Quest for Love: The Gamification of Dating

The expansion of the Internet has given rise to an endless world of possibilities when it comes to potential partners. Are dating apps the answer?

The desire to find love is uniquely human. Our methods of finding compatibility are seeing a shift away from other social arenas of our lives. It appears that the days of meeting someone organically in person or through mutual friends are long gone.

With the busy hustle and bustle of modern life, scheduling some time to look for love seems to be becoming another “to-do” task for many. Separate from other forms of social media, Swipe-Based Dating Applications (SBDAs) have the unique feature of “swiping” the screen to either like or dislike another user’s profile.

Swiping for love has become increasingly popular since SBDAs first hit the dating scene in 2013. Tinder, one of the most popular dating apps, had over 6 million paid users in 2020. Tinder witnessed a 6.6 million increase compared to 2015 user data.

The onset of the global pandemic skyrocketed usage of dating apps, with Tinder reporting their highest number of “swipes” on a single day: 3 billion. Other dating apps such as OkCupid saw a 700% increase in dates from March to May 2020, and video calls on Bumble increased by 70%.

Several online dating companies provide users with extensive opportunities to describe themselves and their ideal partner, while others, such as Tinder, limit user profiles to 500 characters. It can be argued that this character limit breeds a user interface that allows for more of a “hook-up” culture and lack of depth to first interactions.

🎰 The Partner Shopping Game 🎰

Gamification is the application of gaming mechanics to non-gaming environments to make complex tasks more enjoyable. Dating apps are designed to treat the dating experience in a game-like fashion. 

While offline dating also holds the unpredictability of a game and the possible outcomes from meeting someone, online dating differs in its monetary incentives to gain access to better romantic matches.

Tinder, for instance, has a feature called a Super Like, which is used to stand out from the card stack (a stack of algorithmic partner matches) as someone who is very interested. 

The Super Likes are available for purchase through the app, and users are incentivized to upgrade their membership to Tinder Gold and Platinum, where they receive five free Super Likes per week.

Researchers of social interactions found in online dating have used the analogy of “shopping” to describe the ways in which SBDAs have designed their app interfaces. Users select which potential partners seem interesting enough to make it past the profile browsing stage and on to initiating a conversation.

Users are forced to make quick judgements of character off of a photo and a short profile biography. It can be comparable to sifting through an innumerable number of sales pitches. An individual has 500 characters to illustrate their sense of humor, moralistic standing, and future goals in life.

Researchers Heino and colleagues have coined this analogy of shop-dating as Relationshopping where potential partners are no longer seen as people but rather as products.

Woman accidentally swiped on lucifer for dating site

We are constantly bombarded by choice. The expansion of the Internet and its accessibility has opened an endless world of possibilities when it comes to potential partners. No longer are we dependent on our immediate social circles to introduce us to partners. 

Instead, we have access to millions of people from various backgrounds and environments across the globe. In the past 20 years, web-based companies have assembled access, communication, and matching to millions of potential romantic partners in singular locations (dating applications). 

Research has shown that the number of choices available to us reaches a certain threshold at which, past this threshold, the choice becomes overwhelming to us. It moves from the excitement of potential to the anxiety of the infinite. Our brains need a boundary when it comes to choice. We need to be able to see past the fog to some sort of horizon.

The Brain's Reward System

Dating app creators argue that they are simply taking social behaviors and primitive procreation mechanisms that have been in use through our evolution as a species and providing a space for people to do so more conveniently.

Although we are collecting data on how dating apps are changing the way we date, the effects it has on our brains are still being uncovered. It isn’t easy to come to definitive conclusions with online dating still being in its infancy.

We do, however, know how primitive systems in our Limbic System work. The Reward System is responsible for the motivation to do things that make us feel good. Neurons throughout the brain, within the reward system, communicate using the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Rewards and behaviors are processed and motivated in the brains’ nucleus accumbens. Neurons release dopamine when we expect to receive a reward. So, it’s not the actual reward but rather the expectation of a reward that powerfully influences emotional reactions and memories.

Reward learning occurs when we experience something unexpected. Addiction, for instance, isn’t a fixation to (insert addiction here) but instead a hijacking of our normal reward system through pleasurable stimuli or drugs.

These primitive systems were evolved to ensure the survival of our species. On dating apps, dopamine has been found to activate our limbic system in two ways.

You receive an unpredictable reward when you “match” with someone, and your brain rewards you with a dose of adrenaline and dopamine. After which, your reward system continues to reward you in anticipation of matching with someone while you swipe potential partners waiting for that next match.

The lack of real-life translation from the reward of a match to a meaningful connection offline appears to be putting stress on dating app users. Some users have reported feeling exhausted or burnt out by the continual search for the unexpected and nothing to show for the effort in real-life.

Strubel & Petrie argue that SBDAs create a paradigm of instant gratification or rejection, making users vulnerable.

The objectification of females is not a good thing! Not every rapper does this, but when the lyrics focus solely on the strip club, 'poppin' bottles' and how many girls they can 'tap,' it distorts what kids are learning.

Queen Latifah

Obectification & Anti-Social Behavior

The environment of dating apps facilitates the prevalence of anti-social behaviors that would otherwise rarely happen when dating offline. One example of anti-social behavior is “ghosting,” which is a term used to avoid or ignore someone you were speaking to with the intention of dating.

