WHAT THEN CAN A DESIGNER DO TO SUPPORT “FLIRTING WITH"?
One way to answer this question is to follow the example of other game designers who have aimed to translate human nature, psychology, or sociology into playable experiences. When Will Wright sought to design the complexities of human wants and desires into Sims games, he used the writing of Abraham Maslow on the hierarchy of needs (Maslow 1943), and Charles Hampden-Turner’s Maps of the Mind (1982). So too, as designers seek to involve flirting in games, the simplest solution is to borrow from the experts. Specifically, to examine the formal formulas, patterns, and dynamics that researchers have developed to explain flirting. Adapting these into playable models, is one the most ready-made ways to incorporate flirting into playable experience. Such formal models and evaluations exist in three specific research collections. These are game theory, varied sociology, and self-help books.
The first is the formal research of game theory. This Nash-born set of game theories (Nash 1950) seeks to understand the logical conclusions to a variety of human interactions, including the pursuit of mates (their terms not mine). In short economic theorists offer formulas for the balance of risk versus reward in flirting among other courtship activities. These have a variety of names and common representations, often based on game theory dynamics like the Prisoners Dilemma and Waiting for Mr. Perfect.
The second is a variety of individual research trajectories that seek to understand the ways in which flirting works in general society. These are less about formalizing how they are done than how they are used. Elaine Hall (1993), for example, researched gendered table service in restaurants to understand perceptions of good service. One highlight of such research is the notion that female servers performed a “job flirt” in restaurants. The research highlights the role of gender, gender expectations, and customer expectation.
Such research can serve the game and narrative design community well. Consider for example, the notion that a non-player character can be considered a kind of service industry worker. Non-player characters keep players in games, so engendering an NPC with the ability to do a job flirt, might mean the difference between player retention and player withdrawal. From this one perspective, the game designer can borrow from the playbook of table service job flirts. Restaurant research, among others, can inform game design. Of course, there’s a lot of research on flirting in many disparate social science areas. This book wouldn’t be worth much if it didn’t make that research a little easier for its readers. As such the following are highlights of a few key findings that appear ready to integrate into game design:
• Flirtations as prelude and mechanic: Cunningham and Barbee (2008) offer a model for the hypothetical phases of relationship initiation which they describe thus:
relationship initiation begins with the biology (such as gender and temperament), background (such as culture), motives, and expectations of each person. Similarly, our model begins with prioritize desires, which focuses on how salient motives and expectations affect the courtship sequence as a function of a variety of individual and social variables. This first stage has an impact on subsequent flirtation and courtship stages, which we term (b) attract attention, (c) notice and approach, (d) talk and reevaluate, and (e) touch and synchronize, that follow in the dance of courtship. The model is offered as an organizational heuristic rather than as a fixed sequence of actions.
• Models of miscommunication: Henningsen (2004, 481) works to examine how miscommunications occur in flirting interactions, noting that gender identity differences effect perceptions. The research notes that:
Men tend to view flirting as more sexual than women do, and women attribute more relational and fun motivations to flirting interactions than do men. No gender differences emerge for esteem, exploring, or instrumental motivations. This dynamic is likely useful to gender specific design, especially when trying to accurately portray flirting in game.
• Opening dialogue and flirting: Weber et al. (2010, 185) conducted a study with more than six hundred college students to understand which of ten opening lines were was most appropriate and effective:
Results indicated that participants rated the third-party introduction and direct introduction opening lines as the most appropriate ... direct compliments, humor attempts, and cute-flippant lines were rated as equally inappropriate and ineffective.
In the most academic terms, flirting can be categorized as part of interpersonal communication. That means there is an entire body of literature about its communication and interpretation that spans more than twenty years. While the research into body language is more likely to help animators and motion capture actors, small budget games can also find use in the cues that support the physical human expression of a flirt.
More recently, research into pragmalingusitics and sociopragmatics could be stretched to include the recognition of flirting and aligned social cues. As the number of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) increases, these fields, and the relationship to perceived and recognize affection becomes even more complex. To be clear, understanding affection games is not only about design deeper experiences, it’s also about bridging experiential gaps, translating experiences, and supporting individuals who may express affection differently than the romantic novels of the twentieth century described. Recognizing that players may be on the autism spectrum, means that designers may need to find multiple ways to communicate the sociopragmatics of a flirt. It also means there is opportunity for games to educate players and support their experience both in and outside of the game.
