Tinder involves managing the vulnerability of “putting oneself out there” by playing it like a video game.
“We saw some beautiful things here. Things we’ll never forget … Everyone was just trying to find themselves. God it was so nice to get a break from reality for a little while.” — From the closing voice-over of Spring Breakers
Love is not a game. Tinder is. Login with your Facebook account and start swiping to play. Swipe right not to find “the one,” but to find someone. See who you match with, and then decide what winning would even mean, to put an end to it.
When it comes to managing emotional vulnerability while simultaneously “putting yourself out there” — a philosophy that digital connectivity seems to invite, if not demand — Tinder is the safest way to find a mate. The interface engages you in a way that allows you to remain detached. In Tinderland nothing matters unless you want it to matter. You are in control: You decide when to swipe, who to message, when to take your conversations to a different app.
IRL is not always the goal. On Tinder, entire emotional narratives of self-focused storylines can unfold through its messaging function without ever meeting the other person involved. Winning Tinder is about mastering the app’s affordances, its game mechanics, the dissociative buffers that make it possible to play. You must regard other people on Tinder — and yourself — as avatars.
It is not that people on Tinder are all “players” or trying to game the system governing hooking up. It’s that Tinder is a radically destabilizing networked social experiment. It is hyper-technosexual, it is disturbing, it is pleasurable, and it is highly addictive. You hit the app; you quit the app; you inevitably return. In Tinderland, you’re bombarded with so many faces, you seldom notice when somebody doesn’t swipe you back. Rejection doesn’t exist unless you want it to.
It’s 3:06 AM and I can’t sleep. I find myself aimlessly swiping on Tinder. I haven’t been here in a while. My most recent relationship of sorts was found on Tinder. I hooked up with Joaquin for two whole months, and I thought I was done with the app; I thought I had won. But I dumped him last week, and here I am, back in the game.
As a social mobile dating app, Tinder is an odd ideological mixture of queer theory and traditional ideals of marriage and partnership — fairytale stories of “happily ever after” sit beside hedonistic cruising. At a panel on selfies at LACMA in April 2014, Tinder founder Sean Rad proclaimed that Tinder isn’t a cruising app, it’s a new way for people to meet their future spouse, espousing heteronormative Christian ideas of love and partnership. When queer theorist Jack Halberstam pointed out from the audience that claiming marriage and life partnership as the goals of using something modeled on Grindr, a gay cruising app, seemed problematic, Rad then changed his tune — truly, an equal opportunity businessman — and shifted his pitch: Tinder has no end point or goal, he admitted. It can be for whatever you want it to be.
In No Future, Lee Edelman looks beyond the “regulatory fantasy of reproductive futurism” and its redemptive, child-rearing families to a jouissance — “a movement beyond the pleasure principle, beyond the distinctions of pleasure and pain, a violent passage beyond the bounds of identity, meaning, and law.” One would think that’s the point of Tinder, the way to play — just enjoy because there can be no goal, no end, no fixed identity or meaning, just pleasure.
To win Tinder, one must have a carefree, non-demanding attitude, a willingness to play, and an ability to stay in the moment, in the present, opening possibilities, chances, rather than foreclosing them. Stating upfront that you’re “not looking for hookups” is a total Tinder buzzkill, even to those who wouldn’t be interested in hooking up with you anyway, smashing a fantasy before it can even begin.
Tinder is a fantasy and real life. In Tinderland, there is no separation between the two; they collapse and the consequences of each intertwine. To create a profile that sets restrictions on fantasies before any actual match is made — especially a profile that is already distilled to a set of pictures and a small amount of text that hardly anyone will consider for more than 20 seconds — is not only overbearing, it suggests an agenda, someone trying to game the system, establish expectations.
One must understand that a match is merely a match. It means nothing until it does. It can either provide you with some type of partner or a tiny burst of dopamine. When you play a video game, there is no agenda aside from winning. Tinder is a space where you could very well meet a new lover, friend, fuck buddy, tonight’s date, a one-night stand, the person you’ll be with for the rest of your life, another writer companion, a long-term relationship, a short-term relationship, or a person with whom to briefly discuss favorite Seinfeld episodes. Keep swiping until you find what you want or burn out trying — or get addicted to the app and give up on the notion that you could ever know what you want.
