Leonard Liu reviews Alfie Bown’s analysis of love and desire in the era of platform capitalism.

Alfie Bown, Dream Lovers: The Gamification of Relationships (Pluto Press, 2022), 151pp.

Have you ever wondered whether the dating app’s goal is to help you find true love (as advertised)? If it was its goal, wouldn’t that mean that the apps were ultimately created for people to stop using them? Find love; forget the app. Perhaps something else is at work. Perhaps it’s the ‘burger pic’ all over again – something that simultaneously sells you the ideal (fantasized) version of a product and the notion that reality is somehow disappointing you. It seems to be an economy of desire and lack that reaps great rewards to those who can marshal it.

Alfie Bown’s newest book, Dream Lovers, is a refreshing discussion of exactly this economy in its various guises – the complicit nature of the relationship between the internet with its subsequential technological innovations and a capitalism that is dominated by a heteronormative and conformist ideology. At times playful, at times pursuing a politics of solidarity and diversity, this is a book that provokes one to think again of the play of desire and capitalism.

The subtitle, The Gamification of Relationships, certainly points to the direction that Bown wants to pursue in his discussion. But there is an omission here, one which we might as well call ‘the enamoration of games,’ that suggests the technology of video games is somehow converging with our love lives. Put another way, it is not so much that gaming and dating are becoming more and more indistinguishable from each other, but that both are experiencing a paradigmatic shift that is propelled by the same (cultural/technological) force.

Indeed, readers will learn of the notion of ‘enamoration’ rather early during their reading of this book – falling in love opens a wound that can only be healed when the desired object is captured. Originally from Barthes’s Book, Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse), which focuses on the politics of our love lives, this notion is employed by Bown to understand how games, specifically mobile games, operate. It is certainly a notion that provokes one to ask further interesting question – such as, if a wound that is opened by love at first sight is what is behind scenes of enamoration, then how might one think of a wound reopened? Please allow me a digression…

Tian Di Jie (天地劫) was an off-line video game series created by Zealot Digital International Corp (智乐堂) in 1999. Its second work has long been celebrated as one of the best games by the community of Chinese gamers. The mobile-game version of it came out in 2020 by Black Jack Studio, and, unsurprisingly, it’s free to download but (certainly) not free to ‘play’! In the old version, to play the game meant to go on a magical quest during which a gamer needed to make choices from time to time and be prepared for the consequences of their actions, a trope that is prevalent in western video games (from The Witcher and Baldur’s Gate to today’s Disco Elysium). It was a mind-blowingly innovative game for the Chinese market at the time.

Of interest to Bown’s thesis, keen gamers who had kept (re)playing the game until they had unlocked all the endings would ultimately encounter the heart-breaking realization that all the versions of the story were destined to end tragically. Never to miss the opportunity to capitalize on such trauma, this memory of woe by these wounded young gamers was later exploited by the developers. The new version of Tian Di Jie became like all those games that dominate today’s mobile-game market. Now gamers have daily tasks to fulfil. Gamers not only interact with but also compete against each other. And the story line is put together just loosely enough so that it can be constantly disrupted in order to point players towards the in-game market. Now there is a costly prize-drawing system through which one gets the chance to collect all the characters in the hope that the once separated lovers of the previous incarnation of the game can finally be together again. Put simply, the game now sells a chance to rewrite an old tragedy, to end an old trauma. To allow for love.

Like our love lives, the notion of gameplay has radically changed over recent years. Ever since the boom of online mobile platforms, games are no longer beholden to the laws of narrative fiction. Take for example the fact that these games, unlike books or movies, do not have to reach a conclusion. In fact, its much better for the developer (and some players would also say the same of themselves) if the game never ends. The point is that today’s games have become more than games. They have become a platform in which ‘users’ (instead of ‘gamers’) repeat the process of being enamoured and thus the endless pursuit of objects of desire.

In this way, Tian Di Jie has transformed from a desired object – for simply being a good game to play – into a site of desire. It has become a digital arcade full of potentials and possibilities, and the way to ‘play’ is to desire. It seems that those who see mobile games as just another offshoot of video games in general might need to consider this fact. While the dating app seems to function under the same logic as its neighbour in the app store (endless enamoration and pursuit), perhaps it is not that relationships are turning into games but that they are both experiencing the aftermath of the commodification and capitalization of love and desire.

To put an end to my digression – this is a book that belongs to a very rare category. It is an analysis of love. Love, as Shulamith Firestone, one of many voices to be found in his work, finds it, ‘has never been understood, though it may have been fully experienced’ (The Dialectic of Sex, 126). Dream Lovers does not describe nor recreate love like that we habitually see in novels or movies. It does something else – something important. It thinks desire as it operates in today’s online culture, and in so doing gets us to seriously consider moments of manipulation or ‘nudging’ that increasingly suggest that our desires are not our own. Perhaps we haven’t taken online games seriously enough…

Leonard Liu is completing his PhD in English Literature at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.