Game Design

the dating game

Of all the rites of passage in our lives, the one that strikes me as most like a game is dating.  Nowadays, dating apps and websites have taken advantage of this and help us play the so-called dating game.  Lessons from their design can be applied remarkably well to aspects of game design, and are great indicators of why dating apps and websites, like games, are so popular.  Here are some reasons I have discovered and their applications in game design.

1. We have a short attention span

  • Dating: We have short memories and focusing on one thing for long is tiresome.  Because of this, we are accustomed to making quick judgments and decisions, which go back to when our ancestors had to fend for themselves and get out of danger quickly.  Tinder is designed for these traits, by making each “turn” last no more than a glance: no reading through profiles if you don’t want to, no need to look at more than one photo.  Additionally, the interactions are intuitive by mirroring what we already do in the real world, as swiping right reflects writing a check mark, indicating “yes”.
  • Games: To design intuitive interactions, games do well to not only keep them simple, but align them with other aspects of the players’ lives.  Additionally, a really simple, graphical tutorial, especially on mobile, helps players learn to play really quickly without having to spend a long time reading and understanding rules.  Our short attention spans and memories demand that each turn doesn’t last too long.  Angry Birds follows many of these principles.  The interaction is simple and reflects how a catapult work in real life, so players catch on quickly, and each turn occurs as quickly as the player chooses to send the birds flying.  Angry Birds tutorials rely on graphics rather than words, which makes the mechanics simple to pick up and players can typically start playing right away.
The tutorial from Angry Birds is fully graphical and outlines interactions that match how things work in the real world.

2. We crave validation

  • Dating: We not only want to like someone, we want them to like us back, and show it.  This is why we feel validated when we get a match on Tinder or OKCupid.  It’s alright to think that we ourselves are wonderful, but it’s so nice to have someone else tell us that we are.  In their designs, they should even have fake profiles that match with players who aren’t getting matches, to give them validation and keep them playing.  In Tinder the deck of cards of people in your area also make the player feel comfortable, that there are other people around when swiping can be a lonely activity.
  • Games: In games, we want to know that our actions have an impact on the game world, and so player acknowledgment is very important.  Even in single player games, feedback in sound, non-player characters and the environment is vital in creating an immersive world.  To build on these, multiplayer games need to foster social validation, because the idea that someone human out there is noticing us and being affected by us is powerful.  Journey has a fascinating mechanic of meeting other players without speaking, and allowing multiplayer interactions that provide validation to the player by emphasizing the fact that you are not alone in the world.

    The other player in Journey could very well be an AI, but you’ll never know, it just serves to give you the feeling that someone else just like you is out there, and makes you feel less lonely. Image from: thatgamecompany.


3. We want to present the ideal versions of ourselves to the world and be safe doing so

  • Dating: A large part of the popularity of dating websites and apps relies on the fact that we want to present ourselves to people on our own terms.  This goes into the various techniques people use to craft the perfect profile photo and bio.  Because we are also afraid of rejection, online dating provides that abstraction and safety, the lens of it all being just a game.  In fact, on Tinder, once you’ve made a match, the app asks you whether you want to chat with the person or “keep playing”, not “keep swiping” (the physical interaction) or “keep judging” (the real action).  Tinder is under no misconception and it knows it is not real life, but rather an escape from real life, a layer of abstraction on it.  Tinder treats itself as a game, and this gives players a sense of safety, because they are their profiles and not themselves, and can do things in the game world that they cannot do in real life, pass quick judgment and reject people they don’t want to interact with.
  • Games: So much of world-building feeds into making the player feel powerful and safe.  From avatar creation, endowing special powers and creating a fantasy for the players, games do a wonderful job of providing that escape from day-to-day life, and this is done well in many games, including MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, which are notorious for the high level of player investment in their avatars and the game world such that they raid, roleplay and grind for hours on end.
Tinder match screen overtly calls itself a game, and asks players if they want to “keep playing”.

4. We want ownership in earning our rewards

  • Dating: Whatever your individual goal is (making friends, finding a one-night stand, or discovering a life partner), you want to know that you had a stake in making it happen when it finally does.  This is why we swipe, or send a message, instead of having the app do all the work for us.  In the Tinder example, the final reward can then be seen as a result of both players swiping right, amidst all the possible choices, and gives players a sense of control over their own fate although a lot of it is up to chance and circumstance.
  • Games: In games, it’s important to give players a sense of ownership over their character’s actions and thus a feeling of deserving or earning rewards.  Cheating and winning is not as rewarding as working hard and finally earning a prize, or that high score.
Getting on to a high score table legitimately is usually accompanied by a sense of achievement and accomplishment.

5. We don’t want it to be easy

  • Dating: A reason dating apps and websites differ from apps for booking travel or ordering food is that deep down, we don’t want dating to be easy.  When we date, we don’t want to order the perfect partner and be set for life, while when we book travel or order food, we usually want convenience over experience.  If we really did, we’d do what Amy Webb did and use analytics to find the ideal match online (and it works).  But instead, we want to play the game.  The surprising thing that connects the design of social apps to games is that we like and want the struggle of getting to know someone, because we need the struggle to grow, learn about ourselves and experience things.  Notice that any dating service only gives recommendations of who to talk to or meet, and it’s up to the player to struggle through the awkward conversations.
  • Games: That we want the struggle while playing a game is not a new idea.  It feeds into the idea of “flow” and into our own feelings of accomplishment and mastery when we have achieved a goal, or levelled up.  It’s a broad lesson that applies to many games, but one that comes to mind is Portal 2, where players are given challenges and smaller goals to accomplish while solving increasingly more difficult puzzles.  Yes, players struggle, but this is what we want and need to learn and feel accomplished, and this is why we want to spend hours playing games and minutes ordering a pizza.
Puzzles in Portal 2 remind us that the struggle is real, and we want the struggle, we want to be challenged because this brings about moments of learning and self-discovery. Image from: Valve.

All in all, dating websites and apps are mostly messaging systems with layers of mechanics and rules on top of them.  While they are advertised as great ways to find the right person and take the guesswork out of dating, I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  On the contrary, dating apps help people start playing the dating game by simplifying the steps leading up to it (the awkward first meetings).  And the truth is, we relish the guesswork and uncertainty of dating, because we enjoy the game.


Some References

  1. TedSalon NY2013. “Amy Webb: How I Hacked Online Dating.” TED. TED, April 2013. Web. 23 March 2016.
  2. PBS Game/Show. “The Game Design of Tinder & Online Dating | Game/Show | PBS Digital Studios.” YouTube. YouTube, 23 December 2014. Web. 23 March 2016.