“I wanna rock with somebody (woah yeah) / I wanna take shot with somebody (shot, shot, shot, shot) / I wanna leave with somebody (somebody, c’mon, c’mon) / And we ain’t gonna tell nobody / We ain’t gonna tell nobody” —Natalie LaRose, in her song “Somebody”
Meeting people with whom you share a connection happens by chance. A great Tinder conversation can lead to a lackluster first date and vice-versa; that’s life. Tinder reimagines the realness of any given “connection,” opening it to a variety of definitions conditioned by a range of ideologies and use cases. The app separates the digital and physical, but also merges the two.
In a catalog essay for artist Faith Holland’s solo show Technophilia, which ran a few months ago at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn, Seth Watter writes about “desire in the age of screens, an age that heightens our sense of temporal simultaneity while increasing our sense of spatial disparity.” We are increasingly in the same time but not the same place.
This changes the nature of connection: It is often less about falling in love and more about distance, or proximity. Watter laments that screen-mediated sex threatens to “be largely a matter of stroking and clicking, and not, sad to say, of sucking and fucking.”
If the Tinder game can connect virtual partners to real-life fucking more quickly, it is not wrong to want it. So ask yourself as you swipe on faces: Do I want that in my home?
For a while, I convinced myself that I could never form a passionate sexual relationship via the app. I thought that romantic attraction required context, that I couldn’t perceive sensual compatibility digitally. I would think about my past loves and realize that I would’ve probably swiped left to the majority of them. But those past connections, made of synchronicity, luck and perfect timing, still occur, despite a tech sector that seems determined to profit by stamping out serendipity. But they may have nothing to do with Tinder.
His name is Joe and he’s a 25-year-old bearded white man. I’ve matched with 50+ dudes who fill this demographic.
“Joe messaged you!”
Tinder is a productivity app disguised as “fun.” The app gently reminds us that romance is a commodity with many potential suppliers. So creating a Tinder profile becomes necessary work that presents one as desirable and sexual, that positions one as an advertisement to a potential mate, that communicates that I am a fantasy that you did not even know you had until I appeared in front of you, on your screen, in your hand. Tinder is about selecting the images that make you look a combination of bored and hot — intelligent without being egotistical, curious without appearing desperate.
To swipe is to work further, refining and evaluating the effort that already went into the profiles. To match is to put on the finishing seal of approval. In game terms, it’s completing a level.
Yet Tinder is also automated and deskilled in a way that matchmaking through friends or stereotypical “yenta” characters are not. Tinder is the techno-yenta, offering matchmaking without the humanity, without “vibes.” Tinder doesn’t require all the extra self-defining work that OKCupid’s algorithms depend on, that paid dating services such as Match.com or eHarmony require. There is no “matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.” You are your own matchmaker. And because Tinder is so streamlined and visual it can deliver the pleasures of zoning out. Tinder allows you to make simple decisions with potentially life-changing consequences, without stressing too much.
Users can swipe during moments that feel like leisure, an alternative to flipping through Us Weekly or playing 2048. Tinder play time takes over the time of solitary relaxation, self-reflection, and decompression from the day’s events. It is often played in transit, on a bus or train, times otherwise reserved for reading or texting or watching TV. I’ve actually Tindered while watching my favorite show, and while having a conversation with a friend, those narratives fading in favor of fragmented ones with a stream of strangers.
Tinder offers tactile satisfaction as well. The rhythm of the swipe is relaxing; it’s perfect for those moments when you want to be alone and connected. I find myself swiping, maniacal, when I want to productively pass time while doing nothing, when I want to feel adored but not intertwined.
I don’t read the message; instead, I keep swiping. I can’t disrupt the rhythm of the game: left, left, left, right, left.
Here’s the thing though: I’ve never been into video games. As a kid, I preferred playing fantasy games or drawing. I was always interested in playing; every kid likes to play. I just preferred to perform my fantasies in a world that resembled my own. No Mario Kart, no GTA; the only game I ever liked was The Sims. I preferred a simulacrum of real life.
Tinder feels as safe as texting and as fun as sexting. According to TheMetropolist.com, Tinder is “like hunting from the safety of a safari jeep.” Swiping right and left is akin to targeting your prey. Messaging back and forth is slowly going in for the kill. Meeting IRL: wham, pow, ya dead.
