The Game at 10: Reflections From a Recovering Pickup Artist

A decade since the book pushed “pickup artistry” into the mainstream, Neil Strauss has some mixed thoughts on its legacy.

Gus Ruelas / AP / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

When Neil Strauss’s blockbuster book about pickup artistry came out a decade ago, I was a Midwestern ingenue in New York City, and I read it mostly as a defensive measure. A nice Ph.D. student named Jon had mentioned The Game, and was demonstrating how it worked by means of “The Cube” routine, where you ask a woman to imagine a box standing in the desert, and you tell her about herself based on how she describes it. (The cube represents the woman’s ego or something—so if it’s big, it means she’s self-confident; if it’s transparent as opposed to opaque that means she’s open as opposed to guarded; if it’s pink that means she’s bright and energetic … basic non-falsifiable horoscope-type material she can read herself into and then find you perceptive.) It was basically a way to harness people’s love of talking about themselves in order to score.

It seemed like dangerous stuff, in that it might actually work. Another tactic, one for which The Game became particularly famous, was the art of “negging”—that is, giving a woman a semi-insulting compliment so that you a) distinguish yourself from the pack of people she’s accustomed to have hitting on her, and b) slightly lower her self-esteem to the point that she wants your approval and is vulnerable to your advances. This is a subtle thing, and it’s not the same as being bluntly mean. If you tell a girl she’s busted, you are a jerk. If, however, you say something like, “Those shoes look really comfortable,” you may have started a conversation, even if the response is, “They’re not. And what the hell is that even supposed to mean?”

That’s how I ultimately read the book—the tactics were about starting conversations with people you had no business talking to. Any way you could do this—and there were lots of bizarre techniques with goofy names, like “peacocking,” where you might wear an outlandish hat to give people something to comment on—helped you get the access you needed to try to convince someone to sleep with you. Obviously, it was important not to seem desperate while applying these very detailed rules you learned in a self-help book. (Sample: Do not make a move until you get three IOIs, or Indicators of Interest, such as a slight touch on the arm.) Indeed, the neg itself could be seen as a way to address the problem that sometimes the best way to get a gal’s attention is to ignore her. If she doesn’t notice you’re ignoring her, then you’re both just standing there not talking to each other. Solution: “You have eye crusties. No, don’t rub them. I like eye crusties.” That’s a direct quote. Swoon.

It’s been 10 years, though. Tinder has happened, Strauss is older, and he knows not all of the book ages well; he now calls some of the techniques he documented—and used—“objectifying and horrifying.” He’s married to a woman he loves very much, for which his pickup-artist friends of yesteryear might accuse him of having a case of “one-itis.” For The Game was also a numbers game: Hit on enough women and eventually one of them was bound to succumb to your advances. If anything, Tinder has only facilitated this probability-based approach to courtship, but Strauss’s new book, The Truth, is about how he ended up settling down and making peace with the fact that you can’t be monogamous with everyone. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of a conversation I had with him recently.

Kathy Gilsinan: It’s hilarious that this interview got postponed a couple of times. That just made me want it more.

Neil Strauss: I know. How appropriate, right? That was the plan.

Gilsinan: So that worked. I was surprised when I first read [The Game] that in addition to being a sort of how-to manual for picking up women, it’s kind of a Neil Strauss coming-of-age story.

Strauss: Yes, totally.

Gilsinan: If I read it right, you start out scared to talk to women, you learn all these techniques and score a lot, and then, to spoil it, you meet this woman for whom none of it works and you fall in love and swear off your player ways.

Strauss: Yes that’s exactly it. I think more people have heard about The Game than have actually read it. I don’t think I’ve gotten any angry emails from people who’ve read it, per se.

Gilsinan: Why were people angry about it?

Strauss: Obviously I was a journalist, this community [of pickup artists] already existed, and I went in to describe my experience of it. But because no one had even heard of this world, and the techniques, let’s face it, are so objectifying and horrifying, that the book became the bible of what it was trying to chronicle in a more neutral way. So I think all of a sudden there were these horrid ideas that people read about in The Game and ... The Game became the origin of those ideas.

Gilsinan: It’s interesting you say almost regretfully that it became the Bible, because it was marketed that way, right? I have a copy that’s on my desk that has [gilt edges], it has a red-ribbon bookmark.

