Inspired by empirical research, anecdotal evidence, and the wake of a worldwide pandemic, this paper intends to explore the rationale and combinatorial design behind an online, gaming/dating application. Now, more than ever, people are craving human connections, and mounting evidence shows that online gameplay not only creates bonds but fortifies them as well. Although the dating application market is quite saturated with options, there has yet to be an introduction of a gaming/dating application. By examining modular design principles, this paper attempts to act as a blueprint for an application that has the capability to shake up the market.
Cognitive Artifacts: Personal Ads
Anecdotal evidence shows that many people find comfort in meeting significant others through gaming because it sidesteps the superficiality that can come with the beginning stages of dating (Landau 2020). Some couples note that dating someone you met in an online game used to be considered very taboo, but now, it has become much more normalized because of the prevalence of social media in our society and the surge of dating applications in the last decade.
Growing up, I remember constantly being warned by my teachers about the dangers of meeting strangers through the internet, however, a survey/study done by Stanford University shows that between 1995 and 2017 the number of heterosexuals who met their partner in an online environment rose tremendously from 2 percent to 39 percent (Shashkevich, 2019). Michael Rosenfeld, the head researcher in the study, explained that there were two technological innovations in the past two and a half decades that contributed to this sharp rise: the introduction of the graphical World Wide Web around 1995 and the spectacular rise of the smartphone in the 2010s,
“The rise of the smartphone took internet dating off the desktop and put it in everyone’s pocket, all the time,” (Rosenfeld as cited by Shashkevich, 2019).
Rosenfeld also inadvertently explains how online dating applications we see today stem from cognitive artifacts. Norman (1991) defines a cognitive artifact as “an artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function” (p 17). Rosenfeld says that online dating originated from hundreds of years of personal ads in newspapers (many times looking for love and companionship) that then led to old text-based bulletin board systems in the 1980s. It was then greatly improved and propagated by the introduction of the graphical web and its affordances, i.e. pictures and search functionality. This may be why modern dating applications, such as Tinder or Bumble, resemble personal ads with resume-like profiles and bios that you are able to swipe/flip through. Personal ads functioned as a way to find romantic connections, and the technology used in dating applications, i.e. GPS tracking/geotargeting, data algorithms that show users their best matches based on the users’ preferences and parameters, graphical user interfaces that are capable of showing high-resolution photos, etc. expands and enhances the “cognitive capabilities of the total system of human, task, and artifact,” (Norman, 1991).
This phenomenon can also be observed in online chat rooms and bulletin boards. The idea for the dating/gaming application that will be discussed later in the paper, stemmed from an experience I had while playing the hugely popular, online mobile/desktop game, Among Us. While playing in the public rooms, I observed many people using the group chat as a way to make connections. Many would type in “A/S/L?” in order to find out the age, sex, and location of other players. If they connected with other players of their desired sex, location, and age during gameplay, they would then use the chat to promote their Instagram profiles in the hopes that the other player would connect with them, and they could continue the friendship outside of the game. I then started to contemplate my own experiences with building relationships and realized that the strongest friendships/romantic connections I had created in the past were all due to sports, video games, and online games- all activities that included some level of competition and/or collaboration/teamwork. Empirical evidence shows that because of the aforementioned factors, games can actually give rise to and fortify friendships/romantic relationships.
Research has shown that games help build trust and therefore can be used to fortify various types of relationships, even work relationships. One study that investigated the effectiveness of commercial digital games in developing trust in virtual teams compared to social icebreakers found that a digital game with trust-building aspects is far more effective at building trust than a social icebreaker. This is because games with clear shared goals and high interdependence facilitate social closeness by requiring players to interact, communicate, and collaborate (Tan & Cox, 2019) This may be why the mafia-esque game, Among Us, became so hugely popular this past year. By forcing crewmates to work together and strategize to find the imposters, the game was able to create feelings of camaraderie between players. Although the game also introduces competition by randomly assigning imposters, studies show that even a competitive game that is high in interdependence (defined by the degree to which group members must rely on each other to complete tasks i.e. tasks that crewmates must all do to save each other and win the game) can still help two players form a connection.