I “killed it” one Sunday morning when I was messaging with three women — complete strangers — simultaneously, in bed, ignoring the world around me. It was exhausting, but I had to understand the new type of chase.
I didn’t mean for this to happen, and now that I’ve said “hey” and they’ve all responded, ready, interested, I can’t just ditch conversations; it all feels very urgent and of the moment, I am engaged, I want to see them through to whatever their potential narrative end is or could be.
I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. I had no expectations. But now I feel insane, I am in this split-space video-game narrative, playing on multiple levels at once, and I am talking to everyone and no one.
If Tinder involves managing the vulnerability of “putting oneself out there” by playing it like a video game, what happens to the chase, which is more of a role-playing game?
During the chase, there is a pursuer and pursued. Through a variety of indirect means, the pursuer seeks to transfer their interest, their obsession to the pursued. The pursued is made continuously aware of the pursuer but always keeps a bit of coy distance, lest they fall. The chase can go on forever, or until one cracks and makes their feelings known. The roles are interchangeable, becoming more fluid as mutual interest is established. The chase is key.
The goal in courtship is often to prolong the chase, to draw out the sexual tension, to make them wait — and to enjoy this starry-eyed journey from strangers to dating to lovers to partners.
This is nothing like the chase on Tinder, however. On Tinder, the connections happen quickly — you get a vibe off the person and make your choice. Kate Hakala claimed in a 2013 article for Nerve that “‘the chase’ is programmed into all of us as a means of sifting out the losers,” arguing that dating apps “are just accelerating the pace of the game—giving us the same rewards we usually get through intimacy by way of strangers from Facebook.” Is Tinder speeding up the chase to the point of extinction in order to prioritize results: goals achieved, sex needs met, potential connections formed?
In regular life, the chase is about getting the person to notice you, to like you, to get attached, to fall in love, to be together. In Tinderland, you chase the chase. In a 2014 article for the Guardian, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues that “mobile dating is much more than a means to an end, it is an end in itself. With Tinder, the pretext is to hook up, but the real pleasure is derived from the Tindering process.” For some, the “process” is about taking pleasure in the casual connection. They are outside the zero-sum dualism where a “win” is meeting and a “loss” is no meeting. During the “process,” you could have a stimulating or an emotionally supportive conversation with a stranger who you will never meet. Sometimes, all anyone needs is to have a brief connection, and Tinder facilitates that possibility.
Tinder does not accelerate or deter the chase so much as radically alter it. It mechanizes the chase, compressing it to maximize productivity. At the same time, it prolongs the chase because the chase becomes noncommittal. It makes any initial in-person meet-up much more intense and rife with expectations, as these have been deferred by the app’s mechanics. Tinder chats, no matter how charming, can only go on for so long before they begin to fade out. If the Tinder connection is to last, the two parties must abandon Tinder altogether.
The chase on Tinder is more complicated because chances are, multiple Tinder chases are happening at the same time. It’s another way to evade vulnerability. By allowing users to theoretically chase hundreds simultaneously, Tinder casualizes the chase; it protects and distracts users from the emotional uncertainty that accompanies our search for lust and/or love. Tinder forces those who play to reimagine the meaning of “real” — a “real” connection, or a “real” self, or “real” life. When a user logs into Tinder, they accept the rules of the game and acknowledge the others who are playing. They expect that after a Tinder date that person will go right back to Tinder and keep swiping. Because after one date, you’re not the one — you are just another one.
To form a long-term relationship off Tinder is not the same as winning Tinder — that’s perhaps winning “real life.” At least if you subscribe to “reproductive futurism,” that is.
It may be that to win Tinder, you accept that your IRL interactions will be subject to the limitations of the video game. You bring your emoji flirting into the sphere of the real, whatever that may be. You treat your face-to-face interaction as a series of moves that can allow you to level up. Even as you’re mingling at a bar or fucking later on in the night, you never abandon the interface.
That’s when I realized my fatal flaw: I thought I was just playing a video game, but now this is my real life. This is not a solo game, and I am not the hero; this is not a two-player game either. This is a group game. If I am to play, I need to play in the company of friends, both virtual and IRL. Together we level up. Alone we die.