Strauss: You make a good point. It was designed by my publisher at the time like a Bible. So it is like the book’s asking for that.

Gilsinan: But it’s interesting too, given the way the book ends, with you meeting this woman who is not impressed by any of this stuff, and then you end up with her. What do you think that says about the utility of the techniques for banging lots of women versus finding someone who likes you without your having to use tricks on them?

Strauss: Yeah, so if you’re going to talk to me today about it versus then, right? If you talked to me then about it, I would have defended the techniques as a way to learn courtship. If you ask me today about it, I’d tell you that anything that involves manipulation or needing to have a certain outcome is definitely not healthy in any way.

Gilsinan: So 10 years later, why did you change your mind?

Strauss: It isn’t that I changed my mind. You said The Game was kind of a coming-of-age tale, but it was like coming to the age of adolescence at a late point. And I think The Truth in a way was coming to adulthood at a late point. Let’s just face it, I got so deep into that community and was seduced by it that I completely lost myself in it. It happens in the book. Why did I really stop writing for The New York Times, hang out with all these kids running around, you know, the Sunset Strip like a maniac in stupid clothing? I see those photos and I vomit in my mouth a little bit.

I even knew then that it was about low self-esteem. Even when I wrote it, I didn’t think it would be a guide. I thought it would be a book about male insecurity. But now coming out of the other side of it, I can see how there were maybe unconscious forces operating on me that made me so obsessed, and even when I thought “the game” was over, that it still had this hold on me.

Gilsinan: It’s amazing to think of such a book coming out now and what the reaction to it might have been. I think it would have been a lot louder.

Strauss: That’s so true. It’s more controversial now than when it came out, and I think that’s a good thing for society.

Gilsinan: A lot of the criticism was, well, men are afraid of women’s sexuality, and the response to that is, yeah, obviously. That’s not a new thing. To me at least, that’s entirely why this pickup community exists. It’s all about getting over fear of talking to humans.

Strauss: That’s exactly it. And I’ll go one deeper. To me, the biggest shock of my life, was how, myself who wrote The Game, Robert Greene who wrote The Art of Seduction, Tucker Max, who, well, is Tucker Max—what do we all have in common?

Gilsinan: What?

Strauss: We all have narcissistic mothers. So what happened? What happens when you grow up with your identity being squashed by this mother who never sees you but only sees herself, is you grow up with a fear of being overpowered by the feminine again.

Gilsinan: Whoooaa.

Strauss: Right? And so at that level you realize The Game was about being in this power relationship—ok, you’re safe because you’re in control, you’re not being vulnerable. Even the relationships you get in are maybe with people you feel safe with because you’re in control. There’s no way you can have intimacy from that. So when I would do seminars [about The Game], I would say, let me ask you, how many people here were raised with a narcissistic or dominant mother figure? Every time it was about 80 percent of the room. And then when you start to realize, ok, this has nothing to do with the world, it’s just me, I’ve got to get over it—that’s when everything kind of changes.

Gilsinan: How did you come to that realization? Was that a product of therapy?

Strauss: Yeah. I’ll never forget the moment. I met a great woman and we were in a great relationship. And I cheated on her. I got caught. And I felt so bad. I thought I was a nice guy, I really did, you know? And I thought, how can I break the heart of, how could I hurt somebody who loves me and be so selfish? So I checked into sex addiction rehab. And that’s what The Truth is about. Even when I was there, I was cynical about it. Of course there was a dominant therapist to quote unquote emasculate me, so of course it was rough for me. And then there was a moment where I told her the story of my childhood. And she said, “Well no wonder you can’t be in a relationship.” And I said, “Why?” And she goes, “Because you’re in a relationship with your mother.” When she said that a whole wind blew over me. It was like a movie. All of a sudden your whole past story just snaps into line and I saw who I was. Before that I really thought I was healthy, I had parents who loved me, they were never divorced, I had a good childhood, and all of a sudden she saw the story I didn’t. And that was the moment everything changed.

Gilsinan: And the reason there’s an entire book that takes place after that is because seeing the problem is not the same as solving it, right?

Strauss: Oh, you’re so good! Yes.

Gilsinan: Stop it! I know what you’re doing.

Strauss: No, thank you. If it was a movie, it would have been, act out sexually, go crazy, go to rehab and get better, but in real life—and it drove me nuts with the book, too—it’s true, I went to rehab, I found everything that was wrong with me, understood it, and still kept engaging in the same horrible bad behavior. So the knowledge is not enough.