In the past, when the options of our potential partners depended on our family and friend circles, avoiding someone would be extremely rude and would get back to their friends, most likely leading to some form of taking accountability for disrespectful behavior, but we no longer have those nets of accountability for online dating with strangers outside of our immediate networks.

This lack of accountability can, in turn, facilitate the objectification of both men and women. 

Objectification is defined as the act of degrading someone to the status of a mere object, and a common myth is the idea that women tend to be more sexually objectified than men.

While women most certainly are, often due to pornography and media, such a belief is constrained by the limited amount of research on the emotional components of male sexual desire.

Women want sex just as much as men. Where we differ isn’t in higher or lower sex drives but in the ways in which we communicate our emotional needs with or without sex.

Esther Perel, a renowned psychotherapist, says, "a major unknown of male sexuality is how relationally-driven it really is. Sex is the language through which men have a license to ask for love, tenderness, surrender, sensuality, affection, and more. Often sex is the only keyhole he has to fulfill these emotional needs."

Without non-verbal communication, researchers suggest that the emphasis placed on app user images enhances sexual objectification. Users are forced to base their decision to meet someone offline on physical characteristics and self-reported height. The processing of this information before meeting someone initiates an immediate judgment mode and rapid evaluation.

Neurobiological research has demonstrated that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is activated when swiping through potential matches on dating apps. 

Prefrontal dorsolateral cortex

It is a region of the frontal lobes most typically associated with executive functions, including working memory and selective attention. Meaning, we are trying to figure out if they are attractive based on our standards and if they're being honest on their profiles.

Still, there is hope in combating the presence of anti-social behavior on dating apps. According to Hinge data, while dates increased this summer by 17%, ghosting went down by 27%.

When choosing sexual partners, remember: Talent is not sexually transmittable.

Tina Fey

The Positives of Dating Apps

It may seem as if we are moving further away from meaningful human connection, but there are potential positives to be highlighted as well.

Research has shown that dating app users have reported an increase in meeting others from different cultural and religious backgrounds and forming relationships that would’ve otherwise never had happened if they were to depend on their immediate familial and social networks.

In addition, dating apps allow individuals with communication difficulties to get to know someone before meeting in real-life and help overcome social phobia. A study conducted by Singles in America found that out of 5,000 people, 58% reported shifting towards more intentional dating due to the pandemic.

Online Dating Cartoon

While 63% reported that they are spending more time getting to know their matches, almost 70% stated they are more honest in their online interactions.

It's important to mention that these findings' limitations are based on self-reports, and we tend to be biased when we answer questions about ourselves and our behaviors. What holds true is that context matters when discussing the impact (positive or negative) of dating apps on our mental health. Most behaviors can become addictive or detrimental to our health if left unregulated.

When we learn how a dopamine loop forms, we can choose better actions to prevent falling victim to our reward system. Once we build that awareness, we can interact with things such as a dating app with more rationality than our limbic system has to offer us naturally. Book a cooking class on a cuisine that you both enjoy.

😍 Dating Ideas 😍

If you find yourself planning for a date in person, consider something that isn’t centered around drinking alcohol. 

It’s important to ask yourself, are they someone you like only when you both drink alcohol? 

Activity-based date ideas are a great way of breaking the ice and easing the nerves of a first date and below are a few options:

    1. Book a cooking class on a cuisine that you both enjoy.

    2. Take your (or their) dog for a walk in a nice park.

    3. Mooch around a farmer’s market for lunch and people watching.

    4. Go rock climbing, either in a gym or preferably outside.

    5. Put a spin on an old traditional and book tickets to an outdoor movie showing.

    6. Take your date to your favorite local coffee shop.


    Chatel, A. . (2021). 21 Sober First Date Ideas Where Your Personality Can Really Shine. Bustle.
    DiGiulio, S.. (2021). How to be better at online dating, according to psychology. NBC News.
    Dolan, E. . (2021). New research shows online dating can cultivate a rejection mindset. PsyPost.
    Fetters, A.. (2021). The Five Years That Changed Dating. The Atlantic.
    Finkel, E., Eastwick, P., Karney, B., Reis, H., & Sprecher, S. . (2012). Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science. Psychological Science In The Public Interest, 13(1), 3-66. .
    Fortune. (2021). Activity on dating apps has surged during the pandemic. Fortune.
    Halber, D. . (2021). Motivation: Why You Do the Things You Do..
    Holtzhausen, N., Fitzgerald, K., Thakur, I., Ashley, J., Rolfe, M., & Pit, S. . (2020). Swipe-based dating applications use and its association with mental health outcomes: a cross-sectional study. BMC Psychology, 8(1). .
    Khan, K., & Chaudhry, S.. (2015). An evidence-based approach to an ancient pursuit: systematic review on converting online contact into a first date. Evidence Based Medicine, 20(2), 48-56.
    Lovine, A. . (2021). Dating app usage is changing for the better as the pandemic rages on. Mashable.
    Perel, E. . (2021). Men, Women, and Sexuality: More Similar Than Different.
    Pronk, T., & Denissen, J. . (2019). A Rejection Mind-Set: Choice Overload in Online Dating. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 11(3), 388-396.
    Rosenfeld, M., Thomas, R., & Hausen, S. . (2019). Disintermediating your friends: How online dating in the United States displaces other ways of meeting. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 116(36), 17753-17758.
    Thorpe, J. . (2021). What Happens In Your Brain When You Get A Match On A Dating App. Bustle.


    This article has 3 comments viewable by members.