The third collection of literature, if it can be called that, rests with the variety of self-help guides and self-described gurus of flirt. While this might be generously described as informal research, it offers an opportunity to understand very specific, if not always healthy, views of flirting. They can serve as a kind of baseline set of mechanics.
While much of the literature in this space is considered popular psychology, or simply pop-writing, it’s useful to consider how such work aims to formalize in accessible terms some of the more complicated ideas evaluated by other researchers. Of these, one well-praised collection is Gary Chapman’s Love Language (2009). These books aim to explore and explain a primary thesis that each person has a love language through which they both express and understand love.
In Chapman’s terms these languages are:
While this can be applied beyond flirting, it’s useful to start with their application to games through flirting. This is because flirting is an initiative act, and as such, those who seek specific love languages are likely to express first through their language of preferences. If a person understands love through providing gifts, for example, they might provide a gift as a way to cue flirting.
For game design this might express itself in a variety of ways. When deciding how to afford a player the ability to flirt with another player or a non-player character, the player may be given options that equate to their love languages. They might be allowed to:
These are particularly evident in the content of role-playing games, where virtual currency, and player-non-player character encounters, and player-player interactions abound. Large virtual worlds, such as World of Warcraft or the formerly popular Second Life are evident spaces in which such activities are readily available and apparent.
It is of course, no surprise that varying levels of flirting and relationships exist in these worlds. Many of these activities are also the foundation verbs of and activities of relationship Sims. In the most complex relationship Sims, players develop their relationships through very similar activities. In networked play, many of these affordances are simple enough to create. If players can exchange in-game items, then it’s likely that the language of gifts is supported. If they can cooperate or share resources, quality time (e.g., working together on a game task), the acts of service (doing a game task for another player) may be supported. Likewise, physical touch, while often virtually presented, are likely available through ingame representation.
That’s the good news for designers. What becomes more difficult is keeping an eye on these affordances when the environment is not a roleplaying game or virtual world. When the player might be experiencing a kind of relationship simulation, but the relationship is not the key goal in the game. A Call of Duty player (Activision 2003) for example, could receive a gift from a non-player character that implies a kind of flirt. But in so doing this by design, the players who reads such action as a flirt are more likely to be those who bias toward gifts as love language. So, if a nonplayer character hands one player a great weapon with a wink, some players may have preferred that the character had gone on the mission with them or given them a hug before they left.
In turn, for those who design relationship Sims, it’s easy to provide an unbalanced set of love languages. Players maybe annoyed or disconnected from a game that’s largely about earning the affection of a non-player character through gifts, when what they want is the non-player character to do an act of service (e.g., provide some in-game currency). There are many ways to evaluate this interplay, between love languages and player need, but ultimately the designer has to divine how such flirts are going to be perceived.
What the love languages framework provides is a way to think of player action across the spectrum of expressions. Instead of merely thinking of flirtatious things to say, as is common in some games, or the ability to give an object, a wider assortment of flirts may appeal to a wider audience. This applies across the spectrum of player interactions. If players can flirt with other players through the game’s system, they might engage with the play space more, in much the way that people go to bars and clubs because they are often appropriate play spaces for flirting. In terms of player to non-player character interactions, the opportunity to entice a player toward affections for the game characters might be amplified if the nonplayer character is speaking the player’s love language. Algorithmically this could be done by self-identification or by opportunities to make choices at the start of the game that help identify the player’s own biases in receiving and communicating love as discussed in Chapman’s title (2009).
Consider this in the context of virtual worlds like the old Second Life. As players created relationships in the world, the environments affordance dictated their abilities. While players did get Second Life married, the environment’s constraints dictated how those marriages began and ended. Flirts in that environment were encoded as gifts, expressions, and virtual body language. Technically, in much the way that someone could build service into Minecraft, there were opportunities for players to do acts of service. Players could build something for another player or help a player do something. This is a flirting activity that is supported by the designed experience, although not explicitly built into the experience as closely as speech. It’s likely that effective designers who support more varied means of expression will find more players content with the experience. But it’s also important to note that in systems that warrant it, players seem to find a way to meet their love language needs through the system. That is, of course, save for touch, which is at best virtual-touch in the game.
