Years ago, at an outdoor bar in Brooklyn, my best friend and I were enjoying whiskey drinks when two well-groomed men approached us. Making polite excuses, one told my friend that he needed a woman’s opinion on something. “He’s been dating a girl for three months,” he said, gesturing to his buddy, “and she’s moved in with him. He’s still friends with his old girlfriend from college, though. Is that okay?” My friend responded, Yeah, sure it’s okay. The gentleman went on, “Here’s part two of the question: He happens to keep her old letters along with some photos of her. His girlfriend found the box and wants to destroy it. I think it’s extreme and insecure, personally, but I’m a guy.”
It was at this point that two women sitting next to us interrupted him. “Hey,” one said. “That’s a pick-up line. That’s a line from The Game. That Neil Strauss book.” My friend and I looked at him quizzically. He and his buddy balked. “Well, good luck with online dating,” they said before leaving the bar. Later on, when we typed his words into Google, “Jealous ex-girlfriend opener” returned as a result. In all of the phony dialogue we saw, meant to replicate the seductive real-life conversation, the women’s response is either absent or a simple “blah blah blah.”
Lots of dating strategies trumpeted by pick-up artists expect you to go with the flow, which is one of the things that becomes very clear when you confront them in The Game: The Game. Currently on exhibition at The Museum of the Moving Image, The Game: The Game parrots at the player real-life methods from six real-life pick-up artist in a bar scenario straight out of millennial women’s most regrettable nights out. Unlike the $20 pick-up bibles and $3,000 seminars promising the secret, one-size-fits-all key to “sealing the deal,” The Game: The Game is up-front about how creepy and fabricated these come-ons might appear. By design, it’s painful and taxing to say no to these men.
“For people who aren’t familiar with this field or may have seen it being dismissed or made fun of online, they’ll understand the gravity of this field and how real it is,” artist and professor Angela Washko explained when I asked why she made the game. Initially, she was going to make a book about it, something analytical and informative. Washko quickly realized that a playable game would better relay how “coercive” these tactics are, she said.
To women like me who enjoy going to bars, The Game: The Game might make you physically ill. It’s a tactical visual novel with the emotional impact of a piece of reported journalism. The player is a woman who is approached by any of six real-life dating coaches at a bar, their natural habitat, and subjected to their manipulations—negging, faux compliments, self-depreciation. Its dialogue is entirely informed by over 50 seduction coaching videos, 20 books and endless hidden camera footage from the coaches, including Julien Blanc, Roosh V and Neil Strauss, who in 2005 wrote The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, thereby bringing the subculture of picking up women into the mainstream. These so-called artists charge up to $3,000 per seminar to shape their devotees’ words, body language and tone to come off as confident alpha men.
Here’s a line from pickup artist Julien Blanc: “Afterparty. Now. Adventure. Now. Let’s go. Now. This second. Now.” More a string of commands than a come-on, Blanc’s strategy to get women in bed with him is to remove opportunities for choice. “Take the responsibility off the girl,” he explains in one video. The world of pick-up artistry is, by design, one-sided. It exists for and speaks to the dater, not the datee. The less decisive and the less present the woman, the easier it is to score.
Blanc is the most aggressive of the pick-up artists in The Game: The Game, and immediately forces familiarity between himself and the player. He asks her to twirl under his finger. He picks her up and places her elsewhere in the bar. “I loved you in Lord of the Rings,” he demures. When you tell him you’re not interested, he begs you not to embarrass him and presses onward with unflappable confidence. Ignoring him, you still receive an endless slew of questions, comments and commands from him. Anything less than “Fuck you, get away from me” appears, to him, as a tacit acceptance of his intentions. Blanc’s real-life website advertises, “Make Girls BEG To Sleep With You After SHORT-CIRCUITING Their Emotional And Logical Mind Into A Million Reasons Why They Should.” The Game: The Game shows just how intimidating that can be.
In The Game: The Game, turning down Blanc’s repeated advances feels like paddling a canoe up a tidal wave. “There’s already a flow chart they’ve developed that I’m kind of providing the missing perspective to,” Washko told me over the phone. “Sometimes, the outcome may be the same despite whatever option you pick. The pickup artist might just continue down the same route even if you do express resistance.”
Prior to making The Game: The Game, Washko inserted herself into the underworld of pickup artistry with a combative piece of art. Inspired by Roosh V’s infamous pickup textbook Bang and informed by his apparently successful efforts to get laid, Washko launched a public campaign to interview women whom Roosh V had slept with. She wanted to construct a narrative of those nights in which Roosh V was not the only agent. She called it Banged. Her obsession with the “other side” of these dark arts led to The Game: The Game, which, instead of imagining what it’s like to encounter these avatars of the manosphere at bars, lets people play out those encounters minus the gnarly, real-life consequences.
Roosh V’s chapter in The Game: The Game, Washko said, was the least difficult to write. It’s easy to see why. He’s all or nothing. He approaches you with the intention of separating you and him from the crowd: “It’s ironic that the place most people meet each other is the place where it’s hardest to do so,” he says casually. He’s soon brimming with sarcasm. His personality signals “Get with me or get lost,” but at the same time, his acceptance made me feel unique. Unless the player is completely submissive, Roosh won’t waste his time with her. He’ll turn his back on her, concluding, “You’re pretty weird. And too old for me.”
Playing through the scenarios to their icky morning-after conclusions, it became easy to tease out common threads: Make the girl feel bad, then make her feel good. Make her earn your respect. Don’t make a move too soon when she’s at your place, so she wonders what’s up. These strategies relied on women seeking validation from these guys. At the end of some scenarios, Washko drops hints about the research materials she was using, or about how maddening reading them had become for her. “If somebody does the work to go through these horrible experiences,” Washko explained, “I wanted to make them feel like it was going to a takeaway.”
The Game: The Game will be available on Itch.io late February.