Cheat Code: Leveling Up on Dating Apps


First appeared in PQMonthly

There he is, that writer, on his day off from his day job. Tall, lanky as fuck, wandering from room to room in his apartment in NE Portland with a coffee cup in hand. He stops to pet his cat, then checks his phone. A notification from Tinder, a dating app for boring people. A new match! His thumb hovers above the screen of his mint-condition iPhone 3GS. “What is happening here?” he thinks. Ignores the notification. Life goes on.

A day later, he’s on Scruff, a dating app for guys who want more Instagram followers. A few guys “woof” at him, he gets on the Global View front page, he feels good about himself. Then he wonders why, what kind of validation he’s getting from this.

Dating sites have been around since Al Gore invented the internet, in one form or another. Whether it was AOL chat rooms, or the first iterations of Chemistry and, people have found ways to connect with one another electronically for decades now. But something shifted in the way we connect with each other when the smartphone took off, and applications, or apps, were invented. Some of the most popular apps were those which were phone games. What happened next was inevitable: the hookup/dating app was born, and it was no coincidence that it was close cousin not to the or OKCupid websites, but Angry Birds. Dating apps have become video games.

Let me clarify what I consider a video game. It could be anything from an innocuous “Words With Friends” or “Candy Crush” mobile gaming app to an elaborate console game like “Skyrim”. Whichever you choose to compare with dating apps, the comparisons are numerous.

The paralells makes sense, in a diabolical, genius way: you log on to the dating app, and depending on the interface, you either “swipe right” or “woof” or “star” someone. Then you wait. You would think this is the boring part, this is the part where there’s just a void. Nope, this is where your brain goes into overdrive, this is where it starts anticipating, it starts producing dopamine. New studies suggest that the anticipation of a reward is almost more powerful than the actual receiving of it. These studies are usually cited when talking about the powerful pull of social media sites like FaceBook and Twitter, but they can just as easily apply to Scruff and Grindr. When you think about it, those hookup apps are just another form of social networking site, except instead of friends, you’re looking for “workout buddies”. Ahem.

Think about it: you’re rewarded when someone “woofs” at you, or also swipes right. You’re rewarded when your profile is viewed a lot. You’re rewarded when people compliment your picture. You’re rewarded when someone unlocks their pictures for you. These are all things that get you to the next level, these are, in gaming terms, “unlocked achievements”. A few apps also have a carrot they dangle in front of you too: get more viewers, view profiles anonymously, other enticements and incentives…just give us your credit card and all of this can be yours! This is similar for a “Free To Play” video game model which also offers game-enriching equipment and skills for a modest fee.

But if dating apps are a video game, what about the obstacles? What’s the Scruff equivalent (Scruffquivalent? Sure!) of the bad guys? It would be easy to point to the dick pics or the torso-only photos, but these aren’t obstacles, they’re just choices. It would be pretty sex-negative for me to think these are evil. Nope, evil comes in the form of awkwardness. When your ex who broke up with you in a really shitty way congratulates you on making the Global View, that’s a bad guy. When a coworker woofs at you, that’s a bad guy. When someone links their Scruff account to their shitty-ass blog and asks you to read it, that’s a bad guy an interesting way to meet similar-minded people.

In long-playing games like Destiny and Kingdom Hearts (which seems like a game designed by pederasts), there’s usually a narrative, a story that unfolds, and it’s punctuated with adventures and plot twists to keep your attention, to keep you playing. This parallels the apps closely: there’s a narrative, which is different for each person. “I want to use a hookup app to find a husband.” “I want to find friends to drink beer and hang out and hook up with.” “I want to make really bad otter puns in my profile name and show my junk to strangers.” The thing that keeps us going? The plot twist that keeps us hooked? The dangling carrot, that there’s always going to be someone else out there, maybe better looking than the guy we’re currently talking to. This longing, this never being happy with what we have, this is the dangerous part. On dating apps, we are all magpies in a land populated with tinfoil denizens.

So this guy I talked about before, this tall, bearded writer? Maybe he’s going to start finding better things to do than being on dating apps. Maybe the less he’s on them the more he’ll pay attention to the world around him. Yeah, maybe he’ll still meet a great guy on an app someday, maybe he’ll click with him in a major way and they’ll get something started. Maybe he already has.

You see, the apps themselves aren’t bad. And no, even the people on them, well a few are major dicks, but for the most part we’re all just looking to connect with other people. It’s how we use the technology that makes all the difference. The questions isn’t, has never been, “are dating apps like video games?” The question is: “How are you going to play the game?”

Play responsibly, friends.


If you enjoyed this, you should be ashamed of yourself. Continue the shame cycle and read about my birthday, or how much I love Valentine’s Day, or maybe that time I went on a dating cleanse. Let’s be horrible people together!

One thought on “Cheat Code: Leveling Up on Dating Apps”

  1. Where’s the stuff about your dead brother? For somebody who keeps on swearing off Scruff, you sure do find more time to talk about that than your own flesh and blood! smh

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