We are living through a renaissance of queer games thanks to independent developers and greater receptivity to sex and sexuality in the games space. This also paved the way for more dating simulators to get made, many of which deal with the realities of queer relationships, like Dream Daddy and Coming Out On Top. But fun and valuable as they are for normalizing the queer experience in a thoughtful package, nothing really encapsulates the dating experience of the rural gay. While dating games give you a smorgasbord of partners to choose from and dates to go on, the stuff that happens in between gets pushed aside as a marginal part of the dating experience. But to the rural gay, your dating life lives in these margins, and developers would do well to take inspiration from this phenomenon.
The formula for dating simulators goes like this: A contrivance of narrative brings you into contact with several different people you can date. You’ll choose who you want to date, then a date itself would play out, where you’d choose how to react to different statements and situations. As the genre label states, this is meant to simulate what dating is really like, but there’s several problems inherent to the way most dating sims operate, one of them being that they’re laser focused on the dates themselves as if that’s all there is to dating, when for many of us, the actual dates are a fraction of the experience.
Living in a rural area, I was faced with a lack of options for meeting other gay men. There’s no gay bars anywhere near where I live, and the population is overwhelmingly heterosexual. I was basically entirely dependent on dating apps like Grindr and Scruff to find people, where I soon learned just how fragmented the rural gay dating world – and gay dating in general – is. When I was filling out my information, a lot of new terms started to come into focus for me. Not only are there fields for age, height, weight, and interests, there were also sections for what sexual position you prefer, as well as your HIV status and preferred prevention method. More fragmenting was the section that asked what you’re looking for, which can range from Relationships to the very direct Right Now, indicating a one-time hookup. Finding someone right for you was always about seeing what pieces fit yours best, but I’d never seen them spelled out so blatantly before.
The truth of the matter is that the rural gay dating reality is one that lives on the apps, in text messages, in the pictures you share with others. A date will often take me one to two hours away from where I live, so any sort of interactions with guys I take on will necessarily have most of it taking place in the form of text. And even before I start talking to someone, I have all this information about them to look at, potentially dismissing them before even saying hello. Do I meet someone if we’re not necessarily looking for the same things? How strictly do I stick to finding someone sexually compatible if I really end up liking them? Can we make things work when we’re not just down the road from each other? There are interesting questions that dating sims generally gloss over because they ignore this part mostly.
We’ve seen interesting games built around faux-technology before. Hypnospace Outlaw created a neon Geocities-inspired internet to play around in, and A Normal Lost Phone recreated an entire girl’s inner life on a single virtual device (though the premise that it’s not your phone makes it feel needlessly intrusive). It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine a dating sim that lives on these devices, one that makes up for the physical absence with compliments, conversations, photos, and just complicated feelings stemming from the distance, which can work because you already feel distance from what you’re playing thanks to reality separating from fantasy. This type of game would just be more honest about it than most.
Fantasy situations like Dream Daddy are appealing and important. They have their place. But we need something truer to the gay dating experience, where the Grindrs and Scruffs of the world are the beating heart of how we connect. There are difficult truths that can be gained from examining the realities of the rural gay, and the groundwork already exists in other games. The quiet devastation of absence as a rule rather than an end is heartbreaking in its own right, and deserves the spotlight.