If you've been playing video games released within the past ten or so years, chances are you've by now encountered some manner of dating simulation. Maybe it was as simplistic as seducing a dancer in Grand Theft Auto V
, or as in-depth as romancing a shipmate aboard the SSV Normandy in Mass Effect
. The number of games featuring some aspect of dating simulation has only grown in recent years as video games have expanded the breadth of their simulations to more closely resemble life in the non-virtual world. And in comparison with games which don't acknowledge player sexuality at all, these games are excelling in that pursuit by default. However, when it comes to the accuracy of the dating mechanics themselves in resembling real-world romance, not one of these games are successful. Moreover, in addition to being inaccurate, these mechanics also reinforce a specific set of common, toxic misconceptions of romance simply by virtue of their design, misconceptions colloquially referred to as "nice guy syndrome."
For the unfamiliar, nice guy syndrome is a relatively recent term codified through online discussion used to describe a particular set of beliefs held by an alarming number of men. The term itself is multifaceted and can used to describe different yet related phenomena depending on what context its used in. Here, it will be used to describe only one specific facet of itself, the facet most pertinent to the topic at hand, and will be defined as such: believing consciously or subconsciously that women will or should reward acts of kindness with romantic interest and/or sex. While the term itself can technically be applied to a number of different configurations (men pursuing men, women pursuing men, women pursuing women), the behavior it describes is almost exclusively men pursuing women, hence its engendered title and definition and my subsequent adherence to them both.
Nice guy syndrome understands women as little more than dispensaries for sexual gratification and romantic fulfillment, taking in payments of kindness and dispensing sex and affection accordingly. It refuses to acknowledge women's autonomy and right to choose sexual and romantic partners while assuming both of their male suitors inherently. Power is given exclusively to the pursuer so long as he provides sufficient levels of gift-giving and niceties to his prospective mate. Should the woman still deny his advances after receiving these forms of payment, she's thought to be either ignorant of the transactional arrangement that's been implicitly struck between herself and her suitor by virtue of her gender, or crooked, failing to provide the man the good and services promised by her gender in exchange for his payments of attention and common human decency. In the eyes of the afflicted, these women owe a debt to their suitors which can only be paid through sex or romantic affection, a debt some rationalize collecting by force. In this sense, nice guy syndrome is often rightly accused of reinforcing rape culture, that set of cultural attitudes and constructs which condones, promotes, tolerates, or excuses sexual assault and rape in whatever capacity.
Another classic nice guy concept
The transactional nature of sex and romance according to nice guy syndrome is virtually identical in kind to dating mechanics found in video games. Dating simulation effectively boils down to a transaction between the player and an NPC paid in small increments over long periods of time. Often times this is represented by a meter or counter detailing the level of "affection" a romance-able NPC feels towards the player's character, with kindness and generosity towards that NPC moving the meter up, and malice and selfishness moving the meter down. Upon reaching a certain level of affection, the option for sex with that character is unlocked and the transaction is complete. Some games provide additional meaningful interactions between the player and the conquered character after that sexual Rubicon, but far more place sex at the tail end of interpersonal character arcs so as to deify the act even more, to treat it as a prize to be claimed as well as a commodity to be purchased. The NPC is treated simultaneously as a miser to be bartered with and a challenge to be overcome, not as a fellow autonomous agent capable of denying the advances of those who clearly view her as nothing more than a gatekeeper of sexual gratification.
There are variations of this mechanic, of course. The most common among them is the two-pronged relationship arc which allows the player to chart the path of his interactions with romance-able NPCs towards either a romantic or platonic end. Another variation is the evaluation of most every major decision made by the player by whichever characters are present at the time. Both of these can be seen in action in BioWare's Dragon Age
series, a game often lauded for its emphasis on interpersonal relationships, but unfortunately neither do much in rectifying the problems inherent to contemporary dating mechanics in video games. Two-pronged arcs fail to actually change the nature of the romantic arc in any way and grant the player the exclusive power to decline romantic entreaties while failing to do so for NPCs. Ever-present evaluation, while an improvement in theory by simulating the slow revelation of the player's personality and moral compass to potential partners, is still far too easy a system to romantically min-max, especially if the player is set on pursuing a particular character.
The only variation I've personally experienced which even slightly counteracts the toxic nature of dating simulation can be found in Persona 3 Portable
while playing as the female protagonist. The PlayStation 2 versions of Persona 3
both prominently feature romance game mechanics, but these simulations fell into the same nice guy trappings that befall most games with dating simulations. In the female arc of Persona 3 Portable
, there is an NPC who can be romanced, but can never be romantically conquered. He harbors no romantic affections towards the player despite his sometimes flirtatious tone, and when confronted with the prospect of dating the player, politely denies her advances, explaining that his heart lies elsewhere. Nothing the player can do can change this as his affections rely heavily on factors outside of the player's control. While this may be an alien idea to the sufferers of nice guy syndrome, it is a familiar scenario for anyone who's fallen for someone unavailable, and a far more honest and healthy depiction of romance than most dating simulations offer.
But even this variation has its problems. Firstly, this character is only found in the female arc of the game, thereby still granting him, the man, romantic autonomy, while denying it from the female half of the equation. The reasons for this are likely innocent enough, especially when taking the plot of Persona 3
into account, but it's unfortunate that a similar NPC is nowhere to be found in the male protagonist's arc. Secondly, the more glaring issue with this variation is its impact on the overall enjoyment of the game. One character here and there who is already taken or is romantically unavailable for other reasons is certainly fine, but at the end of the day, games are still an escapist medium. Dating simulations which perfectly reflect the difficulties and setbacks of modern dating, particularly for those historically unlucky in love, would surely hinder any pursuit of enjoyable escapism for players, thus defeating a central purpose of playing a game to begin with. Then again, is that not the point? To stop portraying dating and sex as mere transactions, thus reinforcing those toxic beliefs held by large populations of men known as "nice guys?" It's quite the conundrum.
The only solution readily available at present is for games to simply abandon dating simulation altogether, but such a nuclear option is entirely unsavory for those of us who believe in the medium's artistic potential. No other medium treats dating and sex as taboo subjects, and video games shouldn't either, even if there has yet to be an example of either being handled healthily. After all, there will never be an example if the pursuit is abandoned entirely. But in order to accomplish that goal, we need to begin by acknowledging that there is a problem with how we're doing things now. At best, dating mechanics are perpetuating a feedback loop for players with unhealthy, transactional conceptions of dating, and at worst are quite possibly informing the burgeoning opinions on romance for the young and impressionable, thus spreading nice guy syndrome even further, though I'll admit that is simply a suspicion as there have yet been no formal studies on this phenomenon. Regardless, change is necessary; I only wish I knew how best to bring it about.