Gamification Has Turned Connecting With Others Into a Game – How Helpful Is It Really?
In recent years, video games have become an essential product of our contemporary, digital culture. Even video game culture is permeating all areas of our society, as game-like features or aspects of game design can now be found in the context of our everyday experiences. We are surrounded by a plethora of apps that make use of gamification to make our lives easier and more enjoyable. Fitbit gamifies our fitness routines and turns exercising and ‘being healthy’ into fun leisure activities. The gamified app Forest helps us stay away from our phones and stay focused on our work, while 750words.com uses game elements to keep us writing every day.
Gamification has permeated the context of health, education, leisure, labor, and even interpersonal or social relationships. Gamified dating apps, such as Tinder, Hinge, or Bumble, make connecting with others easier than ever before. Tinder’s game-like design nudges us to swipe constantly: on our way to work, on the couch, or even on the toilet. To compensate for the loss of community in modern society, we are looking to find meaningful connections everywhere, even online. Since its launch in 2012, Tinder has already been downloaded over 340 million times (Wise, 2022).
This article will analyze and discuss the gamification of interpersonal relationships. Tinder, its game design, and TikToks on the app’s design will be explored to determine how successful the gamified dating app is in encouraging its users to connect with others. Additionally, as Tinder's interests mainly revolve around keeping the company going, it needs to be made clear that the app's design is created to maximize profitability. Moreover, power relations between the app and its users will be discussed. Therefore, the question to be answered in this article is as follows: how does dating app Tinder implement gamification in the context of interpersonal and social relationships, and how successful is the app in doing so?
Game Culture & Gamification
Before we delve into Tinder’s gamification, we must understand why game elements are increasingly becoming a part of non-game activities. In recent years, video games have become an essential product of our contemporary, digital culture. This has led to the creation and formation of an increasingly culturally and socially important ‘video game culture’, which institutionalizes “video game practices, experiences, and meanings in contemporary society, and places video games and video gaming as an important part of our social imaginary” (Muriel & Crawford, 2018). Video game culture is infiltrating almost all areas of our society, as the mechanics, logic, and elements of video games can now be seen in everyday experiences and various social contexts (Muriel & Crawford, 2018).
The videoludification of culture, or the proliferation of ‘play’ and playful elements in social experiences, is increasingly visible in the sphere of gamification. Muriel & Crawford (2018) define gamification as “the use of game elements – particularly from video games – applied to education, labor, therapy, business, or social relationships” (Muriel & Crawford, 2018). More specifically, it is “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” (Deterding et al., 2011). Game design elements can include being rewarded for achievements, earning badges, trophies, or points, getting on top of the leaderboard, or leveling up. Fitbit, for instance, rewards its users with badges when they have achieved a specific fitness goal, such as walking fifty thousand steps or losing ten pounds. Game elements are used to playfully nudge people in certain directions, which, in Fitbit’s case, is to improve its users’ health. This is why gamification can also be understood as “a tool to obtain specific outcomes in the fields of education, work, health, or leisure” (Muriel & Crawford, 2018).
Tinder: The Gamification of Connecting With Others
Tinder is a real-time location-based dating application that quickly became the most popular (online) place to meet new people after its launch in September 2012, eclipsing traditional desktop-based dating websites that, until then, had dominated the industry, such as OkCupid and eHarmony (Li, 2017). Tinder was founded by Sean Rad, Jonathan Badeen, Justin Mateen, Joe Munoz, Dinesh Moorjani, and Whitney Wolfe, who were devoted to “address the social and physical barriers of forming new friendships and relationships” (Pahwa, 2019). They found a way to meet new people “under any context”, without having to be afraid of initial rejection, as the app only connects people if both parties have expressed interest in each other (Lapowsky, 2021). As stated in the Google Play and App Store, the app wants its users to “think of us as your most dependable wingmate – wherever you go, we’ll be there. If you’re here to meet new people, expand your social network, meet locals when you’re traveling, or just live in the now, you’ve come to the right place” (Tinder, 2012).
Tinder's game design and its variable rewards make ‘finding the right person’ almost feel like a game.
According to the app’s Google Play and App Store description, Tinder is “easy and fun – use the ‘Swipe Right’ feature to like someone, use the ‘Swipe Left’ feature to pass. If someone likes you back, it’s a match!” (Tinder, 2012). When swiping results in a match, users are given the option to either send a message or keep swiping. Ultimately, Tinder’s aim is to help its users “tap through the profiles [they are] interested in, chat online with [their] matches, and then step away from [their] phone, meet up in the real world, and spark something new” (Tinder, 2012). Additionally, Tinder users can upgrade to Tinder Plus or Tinder Gold to “stand out from the crowd” and “use the ‘Swipe Right’ feature to [their] heart’s content” (Tinder, 2012).