According to prior research, the pull of a game is many times correlated to its out of game effects. Researchers argue that games have such a strong pull because of their ability to generate, “three key feelings of well-being: autonomy (sense of willingness), competence (challenge and feeling of effectiveness), and relatedness (feeling of connection with other people),” (Ryan et al., 2006). According to the Entertainment Software Association, 63% of adult gamers play with other people as a social activity. On average, they spent 4.8 hours a week playing with others online and 3.5 hours a week playing with others in-person (2019). Before online gaming, gamers were forced to physically be together in-person to socialize while gaming. However, because of innovations in game design and platforms and the addition of online multi-player functionalities, gamers have increased opportunities to interact and socialize while playing, especially during a worldwide pandemic.
According to the Washington Post, giants of the video game industry, Microsoft, Nintendo, Twitch, and Activision have thrived financially during the pandemic. In April, Microsoft’s Game Pass service (basically a Netflix-for-gaming) cracked 10 million subscribers, “among those subscribers, Microsoft reported a 130-percent increase in multiplayer engagement across March and April,” (Smith, 2020). According to the research by WePC.com, the number of gamers who claim they are playing video games more due to the pandemic increased 46% in the United States from the months of March to June. Data shows that gaming is the most lucrative entertainment industry. It was worth $145.7b in 2019, compared to $42.5b in Box Office earnings and $20.2b for Music, and with the shutdowns of movie theaters/sets and musical festivals/concerts due to the pandemic, the difference is sure to be even more astounding in 2020. Most recent numbers show that the Video Gaming Industry is now estimated to be worth $159.3 Billion in 2020, a 9.3% increase from 2019 (2020).
Data also shows that mobile gaming is quickly becoming a front runner in the gaming industry. Industry revenue for mobile gaming is expected to hit $76.7 Billion by the end of 2020 and 2.2 million mobile gamers worldwide. It’s become so popular and prevalent in our every day lives that 72.3% of mobile users in the US also engage in mobile gaming (WePC, 2020), and clearly, game developers are noticing. Mobile games made up 39% of the games developed in the past year. 51% of Total Global Gaming revenue comes from mobile games alone. Currently, there are 2.2 billion mobile gamers worldwide, and 203 million of them are gaming in the US (Ibid.). That’s 203 million people in the US who could find their ideal, in-real-life (IRL) player 2s (partners) using a mobile gaming/dating application 🤑.
Dating applications have also seen sharp increases in usage/engagement due to the pandemic. According to Business Insider, “the number of smartphone dating app users in the US will reach 26.6 million this year. That’s an 18.4% increase from 2019, ” (Kats, 2020).
Dating application companies such as Match (owner of dating platforms such as Match.com and Tinder, to name a few) have also found that the way users engage with the application is changing. For example, users’ behaviors have shifted- they are now looking for more serious relationships rather than casual hookups. Match CEO Hesam Hosseini cites two main consequences of the pandemic as the reasons for this shift: the discussion of more serious topics early on and the use of virtual dating to adhere to social distancing prior to deciding on meeting in person.
Match’s latest survey confirms Hosseini’s assessment, “In the scientific study of over 5,000 people, Match found that 58 percent of single app daters shifted toward more intentional dating due to the pandemic. Sixty-three percent said they’re spending more time getting to know potential partners, with almost 70 percent saying they’re being more honest in their interactions,” (Iovine, 2020). As a consequence of the worldwide pandemic, many people are looking for a partner/teammate that can help them get through these challenging times, similar to how gamers look for teammates who can help them through the challenging levels of a video game.
“Recent cataclysmic events have led singles to want more from dating: a desire for a relationship over casual dating; more meaningful conversations, and more honesty and transparency during a date,” Dr. Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist and Chief Scientific Advisor to Match, said in the Singles in America press release, (Iovine 2020).
With the large increase in mobile gaming and online dating application usage, it’s almost surprising that a gamer dating application has not hit the market yet. Therefore, for the rest of the paper, I will be discussing the combinatorial design that would have to happen in order to make that possible.
