The Theory of The Game

by Aaron Swartz; an edited version of this piece was published in issue 13 of Other (comments)

For a couple of weeks, it seemed like all my friends were reading a thick black book with a leather cover and gold-edged pages. "Is that The Bible?" I finally asked them. "It might as well be," said one. "It's a guide to picking up girls," another explained. I scrunched my face. "Oh, no no no," the smartest one there said. "Think of it as an ethnography of a community of pick-up artists."

The Game, if you want to put it that way, is a participant-observation study of a new Internet-fueled underground. It is an odd fact of life that, in our repressed and sexist society, a man's worth is in part measured by his ability to pick up women. (And vice versa, of course, but the book almost exclusively takes the man's point of view.)

We think of dating (like just about everything else in society) as the natural way for people to find partners, even though it was only invented in the past century. For most of even American history, kids were matched up by their parents. But as industrialization gave children disposable time (along with high schools to soak much of it up), dating was invented as a way for children to exercise their newfound mating freedom in a relatively controlled way.

Like everything else in high school, dating success was quickly picked up as an indicator of success in the neverending "popularity contest" and the same mentality followed the kids out of the schools and into the bars. The pick-up artists (or PUAs) take this sorry fact to its frightening conclusion. They approached the task of getting girls as almost a scientific question: what procedure will maximize digit-production in the human female?

The most striking result of this amateur research project was that being attractive is unnecessary. Sure, looks mattered to some extent, but the amazing thing was that even geek guys could get the girl. It was like they'd discovered some sort of magic spell: this dorky looking guy would walk up to the cutest girl in the bar and within fifteen minutes he'd have peeled her away from her boyfriend and had her giving him her number.

In this way, the book is a sort of intelligence porn: you don't need to be cute, cool, or sexy to get girls -- you just need to be smart. With careful analysis and practice, you can learn to convincingly imitate any of those things. It's just a matter of discovering the right algorithms, like you do when you're writing a computer program. (Which probably explains the subculture's incredible popularity among computer programmers.)

What was going on? Part of it was genuinely devious. One practitioner did things like ask the girl to think of a time she'd been really embarrassed while making a particular hand signal. The hand signal became associated with blushing in her head, so that every time he made hand signal the girl begun blushing, a physical response she naturally misinterpreted as attraction. ("It's strange," she mused, "because you're not my usual type.")

But for the most part the tactics are much more straightforward: angle up to the girl so she can't easily turn her back to you, win over her friends first so they won't get in your way, give her subtle insults so she'll want to win you over, wear odd things so you'll stand out, use a standard script to be entertaining. For example, a standard line is to go up to a girl and ask her if she believes in magic spells. ("Yeah, well I don't either," you then say, "but my friend had this love spell supposedly cast on him and now he's all crazy for this girl.")

Why do these things work? Girls go to bars to meet guys, guys go to bars to meet girls. Unfortunately, there are lots of people there and they all act basically the same. Stilted, awkward conversations about the boring minutiae that everyone has in common. ("Oh, I like Gilmore Girls too!") Even if someone is attractive, it's a pain to stand around having to think of things to say to them for any reasonable amount of time.

The pick-up artist, by following a script of interesting-sounding things to say, by bringing props that the girl can easily comment on, by basically orchestrating the entire conversation in advance, comes into this room of copycats like a breath of fresh air. "Wow, this guy is so different," you think. "Being around him feels so fun and natural. It's like we really click." And just like the girl who misinterpreted blushing as attraction, you misinterpret planning as character. The guy isn't especially interesting; he's just bothered to pick up a script.

One problem with following our feelings is that our feelings are easy to misread. In a classic psychology study, Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer shot up a couple hundred students with adrenaline, telling them it was a vitamin that improved vision. Half the kids were told the vitamin had side effects (their heart would beat fast, their hands would shake) and they acted pretty normally. But the rest searched for some external reason they were feeling that way -- and started acting goofy or angry, throwing wads of paper at people or using things in the lab room as hula hoops.