But of course, Tinder also has other interests. Maximizing profitability is of huge importance to the company, which shows that Tinder’s aim – apart from helping its users to create meaningful connections – also revolves around keeping the company going. Tinder wants its users to be as engaged as possible while using the app and is, therefore, made to be entertaining and pleasurable. The app’s game design and its variable rewards make ‘finding the right person’ – whether that is a friend, life partner, or campus buddy – almost feel like a game. During an interview with TIME, Tinder’s co-founder Sean Rad explained that he “always saw Tinder, the interface, as a game. What you’re doing, the motion, the reaction” (Stampler, 2014). The iconic ‘Tinder swipe’ has essentially gamified the non-game activity of connecting with new people.
In an interview with Nancy Jo Sales, co-founder Jonathan Badeen compared Tinder to the workings of a slot machine: “You’re excited to see who the next person is – or excited to see, did I get the match?” (Jo Sales, 2021). The expectation of possibly receiving Tinder’s variable reward – the slot machine-like match screen stating ‘It’s a Match!’ (See Figure 1) – when ‘swiping’, generates a dopamine rush that compels our brain to keep searching for the reward (Noel, n.d.; Jo Sales, 2021). This creates a vicious cycle in which users keep on ‘playing’ the Tinder game over and over again in the hopes of receiving matches. Because of Tinder’s ‘swipe’ game element and its ‘matching’ rewards, users are thus playfully nudged to connect with new people. Moreover, Tinder is made to be highly addictive, as the matching aspect of the swipe game-mechanic is based on the ‘variable-ratio schedule’, which, in the words of Badeen, assumes that “having unpredictable yet frequent rewards is the best way to motivate someone to keep moving forward” (Jo Sales, 2021).
Tinder's users are more focused on playing the ‘hot or not’ game or winning the ‘swiping’ game, instead of actually meeting new people.
In his interview with TIME, co-founder Sean Rad claims “it doesn’t matter if [users] match because swiping is so fun” (Stampler, 2014). This might not be entirely true, however, as the expectation of matching makes the app so pleasurable to use. Additionally, even though Tinder’s aim is to help users create meaningful connections, 70,8% of the users asked to participate in a 2017 Tinder survey claimed to have never met up with someone through the app (Brown, 2020). Moreover, numerous TikToks have been posted about users’ tendency to see Tinder as a swiping game, instead of a place to meet new people and find meaningful connections. In one TikTok, user @kaaaattttttttt admitted to using Tinder “as a big game of hot or not” and having “absolutely no intention of ever hanging out with them [the people they have matched with]”. The comments expressed similar views: “that sounds like the point of tinder to me” and “Love this game!” were liked thousands of times.
In another TikTok, user @tommywalk3r reveals that they sometimes forget “you’re supposed to actually meet people from tinder and it’s not just a fun little picture game”. One commenter (See Figure 2) even expressed that they see getting matches as ‘winning’ the game, only to then “unmatch” the users they have matched with. In this way, Tinder is not being used ‘in the right way’, as users do not use it to meet new people but see it as a game where getting matches is rewarding. Some Tinder users are thus only focused on ‘winning’ the ‘swiping game’ by accumulating matches. Another commenter revealed they have Tinder “in [their] games folder”, which shows that they see it as a game as well. The comment “I’m glad we’re all doing the same thing. I love the picture game” expresses a similar sentiment.
Tinder’s aim, which is to help its users meet new people and find meaningful connections, therefore, is sometimes forgotten or not recognized by its users, as they are more focused on playing the ‘hot or not’ game or winning the ‘swiping’ game, which provides them with Tinder’s variable reward – a match. We can conclude that Tinder’s aim, which the founders aspire to realize through gamification, is not exactly successful. However, it also needs to be noted that Tinder's aim also revolves around keeping the company going. Maximizing profitability, which is achieved through aggregating massive amounts of user engagement, will always be their main goal and is achieved despite users not successfully establishing meaningful connections.
Power Relations, Persuasion, and Exploitation
When they created the app, Tinder’s founders had certain ideas about how they would like users to use their platform. These ideas influence the users’ activity and behavior on the app, which is why Tinder can be described as a mediator instead of an intermediary (van Dijck, 2013; Olde Hampsink, 2021). Now, these ideas reveal several power relations between Tinder and its users. When we employ a critical approach to gamification, it can be described as a perverse tool for dominating individuals. Tinder, in this sense, regulates behavior, effectively persuades users to act in certain ways, and exploits them.
While Tinder makes users, or ‘players’, feel that the swiping game enables them to ‘be free to choose’, users’ behavior is actually regulated to a great extent.