Application Design Principles
Behind the graphical user interface (GUI) that you interact with when using applications, there are various unseen moving parts that work together in order to make seeing and interacting with that GUI possible. Various applications employ modular combinatorial designs, meaning that the architecture of the application is made up of various modules that have “interdependence within and interdependence across modules,” (Baldwin, 2000). This means that within each module are various interconnected parts, however, they are independent of other modules, meaning that a designer can make changes and updates to one module without affecting any of the others.
There are various modules that go into making mobile gaming and dating applications work. We will look at the various modules that would need to come together in a combinatorial design in order to create a dating application that truly has it all for the modern gamer looking for love. To do this, we are going to start by listing the fundamental modules and functionalities that are necessary for gaming and dating applications. For future reference, we will name my combinatorial app design LUSIO (Latin for ‘act of playing). LUSIO will contain many of the same modules as a dating application, however, it will also incorporate those of gaming applications such as Among Us and Game Pigeon.
According to Murray, “[t]he digital designer has two responsibilities: to create the artifact that best serves the needs of the people who will interact with it, and to advance the digital medium as a whole” (2011, p. 87). There is clearly a demand for dating applications and gaming applications, therefore, combining the two would hopefully advance the digital medium by providing the people with an application that meets their needs all in one place.
Because of the various layers of abstraction that hide the complexities of the operations performed by the application, LUSIO would be fundamentally procedural. To truly understand the complexity of the application, we must study the various modules it is comprised of. Developing a design that is made up of independent modules makes it easier to add or remove parts of the system without affecting the whole system. This modular design maximizes the procedural capabilities of technologies by dividing effort and coordinating tasks and decisions (Baldwin & Clark, 2000).
The LUSIO application will have a Cloud-based microservices architecture, “Microservices, also known as microservice architecture, is a specific method of designing software systems that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services,” (Watts & Shiff, 2018) The application is broken down into various components or “microservices” located in the cloud that are entirely independent of each other, allowing each service to run its own unique process and communicate autonomously without having to rely on the other services or even architecture of the application as a whole. This architecture allows for almost unlimited data storage and allows the designers to change microservices within the application, i.e. online gameplay updates, matching algorithm updates, etc. without affecting any of the other microservices/modules. Listed below are the included modules/microservices:
- Copyrights and Trademarks: Copyrights and trademarks need to be procured in order to protect the ideas and brand of the application. Currently, the brand name LUSIO, with regards to electronics and applications, has not been Copyrighted or Trademarked.
- Logging in/Registration: In order to access the application functionalities, users must create a profile for the application via a phone number or email. Unlike many other dating/gaming websites, it will not use other social media websites such as Facebook for log in purposes.
- Profiles: Creators will create a public and private profile. The public profile will be an avatar that the user creates in order to keep anonymity within the public, online gaming module of the application. The private profile will look like a typical dating profile and contain similar information such as age, location, bio, preferences, education, work, and mutual interests. The user may elect to use either their private or public profile in the typical swipe feature of profile matches. However, once a match has been made, the private profile information will be available to matches. The public profile avatar will be customizable and added customizations such as accessories and outfits can be purchased inside the application.
- Location and Geotargeting Algorithms: With the help of GPS, Google maps, and analytics, organizing profiles by location has become commonplace in modern app development. Location targeting or mapping, specifically, is one of the most critical features for an online dating application. Mapping allows the production of important features like geocoding, geohashing, and proximity awareness, (CometChat, 2018). With regards to Lucio, geolocation is especially necessary to show users others in their area and create public game rooms that are dependent on the location of the players- think of an online Among Us game room but constructed with other people of your age and area preference.
- Discovery Settings: Users may change their settings in order to find matches and game rooms that are set to their preferences. Advanced algorithms will need to be used in order to do so. The algorithms will need to store the following data in order to fine-tune and update itself to fit each user (According to CometChat):
- How many profiles did a user discover in that session,
- How many profiles did a user respond to,
- The average amount of time spent by the user on a profile to make a decision,
- The number of times a user responded negatively or positively,
- The location where a user found the most number of matches or where he/she found the least number of matches,
- How many profiles did a user visit per day,
- How many matches does a user get on average and how many do they respond to,
- How many players the users interacted with during gameplay,
- What kind of players users exchanged player cards with post-game-play.