It's the same reason clifftops seem romantic. Your body sees the long, steep drop and your heart starts pumping with fear. But your brain looks at the beautiful person next to you and starts thinking those heartbeats are love. The PUAs just took this time-tested method to the next level. They figured out which techniques were most effective at manipulating a woman's feelings. Then, like game theorists, they broke down the entire male-female interaction into steps and figured out which technique belonged where. (If the girl comes on too strong at first, use a neg to back her off for a bit. But if she's starting to leave, try to lure her back with a game.)

As you might guess, a system based upon treating women as objects and works by discovering ways to deceive them doesn't really work over the long-term. But when you're picking up new girls every night, it takes a while to notice that.

And once you're that deep in, you ask yourself, what does last? The book is full of stories of nice girls being snatched away from their sweet, devoted boyfriends by the counterfeit charm of a pick-up artist. When you have a stock set of phrases that make girls like you 90% of the time, you can't help but wonder if girls just aren't very bright. You treat them like objects, you find techniques that succeed on them as objects, and then you think of them as objects. And who wants a long-term relationship with an object?

The more ambitious PUAs begin seeing everyone this way. One of the book's more frightening characters, Tyler Durden, spends all his time analyzing others behavior, breaking it down into components, and then adopting it as part of his own affected personality, like some kind of sci-fi villain that does its evil deeds by adopting the forms of others.† Durden begins seeing everyone as an object to either study or control, staging elaborate confrontations and emotional intrigues to achieve dominance in the pick-up community.

† See, e.g., the First Evil in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon, ed.), season 7 (UPN, 2002-2003).

At the turn of the century, as machines became involved in large swathes of human life, psychology responded by insisting that humans were simply a special kind of machines. Unable to come up with an "objective" explanation for subjective experience (that is, consciousness), J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner begun denying it existed, insisting that humans were nothing but patterns behavior, learned through schedules of positive and negative reinforcement administered by society. Change the patterns of reinforcement and you change the behavior; there was no need to get involved in messy issues like "feelings" or "opinions". Opinions aren't real, the behaviorists insisted. You can't hold one in your hand.

Skinner took these assumptions to their logical conclusions, writing a novel titled Walden Two, in which all human pain and suffering are alleviated by having society be controlled by a Master Reinforcer who makes sure people only get rewarded for socially optimal behaviors (and thus, according to Skinner, people only carry out socially optimal behaviors). Skinner intended Walden Two as a utopia, but the story reads like a dystopia more frightening than even Brave New World. At least in Huxley's world people had inner lives that had to be pacified. Skinner doesn't even give them that.

Behaviorism has since been widely discredited in the field of psychology, but it lives on in the world of computer programmers and their philosophical allies, where it is now called functionalism. People aren't machines anymore, now they're computer programs. You don't even have to perform the same behaviors to be considered human, you just have to calculate the same mathematical functions. (In the future, these technologists breathlessly explain, we will simply upload our brains to our computers, where we can continue to live forever in the computer's universe simulator.)

Whereas Skinner searched for the patterns of reinforcement that underlay people's behavior, the programmers now search for the algorithms. And while this research project (known as "artificial intelligence") has been a stunningly total failure, the fact that we can't find these algorithms doesn't seem to have shaken anyone's faith that they're out there to be found.

Instead, the AI proponents cheer loudly every time someone gets a computer to do something we think of as a human task. "Aha!" they proclaim. "Computers can beat humans at chess. How can we deny them humanity now?" But their computers don't play chess at all like humans do. They do not think about strategies or attempt to accomplish certain goals. Instead, they use their vast processing power to calculate millions of possible moves and countermoves, and then rank them based on how favorable they are.

The Game is like the AI version of dating. Instead of working to connect with people and entertain them, its practitioners search for statements that women seem to find entertaining and endlessly repeat them. Sure, they might succeed in picking up women, just as computers can succeed in beating humans in chess, but to think they're doing the same thing as normal people is to make a horrible mistake.


changed December 24, 2007