Gilsinan: One of my favorite moments [in The Game] is towards the end, where one of your friends in the pickup-artist community starts to dissect your game. A lot of it is asking questions and treating people like they’re interesting. And you have this realization where you’re like, no wait, that’s my personality. Any time you have to learn techniques to get people to do stuff they wouldn’t ordinarily do, you can start to lose track of where you end and the game begins.

Strauss: It’s true, that’s when I went to such an extreme that everything’s a technique. The guys would practice taking photos with each other to see how they could look more dominant in a photo. They engineer their behavior to such an insane degree.

Gilsinan: I’m reading this book 10 years ago as a female person. It did have the sort of hopeful implication, that everyone’s afraid to talk to attractive people and just to strangers more generally, but you can follow this set of rules and you’re basically guaranteed to get laid. But I remember asking a male friend at the time if there was an equivalent set of rules for women. Like surely there are female-specific tricks to, in effect, manipulate people into sleeping with you. And his response was, verbatim, “Be hot.” And I think that’s kind of true. Men don’t like being negged in my experience. But maybe I’m doing it wrong? What do you think?

Strauss: To answer the first part of what you were saying, I think yes, getting over social anxiety is a great thing. But the problem is wanting the outcome. If you take away wanting the outcome, it’s nice to have ways to get over social anxiety, but manipulating toward an outcome from someone is where it gets dicey. Because obviously if you’re trying to get something from someone—it doesn’t even have to be an outcome like sex, it could be self-esteem—when you talk to somebody who’s needy, where they’re just being funny and entertaining but they just need a response to feel better about themselves—

Gilsinan: I don’t identify with that at all ...

Strauss: Exactly. It becomes like hits of crack, whether it’s laughter or sex or admiration or fame or money, all those things—I can speak to the sex part—don’t end up making you any more happy than you were without them. But you have to work on it from the inside before you can get to them in a healthy way.

To speak to the second part of it, today, I don’t think it’s actually about male-female, I think it’s about relative status. I’ll give you an example. When Dave Navarro [formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers] read the book, he got so excited about negs, he thought they were the funniest thing ever. So some woman would walk up to him and say she loved his music, and he’d say, that’s a great shirt, where did you get it from, the Grand Canyon gift store?

Gilsinan: Oh, that’s a good one though.

Strauss: And he wouldn’t pick that woman up. They’d just be like, what an asshole. So I think a lot of The Game is about relative status. [If your] status is lower in that moment, it’s like, how can I make it equal to [hers] or higher. The answer is that if your status is higher, if you’re not making someone feel good about themselves, you’re a jerk. But today, you’re a jerk no matter what if you’re really out there thinking about status. If you’re out there thinking about what your relative status is you can be guaranteed that it’s lower than everybody else.

Gilsinan: Now that you’re married with a kid—and is that a daughter by the way?

Strauss: A son, but everyone asks that. It’s like somebody’s like, is there a God?

Gilsinan: Could you talk a little bit more about your perspective on the book’s cultural impact? What are your regrets? Do people cite you as inspiration for specific things that you find abhorrent?

Strauss: I definitely don’t have any regrets for two reasons. One is that I really wrote it honest to my experience, and to what I saw and to what I thought were the good and the bad. The second one is, for me, it opened up a door to incredible self-improvement, that I wouldn’t be here, married with a child and my wife, if it wasn’t for The Game, which led to The Truth which led to this great, joyful fatherhood. I really, like, it sounds cheesy to say but I’ll be there with my wife and my son and look around and be like, oh man, I’m so happy, I’m just so lucky, I feel so good. I’ve never been in a place where I just have everything I needed. I just don’t want to lose the stuff I have.

And there were also plenty of people—and people come up to me all the time, who’d read The Game, and had a great path, even better than mine. And The Truth even begins with one of those guys, and they met somebody and fell in love and had a family, and they didn’t get compulsive about it like I did. I suppose it’s one of those books where it’s like a forking path, depending on who you are coming to reading it.

Gilsinan: Do you think that kind of thing is because of The Game or in spite of The Game? You sort of build self-esteem throughout the book but the way you’re able to make it work at the end with Lisa [his girlfriend at the end of that book] is that you sort of jettison a lot of what you had learned. So I’m wondering if the guy you meet at the beginning of The Truth, he meets his wife, but was it [because of] The Game or was it something else?

