In George Batchelor’s Hot Date you sit face-to-face with a series of pugs—yes, the wrinkly, scrunchy-faced dogs that are so horrendously unattractive that they go full circle into adorable—and get to know them. A clock ticks on the shadowy wall in the background (plain but for a party pennant and a sign that reads “SPEED DATING,” with the “SPEE” cut off), counting down the length of time left in each round of speed-dating conversations. The player provides their name and asks questions:
“What’s your favourite Bowie album?” “What do you do for fun?” “Have you ever read Catcher in the Rye?” “Do you believe in aliens?”
The pugs have white fur and pink ears, muzzles, and bellies. Their eyes are black circles set in faces that display little expression other than a sort of bewildered disdain. Some are standoffish or rude, while others are willing to entertain a friendly conversation. The pugs have strong opinions on film, art, and music. They’re talking dogs with distinct personalities and, within the brief time spent with each one of them, the player feels like they’ve come to understand something about their conversation partner.
Hot Date is a deeply ridiculous game. But despite its intentional absurdity, it’s also one of the most honest portrayals of romance, with all its unpredictabilities, that video games have managed to date.
In popular role-playing games (RPGs) like BioWare’s Mass Effect, Atlus’s Persona 4, and Intelligent Systems/Nintendo SPD’s Fire Emblem: Awakening—well-regarded examples in a genre that’s known for solid storytelling and characters—romance is handled with far less nuance. While the dialogue between the player character and their potential partners typically does a good enough job of establishing believable characters in these games, their portrayal of an intimate relationship is often too simple to approach anything like reality. Following in the tradition of the visual novels that Hot Date partially parodies (largely Japanese-developed, conversation-heavy text adventures with little to no animation), RPGs like the ones mentioned above reduce romance to the mechanical framework of any other video game quest.
These romances are straightforward, the player “gaming” their potential partner by selecting the most appropriate dialogue options, fulfilling quests, or presenting special items as “gifts”. Because relationships in these titles are designed with the same rigid, logistical approach as other gameplay objectives—fight to the final boss to complete a mission, or say the right things often enough to become intimate with another character—they fail to mirror the intricacies of dating and romance. Hot Date’s charming little dogs have their own wills and whims, which—just like those possessed by real people—may or may not match up with yours. This, small as it may be, is a welcome change from video games that render potential partners with a linearity and predictability more characteristic of word-processing applications than actual humans.
Dr. Kimberly Moffit, relationship expert and founder of Toronto’s KMA Therapy, notes the potential effects that this kind of viewpoint may engender. “Relationships are more than just a science or a series of steps that can be followed to achieve success. There’s an involuntary component to relationships—things like chemistry and desire are often influenced by our bodies and therefore can’t be manipulated,” she told me. The framework established by most video games glosses over another person’s preferences, presenting a fantasy that allows players to believe that if they only do the right thing, they’ll be able to win over anybody they’re attracted to.
Failing to accurately portray the complexity of romantic relationships is more than just a design problem. If the dating systems featured in visual novels and RPGs are accepted as worthwhile behavioural models—consciously or not—they’re capable of encouraging a commoditized view of romantic and sexual partners in real life. This systematic approach to dating is, creepily enough, strikingly similar to the methods espoused by pick-up artists like exceptionally hatted pseudo-celebrity Mystery, not to mention It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s infamous D.E.N.N.I.S. system (Demonstrate value, Engage physically, Nurture dependence, Neglect emotionally, Inspire hope, Separate entirely).
These examples may be from a schlocky reality show and a comedy gag, but their “scientific” approach to dating isn’t so different from how most relationships between characters in games and the players of those games shake out. The other individual, reduced to a kind of sexual vending machine, is expected to respond to the correct inputs. The rich tapestry of another’s mind and body is reduced to flesh and blood automation. This is troubling because, without an opportunity for this approach to fail, games present the pick-up artist’s manipulative and misogynistic viewpoint as valid.
The pick-up artist’s approach might be simplified as taking steps to simply “optimize [dating] success,” as Dr. Moffit puts it, but there’s a key difference between that and “something more serious.” That difference is a “belief that you are the sole influencer of the end result,” she explains. It’s a perspective that she’s seen “very often” with clients at her practice. “In my opinion this extreme viewpoint would make the person more likely to [display] controlling and abusive behavior,” she says.
Despite the larger role that parents, friends, and partners play in influencing an individual’s outlook—people don’t simply reproduce the behaviors they engage in during virtual play—the worldview implicitly presented in video game romances is still troubling. And it would be silly to argue that the media we consume, games included, has no influence over us.
“The media we take in can absolutely have an impact on our behavior in relationships and our expectations [from] them,” Dr. Moffit says. In order to counteract the outlook inadvertently fostered by many game romances, players must be capable of noting the healthy relationships of others in their own lives and, crucially, “take a critical approach to what they see in [media like] video games and TV.”
For video game developers, the aim may be much the same. Rather than continue looking to traditional, objective-based gameplay systems for inspiration—gameplay systems that, through their intrinsic predictability, mirror some of the real world’s most objectionable dating practices—design centered on more complex (and human) personalities could lead to more interesting games and, with innovation, a solution to this problem. While even the most successful conversations in Hot Date don’t amount to anything more than a warm goodbye, the game’s unpredictable take on dating shows one possible way to accurately model the complexities of actual romance. Instead of allowing the player a sense of control over a budding relationship, Hot Date shows that other people’s behaviour can’t be taken for granted—that a potential partner might like or dislike you for no easily discernible or logical reason.
“I think healthy dating is knowing what you are looking for in a partner, being open to different avenues of finding it, and being okay with it if things don’t work out with a certain person,” Dr. Moffit says. “There’s no singular path to love. What’s amazing (and confusing) is that everyone will have their own unique course and that there are no guarantees.”
There may not be many games that fit this criteria right now, but it’s worth noting how amazing (and more than a little confusing) it is that a video game about speed-dating temperamental pugs might represent one of the best paths forward.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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