When a Relationship Becomes a Game

An app that reminds us to be thoughtful can take the spontaneity out of dating. But love may have more to do with game theory than we think.


It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and Kamakshi Zeidler, a 34-year-old plastic surgeon in Los Gatos, California, is explaining how to fill up a “love tank.”

“If you do little things for your partner... you get signals your love tank is full. And if you don’t, you’ll get signals that your love tank is almost empty. It’s based on how much you love each other. Well, through the app,” she adds.

Zeidler and her husband Brendon form a satisfied, if busy, pair. Both work long hours and have little time for spontaneous romantic gestures.

The “love tank” Kamakshi describes is one feature of a “couples’ app” called Kahnoodle. A 2011 addition to the app market, couples’ apps target spouses in a demographic sweet spot—old enough to need reinvigoration in their relationships, but still young enough to be tech-savvy—and offer a counterintuitive, strangely Anthony Weiner-friendly service: an intimate social network, built for two.

But San Francisco-based Kahnoodle explores a new frontier of couples-app potential.

“It’s basically gamification of your relationships,” says Sonja Poole, a pleased Kahnoodler and 43-year-old associate professor at the University of San Francisco.

Gamification is a buzzword referring to the use of game concepts, like point rewards and badges, to engage users in non-game, or “real life,” situations. The website Lumosity gamifies intelligence training through animated exercises, and loyalty-based businesses like Belly use reward programs and badges to pull customers into affiliated restaurants. Foursquare encourages loyalty by awarding mayorships to frequent visitors of stores and restaurants.

Consumers respond very well to gamification in other sectors; businesses report increases in “engagement” by hundreds of percentage points when they gamify.

Using gamification, Kahnoodle wants to make maintaining your relationship automatic and easy—as easy as tapping a button. Its options include sending push notifications to initiate sex; “Koupons” that entitle the bearer to redeemable movie nights and kinky sex; and, of course, the love tank, which fills or empties depending on how many acts of love you’ve logged.

“Novelty works like an endorphin,” says Zuhairah Scott Washington, the company’s founder. “Couples have a desire to go out and do something new, but oftentimes they’re tired. The mobile app… incorporates a lot of research on what makes relationships successful but gamifies it to make it fun, makes it fun to do the work required to keep relationships fresh.”

Poole’s husband, Damone, has a demanding job that “keeps his attention away from the relationship.” She estimates that he checks his smartphone upwards of 50 times a day, mostly for work. She likes Kahnoodle because “it reminds him, ‘I need to do something for her,’” she says. “Any little bit helps.”

By many measures, the app should work. But the relationship between a man and his Starbucks reward history is a lot less complex than the relationship between Sonja and Damone. Right?

Psychologist Eli Finkel of Northwestern University certainly thinks so. According to Finkel, you run into a couple of problems when you gamify love. Kahnoodle’s “Kudos” service, which allows one partner to reward another for a romantic gesture, might foster an “exchange mentality,” a tit-for-tat view of interaction that can be harmful in romantic situations—exchange mentality is commonly seen in cases of date rape, for example.

Finkel also says relationships are supposed to be tricky.

“Much of the benefit of doing considerate things is linked to the fact that those things required thoughtfulness and effort,” Finkel writes in an email. “Take the thoughtfulness out of the acts and they lose much of their meaning.”

Social psychologist and CEO of mental health network Psych Central John Grohol agrees. “You can’t substitute gamification for those core things people strive for,” he says. “Filling up a love tank isn’t the same as having a personal connection.”

Yet from a psychological perspective, human relationships “are inherently game-like,” says Professor Andrew Colman, a psychologist and game theory expert at University of Leicester in the U.K. According to a 2009 study that analyzes dating in terms of game theory, humans assess potential mates according to investments, risk-reward behaviors, and other factors that mirror the way we analyze a game. Game theory, for instance, explains why we love “the chase.” "A male's willingness to court for a long time is a signal that he is likely to be a good male,” study author Robert Seymour writes.

This explains why women who wait for sex usually end up finding a better match. You want the higher reward; you stay in the game longer. Like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. And online dating apps like Let’s Date and Zoosk have already seen positive results from gamification.

Of course, online dating is a far cry from your 20th anniversary. But the game of love is “still a game after decades of living together,” Colman says. “It doesn’t mean you’re trivializing it.”

Predictably, he says, the objection most people will have to Kahnoodle is that it’s mechanized game-playing; it takes the creativity and spontaneity out of relationship maintenance.

But as it turns out, spontaneity and creativity don’t necessarily predict lasting relationships, though Cosmo’s recurring ice cube-centric sex tips would have us believe otherwise. Relationships that are built on a “solid, comfortable, interesting, and pleasurable bed of reality” succeed above all others, according to an article by relationship psychologists John Adams and Constance Avery-Clark.

Adams and Avery-Clark stress the importance of “de-emphasizing over-romantic notions of super-compatibility in favor of a rational approach to relationships.” In other words, it’s not about whether spouses want to smooch endlessly on street corners or read separate newspapers at breakfast. They just need to be on the same page about what they do want, and how to go about getting it.

Zeidler and her husband seem to be.

“We’re busy, working professionals,” she reiterates. The love tank makes it “a little easier to constantly think about each other.” And Kahnoodle Concierge, a recently launched service that plans surprise-filled date nights for as little as $20 a month, is a godsend. “If my husband and I can simply show up to the same place, it’s great.”

Kahnoodle keeps the Zeidlers engaged. And in a world where couples spend more time with their smartphones than each other, that’s no easy feat.