Robert first catches my eye from across the coffee shop. New to the neighborhood, I’m looking for a friendly face. But Robert—glaring back at me from over his mug—isn’t friendly at all. Nevertheless, in the days that follow, I find myself gravitating toward him. When he finally introduces himself at a local dive bar, he offers me a drink. I’m pleasantly surprised. And when he excuses himself to use the restroom, the bartender informs me that he is surprised, too. The bartender says that he’s never seen Robert so talkative before, and hints that it must mean more. I play it cool. But inwardly, I know I’m cool. If Robert thinks so, it has to be true.
The next day, I find Robert’s profile online and send him a message. All of a sudden, we’re on our first date. The whole night, I’m trying to impress him with my love of whiskey (feigned) and my wild side (also feigned). At one point, he tells me to stop with the small talk, and that there’s nothing wrong with two people drinking in silence. Weird, but I’m all too willing to comply. The next thing I know, we’re on the curb outside of a convenience store drinking brownbagged Zinfandel.
Later still, we’re in a movie theater, where somehow we’ve gotten into an altercation with some teens I vaguely know. Robert successfully scares them off. At the end of the night, as he says goodbye to me, I try to decide between a number of responses and finally end up saying, “Thanks for defending my honor.” It’s the right move, I think. I’m reassured as emojis of hearts and eggplants suddenly fly out of Robert in every direction.
With that, the game stats roll in, showing me that I aced this date. A loading screen pops up while I wait for my progress in the game to save and for my avatar to return home. At my computer, I’m fully embarrassed—but smiling—about successfully being wooed by “Robert,” the two-dimensional “Bad Dad” of the 2017 videogame Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator.
My pleasure at being wooed through a game is common enough, judging by the number of game tutorials for Dream Daddy on Twitch and YouTube. These videos feature real-world players, blushing and stuttering, who have immersed themselves in the dating-simulation experience just like me. “Why is my heart beating?” yells one player as she races through the game’s dialogue, eager to arrive at her happy ending.
While the avatar of Dream Daddy is unique—no other game lets players play as a dad who falls in love with other dads—the genre of dating simulators (or dating sims) has grown considerably over the past decade. These dating sims differ in their actual game mechanics, but they commonly feature mini-games or puzzles within the larger narrative framework.
But they are not “only” games. Most, like Dream Daddy, can also be classified as virtual novels or visual novels: the digital equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure story. This means that the games’ primary structure consists of hyperlinked texts, which allow players to work through the narrative (or a variety of narratives) at their own pace.
The literary critic Catherine Gallagher has argued that romance novels can function as low-stakes “training” arenas for real life. Dream Daddy and other dating-simulation games, if we consider them as virtual romance novels, may very well do the same. But if we look at these works as training grounds, what, we might ask, are they training us for?
This question is answered, indirectly, in Moira Weigel’s much discussed Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (2016). In tracing how dating has reflected—and evolved with—wider economic changes over the past century, Weigel illustrates how dating itself is work, and how the work of dating is to “[train] us in how to be if we wanted to be wanted.”
So much of dating, she explains, is wrapped up in thinking of the other person first—not necessarily about how to make the other person happy but, rather, about how to ensure that we present ourselves to others in the most desirable light possible.
This, I realized, was what I was doing on my virtual date with Robert. I had no motivation for making the fictional dad happy. But I nevertheless knew that in order to “win,” I had to interact with him in a way that he would like—in a way that would ensure I was what he liked.
To fully understand the connections between dating and labor, Weigel says, we should examine the language of consumerism that infuses how we talk about dating. Singles who are “on the market,” for instance, might “shop around” before deciding to “seal the deal” and “settle.” But she also notes that many of the words that we use to describe dating also look to ideas of play, with frequent references to sports. Examples of this are everywhere—for instance, in the songs of Taylor Swift. In her 2014 single “Blank Space,” Swift admits, “You know I love the players, and you love the game.”
“People may use these expressions half-jokingly,” Weigel observes. “But the fact that so many of them remain current shows that our culture still sees dating as a transaction that takes place on uncertain terrain between work and play.”
This ambiguity is mirrored, even magnified, in how we use contemporary dating apps. It’s not uncommon for users of dating apps like Tinder, Grindr, and OKCupid to spend hours curating their online profiles: finding the most flattering pictures, saying the wittiest things, and hoping (as they do when sending a résumé to an overwhelmed hiring committee) that their efforts might garner the right kind(s) of attention.
And yet—in recounting her own efforts to “play” OKCupid—Weigel observes how easy it is to forget that there’s a goal beyond digitally “winning” matches, likes, and taps. She concludes that we’ve come to “treat the app more like a videogame” that can be won, rather than as a means to meet new people.
While this blurring of the line between games and labor has been discussed thoroughly with respect to a variety of online platforms—even giving rise to the neologism “playbor,” a portmanteau of “play” and “labor”—few have applied this perspective to videogames.
Even as they follow conventions, many dating simulators actually subvert both the romance genre and romance itself.
That’s where Dream Daddy and other dating simulators come in. While these games can vary in their mechanics and narratives, they tend to reproduce the “playbor” of modern romance—especially as mediated by dating apps. As people feel busier and busier, Weigel points out, real-world dating (and the work that goes into it) can seem less and less desirable. So why would anyone seek out more work in the form of these simulators?