Firstly, the app has incorporated a number of forms that it wants its users to fill out. When signing up on Tinder, users need to fill in basic information about themselves, including their name, gender, location, and age. Additionally, when users want to add their interests or ‘passions’, they can only choose from a limited number of options. For example, users can choose ‘reading’ and ‘Marvel’, but they cannot choose or add ‘go-karting’ or ‘tree-shaping’. Users can also only choose five interests and have to choose at least three. Moreover, Tinder offers its users limited options for the category ‘sexual orientation’, as users can only choose between nine sexualities and cannot use their own words to describe their orientations. In addition to that, users can only choose to swipe ‘women’, ‘men’, or ‘everyone’, and can indicate a ‘distance preference’ that only “allows [them] to see potential matches up to 100 miles from [their] current location" (Tinder, n.d.).
The app thus has clear ideas about what information users need to give the app in order for Tinder to help them meet new people and find meaningful connections. Users cannot choose to not add any interests at all, only swipe genderqueer users, or potentially match with users living more than 100 miles away from them. While Tinder makes users, or ‘players’, feel that the swiping game enables them to ‘be free to choose’ or ‘choose their own path’ – which reproduces the idea of freedom that neoliberalism supports (Muriel & Crawford, 2018) – users’ behavior is actually regulated to a great extent. This is in line with critic Niklas Schrape’s arguments, who sees gamification as part of the methods intended to regulate societies, which follows libertarian paternalism ideas in that “the state grants its subjects the freedom of choice, but designs all possible options in such a way that they will decide in an intended way” (Muriel & Crawford, 2018).
Secondly, Tinder effectively persuades its users to act in certain ways, and with this comes user exploitation. It can be argued that Tinder’s aim is not to help users find relationships, but to get users to have a relationship with the app itself, as Cindy Jo Sales (2021) also argues. As explained before, Tinder’s ‘variable-ratio schedule’ makes the app extremely addicting and has users swiping at work, in class, and even during dates (Jo Sales, 2021). Users are persuaded to spend as much time on the app as possible, swiping away to be rewarded with the slot machine-like match screen over and over again. One comment (See Figure 3), posted on a TikTok discussing the “silly little picture game” that is Tinder, even admitted to spending so much time on Tinder that they “started to swipe right and left on Instagram” as well.
Additionally, Tinder’s app description in the Google Play and Apple App Store has an important message for its users: “And remember, when in doubt, give a Swipe Right. Trust us, the more options you have, the better-looking life becomes” (Tinder, 2012). Tinder knows its users’ brains produce dopamine every time they swipe right – as they might receive Tinder’s variable reward; a match – and, therefore, encourages its users to ‘play the swiping game’ for as long as possible. And as mentioned before, in order to keep the company going, Tinder’s aim – apart from helping its users meet new people – is also to maximize profit. Tinder thus playfully nudges its users to keep on matching with others in order to keep users engaged on the app and maximize its profit, which is, as critic Niklas Schrape suggests, “where rewards only benefit the few and not the many, and individuals participate actively and willfully in their own exploitation” (Muriel & Crawford, 2018).
Tinder has essentially gamified the non-game activity of connecting with new people. The expectation of possibly receiving Tinder’s variable reward – a match – when ‘swiping’, generates a dopamine rush that compels our brain to keep searching for the reward (Noel, n.d.; Jo Sales, 2021). This creates a vicious cycle in which users keep on ‘playing’ the Tinder game over and over again in the hopes of receiving matches. Tinder’s aim, which is to help its users meet new people and find meaningful connections, is sometimes forgotten or not recognized by its users, as they are more focused – as shown by the TikToks discussing Tinder – on playing the ‘hot or not’ game or winning the ‘swiping’ game. We can thus conclude that Tinder’s aim, which the founders aspire to realize through gamification, is not exactly successful. However, as mentioned before, Tinder's main aim actually revolves around maximizing profitability, which is achieved through continuous user engagement. Even though users might not successfully establish meaningful connections on Tinder, the app still profits off of them. In this way, by making people play the 'game', Tinder achieves its ultimate goal.
Moreover, certain power relations between Tinder and its users permeate the app, enabling Tinder to regulate its users’ behavior and effectively persuade and exploit them. While Tinder makes users, or ‘players’, feel that the swiping game enables them to ‘be free to choose’ or ‘choose their own path’, users’ behavior is actually regulated to a great extent. Additionally, Tinder knows its users’ brains produce dopamine every time they swipe right – as they might receive Tinder’s reward; a match – and, therefore, encourages its users to ‘play the swiping game’ for as long as possible, even making users addicted in the process. Therefore, the app does not actively encourage its users to connect with others, but mainly helps Tinder maximize its profit by keeping its users engaged – and thus exploiting them – for as long as possible.
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