“Saving all these preferences helps the app understand user behavior which in turn enhances the user experience. Such algorithms harness the ability of machine learning techniques to learn from successful or failed matches, thus adjusting the future suggestions accordingly,” (CometChat, 2018).
- Data Protection and Security: Strong Authentication and authorization is a must with an application that houses so much data. The application will enforce multi-factor authentication, rather than just relying on usernames and passwords alone. Users must also submit an application to verify their profiles and identities. This is essential in making sure that users don’t create fake identities or use another person’s identity for their private dating profiles. Since the app stores personal data like name, number, email, pictures, and also user location, encryption has to be done in information databases (CometChat, 2018).
- Audio/Visual: The application will use the speakers of the mobile device in order to give users feedback on their actions. They will get notifications and accompanying sounds when getting a match or a message. It will also access the microphone and camera modules of the mobile device in order to allow users to call and video chat with each other through the application.
- Matchmaking and Profile Access: Once two people have matched, whether it be through the feed of profiles or the online game room, their private profiles will be made available to each other. Once that has happened, they now have the functionality to message each other and play asynchronous, turn-based games in the chat.
- Graphical User Interface that is supported by IOS and Android devices: The Graphical user interface must draw upon the available modules and functionalities afforded by IOS and Android devices, i.e. picture resolution capabilities, capacitive touch screens, all of the screen and software layers that are designed to monitor changes activated by touch and gesture motions. The screens must also be pixel-based in order to become a, “two-way medium for representation and directing human agency into a computing system while it is in the process of processing symbolic structures,” (Irvine, 2019).
- Gestures/Interactivity: The application will register gestures such as swiping and tapping so that users may interact with and get feedback from the application/game. The swiping gesture will be used for the matching section and for gaming.
- Gaming: The chat will contain only asynchronous, turn-based games but the online, streaming game portion of the application will house hundreds of games that can be subscribed to. The application team will either hire video game creators to create an array of web-based games that can be housed and used in the application or collaborate with cloud game-streaming services such as Microsoft’s xCloud. Algorithms within the app will place players in rooms/teams in the online game that align with the users’ preferences.
- 5G Network Connectivity: Fast and easy game streaming is one of the affordances that the current 5G network infrastructure gives game developers and users. Not only does it allow for faster streaming and download speeds, it also affords higher resolution graphics and even larger multiplayer experiences, (Leong, 2018).
- Spine Animation– Spine is a 2D skeletal animation software used for video game development and animation.
- Constraints: Apple’s App Store does not allow multiple streaming games per application (Apple Store Review Guidelines, 2020). However, redirecting to web browsers is how companies such as Microsoft bypass the artificial constraints that apple imposes on developers.
- However, a simple game such as Among Us provides a strong technical foundation for the exchange of human meaning, therefore possibilities are endless through the use of human logic and strategy. Creating a game that follows a similar human-centered interface design could be a first step to creating the online game module. It would only require updates now and then in order to stay relevant, user’s logic, meaning-making, and varying group dynamics will do most of the work in keeping the game interesting.
- In order to bypass the constraints set by Apple in the development of the application, the application team can also create collaborations with already established games, such as Among Us. users could sign in to these gaming applications with their LUSIO profile in the same way that you can sign in to many applications with social media accounts such as Facebook. In using the LUSIO gaming function, once you’ve selected the game you want to play in, you would be redirected to that game either through the application for the game or the web. However, through using the LUSIO account profile, the algorithm will still sort you into rooms or tournaments that have players of your location and age preferences.
- Other constraints are the RAM and processing capabilities of mobile devices used. The RAM and processing power needed to run the application and the games within should not exceed those of the “weakest” devices. Therefore, native games should be simple and require little memory/processing power, and any of the larger more complex games should be housed outside of the app to be streamed on the web.