I propose two reasons, both of which may seem fairly obvious. First, the play elements in these games consistently outweigh the work elements—indeed, more so than players can expect in their lived experiences of dating.
Even though these dating simulators are meant to offer an analogous situation to real-world dating, no one suspects that living in a pastel neighborhood populated by handsome, eligible, and interested queer men is reflective of reality. No, the imaginative and the fantastic are turned up in these games. Through sound, text, graphics, cutscenes, and other characteristics that cue players into the fictitiousness of these worlds, we’re reminded that the game is low-stakes. It doesn’t matter what you do here; it’s all for fun.
The second reason that players might turn to these games, despite the labor they involve, is that they portray romance in terms of black and white. You either win or you lose; gameplay is rule-bound, simple, and easy.
It is possible that some players look to dating simulators as a platform through which they can learn to perform better when it comes to the real thing (just as Gallagher theorized of romance novels). But it’s more likely that the predictable reward systems built into these games appeal to users who are looking for a happy ending. Furthermore, the games’ clearly defined, rule-bound outcomes are beneficial to players. The anxiety over whether or not one is wasting time and energy on fruitless pursuits (a common concern of many a dating-app user) is diminished by a player’s ability to track their progress and anticipate the outcome.
But even as they follow these conventions, many dating sims actually subvert both the romance genre and romance itself. In the best of these games, there is often a disconnect between the player and the simulation in terms of the actual “endgame.” Dating sims are beginning to allow for a wider variety of possible endings—just as, on Tinder, one user might be looking to settle down, while another is only looking for company on their weekend visit to a new city.
In Dream Daddy, for example, some of the characters are, surprisingly, unavailable to the player. Even after going on “successful” dates with the player’s avatar, at least two of the characters will ultimately turn him down. One of the game’s possible endings does not involve happy coupling. Instead, the game fades out as the player’s avatar picks up his rejected gifts, alone, telling himself that “it’s going to be OK.”
While such storylines of rejection and uncertainty reflect the romance of real life—while also upending our expectations of dating sims—some games take a darker approach. One example is Doki Doki Literature Club!, which, like Dream Daddy, was released through the online gaming platform Steam in 2017. Doki Doki uses much of the same bright palette and cartoon imagery that Dream Daddy does. In this sim, the player’s avatar finds himself joining an after-school club whose only other members are four cute girls, all of whom seem delighted to have a new member and quickly begin to vie for the player’s attention.
For those unfamiliar with Doki Doki, it might come as a surprise, then, that in addition to being tagged as a “dating sim,” the game is also listed as “psychological horror” (spoilers to follow).
After a number of warnings early on in the game, the player is forced to move from thinking of the characters in terms of their “dateability” to thinking instead of their health and well-being. That’s because the characters start dying, one by one. In the end, the only character left, Monika, breaks the wall separating the world of the game from our real-life world. She does so by revealing that she, a computer character, is self-aware: cognizant that she’s been trapped inside a game the whole time. She admits to having deleted the other characters by tampering with their files, telling you that she’s done so in order to have you, the real-life player, all to herself.
Through Monika’s manipulation of the game, the player, in turn, becomes aware that they are now trapped in the virtual novel, forced to choose “Only Monika” for the rest of virtual eternity. While Dream Daddy’s Robert is always kept at a safe but pleasant remove, here Monika works to break out of the game’s confines and into the player’s actual life.
Within dating apps, we’re constantly reminded that corporations and software creators now rule the dating domain.
This lack of control—although a subversion of the game and our expectations—parallels the experience of dating in the digital age. Apps like Tinder and OKCupid produce only an illusion of control. Take, for example, the option to limit one’s search results according to certain parameters (only users within five miles, say, or only men between the ages of 25 and 35). Not only do these apps determine who “appears” available, they also guide the user through algorithm-produced advice (much like Monika “guides” the player, through a string of murders, toward her trap at the conclusion of the virtual novel). Tinder, for example, prompts users to make the first move in interacting with their new matches. The question becomes: To whom are we being directed? And to what end?
This highlights one of the defining features of playbor, as identified by Julian Kücklich, the media theorist who coined the term: “The means of production are the players themselves, but insofar as they only exist within play environments by virtue of their representations, and their representations are usually owned by the providers of these environments, the players cannot be said to be fully in control of these means” (emphasis my own). In the same way that Monika displays her ultimate control of Doki Doki, within dating apps we’re constantly reminded that corporations and software creators now rule the dating domain.
In spite of the horrors of modern dating, we sometimes still encounter those rare scenarios that can be fun, rewarding, even hopeful. Through all the gray areas—the ambiguous spaces between dating and labor, work and play, games and reality—what keeps us invested in this complicated, corporatized, and capitalistic endeavor?
Weigel, in closing her own account of the fraught history of dating, insists that despite everything that’s working against romance today, it’s still possible, and worth the investment it demands. Before committing to this investment, however, she advises her readers to figure out what it is they actually want to want. Maybe games can help us with that.
This article was commissioned by Matt Margini.