Strauss: Obviously in my journalistic life, I’m just a big believer in free speech and art not being censored no matter what it is, and I don’t think a book is responsible for someone’s behavior. That’s already sort of part of them for sure. For me, it spoke to a wound of mine that already existed before. These things activate and polarize people. People already exist and they find their communities. I guess people use books like the Bible and other religious texts as excuses to murder other people, but I don’t think those books make them do that.

Gilsinan: Fair enough. So I reread The Game recently, and not all of it ages well. Some of it ages okay.

Strauss: Tell me, I’m curious. Oh God, maybe I don’t want to know. No, tell me. It’s like looking at the photograph of yourself like in high school when you’re awkward and you don’t want anyone to look at it but you don’t want to throw it out either.

Gilsinan: I don’t know about you, I peaked in high school. But it goes through all these different techniques, and The Game focuses on the “Mystery Method” but there’s also like Ross Jeffries, who hypnotizes people, kind of, and it’s weird, and one thing that I don’t think would age well in the Twitter era, there’s one description of a guy whose thing is to just gradually escalate physical contact and his motto is, “let the ho say no.”

Strauss: But even then, I was putting that in to show the extremes. I would hope that at no time is that ever okay in history. I guess the answer is, then it was horrifying. But now he wouldn’t be able to get out of bed without rocks being thrown through his window.

Gilsinan: And then there’s other small stuff, like one guy whose signature move is to bring women home to look at his WinAmp media player with him.

Strauss: That’s awesome, no way. I used the word ‘WinAmp’ in a book. Wow that dates it.

Gilsinan: But like, the equivalent today is “Netflix and chill,” right? But I’m wondering, aside from some of the abhorrent techniques that you’ve sort of disavowed, are there any principles you think apply in the Tinder era? These are problems that people are still trying to solve.

Strauss: Yeah, I think part of that hysteria around The Game is really that I was in this culture and I was reporting what I saw, whether it was good or bad. And I think that’s what you do obviously as a reporter. If I just said the acceptable parts of a community it wouldn’t be an honest nonfiction account. So for sure, now that you’re mentioning these things, I think that there was a journey through all these characters as a reporter, and not to confuse the reporter with a message per se. That said, I think the techniques themselves on a base level are all pretty timeless. It’s like the same ideas were in Ovid’s The Art of Love and are in the classic texts like The Art of Seduction. If you go to Aziz Ansari’s new show, where he grabs people’s texts and reads their phones, you can see them making the same mistakes.

And honestly there are things that all people should really understand, which is being able to see the social conventions and rules by which people operate and understand them is a good thing, so that when on Tinder or in text someone’s giving you a hint to ask them out, and you’re not getting that after four times, they kind of give up on you as an idiot. So it’s good to see that. And it’s good to know how to start a conversation and be interesting and it’s good to know the signals. Before The Game, I think women were interested in me and I just didn’t realize it. I thought, why would they be interested in me, they must do this to all the guys. So I think the understanding is great, to that degree. And I think it’s a nice dichotomy, the difference between understanding the rules and then trying to bend and distort them for your own gratification.

Gilsinan: So take a reader through. What are the top IOIs [Indicators of Interest]? For those of us who haven’t read The Game.

Strauss: I’ll tell you my favorite one. When you make a joke that’s not funny, and nobody laughs except that one person at the table, and then you know—they like you. That’s the most beautiful one.

Gilsinan: But what if you think you’re funny?

Strauss: I tell you what, if still no one’s laughing but that one person, then only you and they think you’re funny, and they’d probably be a great partner.

Gilsinan: There was just a thing making the rounds on the Internet, the rule that you get two questions. Did you see this, on Gawker? It was written from the perspective of somebody being approached, and it said basically, don’t keep asking me questions if I’m clearly waiting for my boyfriend while I’m by myself at this bar. You can ask two questions and if I don’t ask you another question back, then stop talking.

Strauss: That’s funny—I like that, that’s really smart. And that was another IOI. To stop talking, and if they say, “So....” and continue, then that was a sign.

Gilsinan: Do you think three is a good rule for IOIs?