It’s obviously useful to use existing games to understand how flirting has been effective or ineffective. This book contains an entire section of case studies that aims to illuminate all the varied elements of love and affection as they relate to both major AAA releases and independent games. Therefore, this chapter concludes with two simple case studies as a way to examine how the concepts in this chapter play out. These case studies are not provided as critique of the individual works, but instead as an opportunity to understand how games have explored flirting in relation to this chapter’s content. It’s an opportunity to look backward, as a way of plotting a path forward.
SCHOOL GIRL FLIRT
The easiest game to start with is the simplest. School Girl Flirt (Girls Go Game 2009) is one of several clones for a common game mechanic. In the game the player’s goal is to flirt with as many non-player characters as possible. Each time they flirt they collect those non-player characters, who trail behind them in a lustful daze. This game, and its clones, all have the same basic mechanic. Players are basically engaged in a shooting mechanic, where they must capture their victims, sometimes while competing with others.
This game removes all the nuance of flirting in an almost juvenile naivete that emulates a childlike perspective of flirting. Much like a doeeyed middle-schooler who thinks they’ve fallen in love with a classmate, the player need only stare to capture the heart of the other. This game is as simple in its depiction of flirting as it is in its understanding. From the mechanics of these games, flirting is a kind of tag. Targets are sighted. They have no choice but to fall victim to the flirt. They are not flirted with, they are flirted at. Flirting is not a product of some dynamic as much as they are subject to the seduction. The result is a simple kind of seductive power fantasy—one look from the player character and all males are theirs. This is not a complex game.
Yet even in this simplicity is a series of encoded values that illustrate how complicated analysis of such work can be. First note that the goal is merely to collect the attention of these flirt victims, with no intention of doing anything more with them. The goal of the game is to catch-and-keep, not catch-and-release. It also hints at no further steps. The flirt is the endgame for each target. There is no date, no hug or kiss, no further aim. This is a collecting game. It simply happens to uses flirting as its primary game verb.
Second, is the way in which the game encodes gender competition. Player’s resource limitations are only time and energy. The only threat to a player’s performance is wasting time on less than desirable males and the competition. This encapsulates a very specific view of gender competition. The victims of the flirt have no choice but to succumb. The competition, has no choice but to compete using her own abilities. At no point do the genders interact otherwise. The females never talk to other females, nor do they ever talk to the males. There is no space in this game for negotiation or for expressing a love language. There is only the flirtatious stare and its power to catch the attention of its victim.
What this game illustrates is that even in the simplest of games, there is much to be understood and interpreted about specific philosophies on flirting (and love). This is so before characters are developed, relationships managed, or any other mechanics offered. As a case study it helps illuminate that even with the simplest of mechanics and the most basic game goals, much is communicated about values in play.
The Sims franchise is an interesting case study in that while the game contains flirting, it is not often thought of as an affection game. In juxtaposition to School Girl Flirt and it’s clones, it is a very big game with much more content, far more complexity, and a richer collection of game verbs. It contains plenty of affection, but in the literature, people often focus on the psychological and sociological models of the game. This is in part because the game focuses so much on meeting needs, and those needs are not always about affection. It’s also because despite the anthropomorphic qualities of the non-player characters, they tend to be perceived as complex dolls rather than characters. They speak a language distinct to the themselves, and in the early Sims versions in particular, act less like autonomous beings and more like pets. Obviously, of the five love languages, the one that’s surprisingly least developed in the Sims is words of affirmation.
Sims is (as it has been described in the past) a kind of doll or pet management game. The result is that player affections toward Sims is much more like the love of a parent to a child, or an owner to a pet. The player is in charge of meeting the needs of the Sims, but not of involving themselves romantically with the Sims. For this reason it’s a reasonable subject for the analysis of player-computer love and affection in a parent-child framing. More thorough analysis of parenting love and affection is examined in Chapter 5, “Would You Kindly Parent?: Parenting, Caretaking, and Love in Games,” by Dr. Karen Schrier.