How dating apps are more and more “gamified”
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It’s been about a decade since a new generation of mobile apps brought online dating out of the shadows and onto our phones. They turned swiping — right or left — into a kind of romantic roulette.
Dating apps have become the most popular way for couples to connect, but they’re also a multibillion-dollar industry that relies on keeping users hooked.
Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz, co-host of the podcast “Land of the Giants: Dating Games,” about how dating apps have been “gamified.” The podcast is a collaboration between The Cut, The Verge and Vox Media.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz: In terms of dating apps, it just means designing it so it’s fun. So they’ll sort of integrate gamelike features into the platform, so when you swipe and match with someone, it’ll like “Bing, bing, bing,” like, give you a little digital bit of approval — fun colors, points, coins, things like that. So it’s really just like any other online game, but they’ve integrated that into the digital matchmaking system.
Meghan McCarty Carino: All right. I want to play a clip from the first episode of your podcast. It’s from Allison Davis, who’s been a longtime user of dating apps. And this is her talking about the act of swiping.
Allison Davis: Swiping and matching and swiping and matching was, like, constant little pings and great little distractions. And then when you get a message back, it’s like pulling that lever at a Vegas slot machine, like you just feel like the king of the world, you know? And I’m sorry, that was really dorky.
McCarty Carino: I mean, that sort of seems like the comparison to a slot machine, that is not accidental, I’m imagining.
Singh-Kurtz: It is not. But you know, we’d heard it from so many daters. So one of our most interesting interviews, in my opinion, was with an anthropologist who actually studied Vegas gambling addicts, and she likened the endless swipe format of dating apps to slot machines. So swipers, like slot machine users, they get suspended in what she called the zone of possibility, where you think you’re going to get closure. You know, you think you’re going to get your money, you think you’re going to get your romantic partner. But the way it actually works is that it does not have a resolution. And if you think about the economic proposition of these companies, they don’t really want it to have a resolution, you know? They’ll lose their user base.
McCarty Carino: And how has this sort of gamification of the process of dating affected the users that you talk to? Like, is it changing how people think? Is it changing how people act in real life?
Singh-Kurtz: We talked to hundreds of users who started on these 10 years ago, and many of them said that in using technology to meet people, they sort of lost something tactile, like they sort of forgot how to court people [in real life]. Allison told me a story in our first episode that she was at a bar recently, and like, she couldn’t tell if the guy sort of like nudging up against her was flirting with her or was just, like, really friendly or sort of rude, she could not tell. Then I heard it from, like, 20 people that they were, that they were sort of losing their sense for how to communicate romantically in person because they’d been relying on these apps for so long. The other thing is this sort of paradox of choice, like the too many people, too many conversations. It also encourages people to sort of look for the ideal, like “grass is always greener” kind of thing. And then you get other interesting symptoms, like, you know, people are dating outside of networks and communities, so there’s no accountability for bad behavior, ghosting, catfishing [creating a false personal profile, often for nefarious purposes], things of that nature. And all the time, daters are being told, you know, this is a numbers game, the more of these dates you go on, the better. And it’s no wonder then that, ultimately, all of this is leading to burnout and exhaustion, which all starts with having too many options.
McCarty Carino: And I mean, yeah, using them for a decade, I think that kind of begs the question of how do the app companies measure success? And does that differ from how users might measure success?
Singh-Kurtz: There is a gulf, at least that we’ve found in our reporting, between, you know, a company’s objectives and users’ objectives. So, you know, Tinder, Hinge, all of these apps, they seem, because they’re businesses, motivated to get as many users as possible onto their apps for as long as possible and convince them to pay as much money as possible to use their services. And we know that these apps, their business model, is based on subscriptions and in-app features. You know, things that promise users a leg up in the dating game. And they make them a ton of money. Tinder, for example, in 2021 earned $1.7 billion off of this business model. So Match would say, you know, their business goals are in line with users’ romantic goals. They’d say that, you know, like, you’re paying for a more effective, accelerated experience, like, you’re paying for a stronger guarantee that you’re going to meet someone. And it’s hard to say if it actually works, but of the people we spoke to, you know, many of whom have been using these apps since they were free, were skeptical that paying got them any closer to reaching their romantic goals, which by and large is finding a long-term partner. You know, they use their roses or their Super Likes, but often to no avail. Many of them feel like they’re throwing money into the void. And there’s this one user story that was sort of haunting for me. Hinge gives out a free rose. On Hinge, there’s a feature where you get a rose, and if you send it to someone, it enables you to sort of get to the top of their list of matches. So on Tinder, there’s called a Super Like, and it’s the same thing. So she used hers diligently for a year, and she got hit back twice, like two people responded to her. And she went on one date, and it was terrible. So it’s, like, they’re using these paid features but, you know, to very, very little effect.
McCarty Carino: How much of this, though, do you think we can really sort of peg on technology? Or is it just sort of a different set of problems from the set of problems that people had dating, you know, throughout history?
Singh-Kurtz: That’s a good question. I mean, dating, I guess, has been famously hard. Tolstoy wrote about how hard dating is, so it’s difficult to say how much of it is on the tech and how much of it is on the users. But, like, I think a lot of people don’t find a lot of success on these apps and blame themselves. But we wanted to give them context of the marketplace and the history of these apps and how they’re designed, to make it clear to them that, like, their lack of success is not their fault. And in some cases, it’s by design.
McCarty Carino: So where do you see this whole trend going? Are apps getting even more sophisticated with this gamification?
Singh-Kurtz: Definitely. So we know that Match Group is doubling down on gamification because the new CEO that they just installed, prior to coming to Match, was the 10-year CEO of Zynga, the gaming company. So the FarmVille guy is now in charge of your love life, and the way the market is going seems to be further digitization. So that’s like metaverse dating. I spoke to one founder who is launching an app where you train your [artificial intelligence] character to go on dates for you. And if that goes well, then maybe you’ll meet in person one day. So I think it’s becoming increasingly digitized.
Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
Of course, Singh-Kurtz and her co-host go into much more depth on this and other topics in the full season of their podcast, “Land of the Giants: Dating Games.”
We reached out to Match Group, the parent company of Tinder and lots of other dating apps, to allow the company to respond to the frustration users expressed in the podcast. You can read its statement below:
We’re always saddened to hear that people are having a hard time finding a relationship. But that’s not the case for everyone. A recent Stanford University study shows 39% of all relationships start online. The wedding section of the New York Times is filled with happy couples who met on our apps. We are committed to building products that help people find their special someone. And, for singles looking to date, we believe the best place to start is on a dating app, where you have a pool of singles looking for relationships also.Match Group Spokesperson
Of course, we can’t talk about the positives and negatives of online dating without mentioning romance scams.
We’ve discussed how scams like “catfishing” — when someone pretends to be a different person with fake photos or personal information online — have been a growing problem since the start of the COVID pandemic.
A recent analysis from the digital security website All About Cookies found that the number of catfishing incidents reported to the Federal Trade Commission skyrocketed between 2019 and 2022, leading to financial losses totaling about $500 million last year.
It also turns out that the most catfished state on a per-capita basis is Alaska.
And the least catfished state? Louisiana, which is sort of a catfish joke that writes itself.
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