“Dead dove, do not eat,” a fanfiction tag derived from “Arrested Development,” warns about unspeakable horrors before audiences look regardless. This summer, my “dead doves” were dating apps. I don’t know what I expected.
For years, studies warned me that dating apps are addicting and depressing, so I’ve always avoided them as someone susceptible to both. My fears were validated after I caved and began a four-month downward spiral into online dating. Perhaps a more apt description is an undergrad midlife crisis.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the pressure to find a partner that finally sold me; it would be nice, but I don’t need a relationship to be happy. I caved because, above all else, I wanted friends. College was one of my last opportunities to make friends, yet I feel deeply isolated here.
Pandemic aside, large gatherings and events where people connect weren’t accessible for an autistic girl with noise sensitivity like me. That’s not counting spaces where I’ve been bullied or excluded for being neurodivergent, transgender or both. I still have some friends, but welcoming spaces like the Journal are rare. I hoped that even if they’re emotionally draining places to find partners, dating apps could be accessible environments to meet friends.
My friends suggested Bumble, an app designed to meet friends and partners, as the least toxic starting point. I searched for people my age near me who wouldn’t exclude me because of my identity. By August, I’d downloaded six dating apps, spent entire nights scrolling and only met three people in person.
I must stress that my criticism doesn’t reflect on any matches I’ve had. I’m lucky that the few people I met were kind, though I still would’ve taken this perspective even if they weren’t. Dating apps’ underlying issue is their structure, not their userbase.
Dating apps felt eerily familiar until it finally hit me: they’re freemium games. They’re Skinner boxes that pump players with dopamine, turn rudimentary tasks into daily rituals and paywall with microtransactions when they start having fun. Don’t believe me? Tinder creators Sean Rad and Justin Mateen view swiping not as a matchmaker but as a game.
“Nobody joins Tinder because they’re looking for something … They join because they want to have fun. It doesn’t even matter if you match because swiping is so fun,” Rad said in a 2014 TIME interview.
One notable freemium model is gacha games; named after gachapon capsule machines, gachas sell random chances of pulling specific rewards. They use similar psychological tricks to how slot machines and casinos distract you from your spending, like vibrant graphics and play money. Dating apps function identically by pulling profiles, and when you get matches, it rewards you with flashy animations as if you pulled a five-star character.
Like daily gacha pulls, “swiping right” forms habits with daily limits. I immediately ritualized waiting for swipes to refresh, even though I used my laptop to avoid mobile notifications. I also wanted to prevent mindless swiping by reading profiles in detail, but I just spent more time scrolling.
Identity also impacts how many matches you get, as dating app users are ruthless towards marginalized groups. For example, LGBTQ+-friendly app HER reported that trans women like myself swiped right more than other HER users and received fewer matches.
Theoretically, dealbreakers (preferences) could narrow my search to left-leaning trans allies, but “left” was never an available label. “Liberal” is the farthest left any dealbreaker section goes, which could mean anything from “I picked the farthest left option” to “nothing will fundamentally change.” I could use the “other” labels, but those have an even wider range.
I suppose I should be thankful for grinding through the gamification. When my current partner and I met after four months of searching, it proved good things could come from dating apps. Shouldn’t I be praising the system that matched us instead of complaining?
Dating apps’ advertisements share stories of partners and friends who met on their platform, implying that you, too, can be happy if you sign up. Sure, we were happy with each other, but we didn’t feel like the couples in the marketing who unabashedly promoted the algorithm that matched them. We both agreed the algorithm wasn’t effective, nor was it even the reason we matched.
A pattern I noticed with the few people I met, my partner included, was that outside factors like timing and location played a major role in our matches. Some people redownloaded the app after being inactive, while others recently moved nearby or returned from traveling. Despite this, every dating app promotes strategies that they claim are mathematically proven to attract users more, like sharing more photos or detailed prompts.
These strategies mimic metagaming: knowledge and optimizations outside games’ code (e.g., tier lists). Metagaming thrives in gachas, which pressure players to pull stronger characters, but the “game” of dating apps isn’t what happens after you match. To dating app creators, swiping and being matched is the game, and that’s up to the algorithm. The only optimizations are paid conveniences, like extra dealbreakers or seeing who liked you.
Whereas algorithms use the same factors every time, real life introduces too many factors for strategies to be universally applicable. You can’t control when and where people open the app, how busy they are or whether your conversation stagnates. In many cases, strategies are useless even after matching; CNBC reports that dating app “collectors” swipe everyone for fun to see how many matches they get, not to date.
Promoting strategies that place responsibility on users may be a response to other dating app issues – swipe culture, catfishing, “chasers” who fetishize trans people, etc. – but these are symptoms of the algorithm commodifying people. If the “dead dove” signs I ignored are proof, other writers have deconstructed dating apps better than I can, so I’ll leave it to them.
There’s a saying that no product is free; if you don’t pay for something, you’re the product. Nothing applies more to that statement than turning human connection into a game. Dating apps aren’t as financially destructive as gacha games – even premium subscriptions are nowhere near sinking thousands of dollars for your favorite PNGs – but treating real people like gacha pulls is emotionally destructive.
Can you find friends or partners on dating apps? Think of it this way: some gacha games can be fun, but “can” and “will” mean very different things. Given how dating apps want to be gachas, a more appropriate question would be: “do you feel lucky?”
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Sean Mullins (she/they) is the opinions editor and webmaster for the Journal. She is a media studies major and professional writing minor at Webster University, but she's participated in student journalism since high school, having previously been a games columnist, blogger and cartoonist for the Webster Groves Echo at Webster Groves High School. Her passion is writing and editing stories about video games and other entertainment mediums. Outside of writing, Sean is also the treasurer for Webster Literature Club. She enjoys playing games, spending time with friends, LGBTQ+ and disability advocacy, streaming, making terrible puns and listening to music.