Strauss: I guess the answer is, once you get more comfortable with yourself, you kind of let go of those things. Honestly, I think the real answer, God this is going to sound, I know I’m—is just learning to trust and listen to your intuition. And I’m not just saying this now as the older guy talking about this book 10 years ago, but I think that’s eventually what I learned to do. I would just be with someone. I remember being on dates when I was just learning this and I didn’t know if they liked me or not. And I’d exit, I’d go to the bathroom, and I’d close the door, just sort of stand there and ask myself, is she into you? Does she like you? Does she not like you? And I’d just try to listen to myself and pay attention and I’d get a yes or a no.

And I talk a lot with a lot of artists about creativity and making music, and they say, it’s the same thing, it’s getting in touch with your intuition. So I think maybe these were sort of, if they’re sort of training wheels that allow you to be comfortable with yourself, then that’s the positive side of it. Even while I was doing The Game, there was a point where you just start to know. But I guess I was so socially awkward that I had to make rules first. I think anything with rules is probably eventually wrong, because there’s probably no real rules for social behavior that are ever always right.

Gilsinan: That’s such a bummer because that was the whole value proposition of The Game, to me at least.

Strauss: Here’s an example, even in The Game. There’s an idea of never buying somebody a drink. I remember, I was on a date with someone and I was just so excited to be with her, she was just so great. We each had one drink. The bill came, and it got awkward. I’m like, I’m never supposed to buy her a drink and now I have the bill, what do I do? Then I said, let’s split it. It was for two drinks, and I looked like such a cheap douchebag. That was a case where I just should have said, it’s no big deal to get it. The idea is that there are rules, but the real idea is that there are reasons why those rules exist. If you understand the reasons, you can throw out the rules and recognize that they’re just guidelines.

Gilsinan: So you would probably stand by some of the basic principles, that you don’t have to be afraid to talk to people, that kind of thing? It sounds like some of the things you object to in the former work is just the tactics, right, but not necessarily the overall message, which is have better self-esteem, what are you so afraid of, talking to people?

Strauss: Yeah exactly. I stand by the book, I still love the book, though I can’t guarantee it because I haven’t read it in 10 years—but I think I do. But I stand by it because it was honestly who I was at the time. What I maybe have more issues with—and I already had issues with the community then—I think they’re even stronger now because I see the unhealthy compulsions behind it, and also maybe more against the rationalizations for manipulation that I’ve spoken since then. To be honest, I mean I’m so glad I feel differently because that means I’ve grown and changed and there was a point to writing another book.

Gilsinan: I too have aged since I read The Game, you have aged, a lot of my bros who I read The Game with back in the day are married or on their way there. Are there game principles, if not techniques, that you can use in your marriage to get out of chores and stuff?

Strauss: I think that The Game is a rite of passage for dating and The Truth, to me, is a rite of passage for relationships, so there is absolutely no point in my relationship where I ever use The Game.

Gilsinan: Do you hear that, Ingrid?

Strauss: Exactly, do you hear that, Ingrid? Because part of The Game is that you have a hidden intention. And I think part of a relationship is really opening up your life to the other person, the good and the bad, and being comfortable with that. So the answer is that if you don’t want to do the chores, you sit down and have a conversation about it.

Gilsinan: What? That’s such a disappointing answer!

Strauss: But here’s the cool part of the answer. Here is what I do. There’s something called non-violent communication, created by Marshall Rosenberg, who recently passed away. It’s The Game for relationships, because it’s a way to communicate and be heard and be understood without requiring an outcome. I think the issue with The Game is requiring an outcome, having that hidden intention, but the great thing about non-violent communication is it’s the way to communicate without bringing all your baggage, all your shit into it, and having an outcome that’s bringing you both closer together.

So the answer is that there are tactics in The Truth, but I feel like they’re good ones. In The Game, obviously a lot of my stuff came from low self-esteem, surprise surprise. And I had very critical parents, and you know, the narcissism. So before my son was born, I wrote him a letter that said, hey I just want you to know, your mother and I love each other so much, and we made this decision to have you, and you were born out of love, and you’re wanted, and this is the story of how you came into the world. Just before he was born I put it in an envelope and sealed it, sent it to him at our address and now it’s just sort of sealed in a folder for when he’s older, to know that whatever happens he comes from a foundation of love, of being loved and being wanted.

I think that’s what we lacked in The Game, and [what] we went out to find from other people.