunities for two people to cooperate in solving problems or creating something entirely new. Sitting in the audience at a movie theater will never have that kind of power.

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Along the same lines, games also provide an opportunity for impressing your date with your leet skillz – whether they be in the form of air guitar or outsmarting the final boss. In the right context, there are opportunities to show off your best – or worst – qualities.

So, where do we go from here? Dustin Clingman picked up the challenge to design a game aimed at being perfect for a first date. He’s already brainstormed a list of possibilities and is starting to get serious about fleshing out the game he wants to build. He’s shared these ideas with the workgroup post-Horseshoe, and they’ve helped develop and clarify the problem even further.

A grandmother once told me to watch how a man treats his dog, because he’ll treat his wife with the same degree of kindness or cruelty. I wonder if that advice will change when I’m her age, dispensing my wisdom to someone just jumping into the dating pool. “Watch how a man treats your avatar on your first date. You can learn a lot about him in a good game.”

Wendy Despain is a game writer and designer with International Hobo. She’s getting back together with the Project Horseshoe workgroup gang for a presentation on this topic at GDC09.

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