- Payment: Because it is an application that will require a large team and plenty of collaborations due to all of the working parts and modules, LUSIO will require payment from users. The basic version of the application will be free, however, to access the more advanced functionalities, such as the library of games, there will have to be some kind of payment system in place. The download of the application will be free, and the basic matching/chat system will be free. However, users will have to pay a monthly subscription in order to have access to a majority of the games that are capable of being played on the app and other useful functions such as: going back to a match you accidentally swiped left on and seeing users who have already swiped right to your profile. Extra customizations to their public avatars, i.e. outfits, accessories, pets, etc. can be purchased using EXP (expression points). expression points can be purchased in-app. The EXP can then be used to purchase the avatar customizations. The application will employ subscription payments and in-app purchases in order to avoid using advertisements and disrupting the user experience.
- In order to process the in-app purchases, the application will integrate Apple and Google’s wallet for the app (CometChat, 2018).
The design of the application is participatory because it interacts with users in a meaningful way. The various modules contained within the application allow users to interact with it in different ways because of its procedural affordances. By utilizing the affordances of the capacitive touch screen that is used by most, if not all, touch screen enabled mobile devices, the application allows users to swipe through matches or swipe a ball in a game of ping pong, creating meaningful interactions between the user and the application. The design of the application is spatial because while the design of the application is fixed with regards to colors and fonts, etc. the public profile/player card that users can create is highly customizable. Users are able to create a space within the application that is unique to them. The application is also encyclopedic in nature because it stores information on users’ preferences, gameplay history, matching success, and more in order to inform and fine-tune the algorithm.
Schneider identified 8 Golden Rules of Interface Design, and I believe that the application will be successful because it will abide by most, if not all, of the rules (2016, p. 95-97).
- Strive for Consistency: The tasks, roles, and markers of the main online game will aim to stay consistent throughout all gameplay. The players can be confident in the consistency of the interface and will therefore able to glean meaning through how other players interact with it. The dating portion of the application will also be consistent with the experience that users have on other dating applications. There will be clean designs and icons that indicate the function, i.e. the heart indicates other users who have liked a user’s profile and the world indicates the online, free-world game.
- Seek Universal Usability: The application facilitates the gameplay for all adults above the age of 18, expertise levels, and international variations. It uses visuals and task demonstrations in order to bridge cultural/language differences. It utilizes language censorship in the chat function in order to protect users/players. Once it has been established in North America, language translation modules will be introduced into the application design in order to expand to other regions and markets.
- Offer Informative Feedback: When a task isn’t done correctly in a game it will notify the user. When users interact with tasks in a game, they will receive feedback. If a user is swiping in the match section of the dating application, they will receive feedback in the way of a match notification or the introduction of a new card to swipe through.
- Design Dialogs to Yield Closure: The app will notify users when a message has been sent and been read. In gameplay, it will also notify users when a task has been completed.
- Prevent Errors: The creators of the app will continually conduct updates to address any issues or errors. The application will utilize real-time error tracking services such as rollbar to detect errors in the application. It will also use Crashlytics, a crash-reporting solution for Android and iOS.
- Permit Easy Reversal of Action: When typing in a chat you are able to delete and change what you want to say before sending, you are also able to go back when you swiped left to someone you intended to swipe right to (functionality afforded by the paid subscription).
- Keep Users in Control: The users are in control of whether or not other users see their private profiles. They also have control over the types of users they meet through online gameplay. Users can also customize their avatars/public profiles.
- Reduce Short-term Memory Load: Users/players are given a list of all of the players/users they have matched with and can organize the list by attributes, i.e. age, location, sex etc. Users are also given short instructions on how to use the various functionalities of the app when they’ve first registered. Each game will have instructions that users can access to learn the rules of the game.
Because of the modularity of many existing technologies, it is completely feasible to bundle them together and create a new combinatorial design for a gaming/dating application. Mobile online gaming is now especially possible with the introduction and implementation of 5G. 5G’s technological advancements have given rise to the next wave of mobile innovation, especially in mobile gaming. The exponentially faster download and upload speeds allow mobile games to be downloaded and streamed instantly, (Leong, 2018). Even extremely large games that require heavy processing power such as Genshin Impact are able to be easily downloaded and played on mobile devices. As discussed, there’s clearly a demand for both dating and mobile gaming applications, and now, we have the technical capabilities to provide the functionalities of both in one application design.
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