The Gamification Of Sex And Relationships
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
Are we devaluing sex and relationships with the language we use to describe them?
It’s not often we question the origins of the words and phrases we use, or whether they actually make any sense (does anyone actually know why we say “it’s raining cats and dogs”?). Sometimes though, this type of introspection into elements of our society that we take for granted is necessary in order to evaluate the present and move forward. One context where such analysis may be lacking is the language we use to discuss relationships and sex. Without caveating the gamified terminology we use, we risk unintentionally teaching our younger generations that all romantic and sexual relationships can be viewed like they are a game.
The sexual revolution in the 1960s gave way to the rise of casual sex - something that was taboo, especially for women, in the decades prior. The introduction of the new contraceptive pill in 1960, growing women’s rights, improving attitudes towards homosexuality and a societal shift towards empowerment and celebration of sexuality all contributed to a shift in sexual culture. Women were now “allowed” to have sex outwith a relationship as they became unbound by previously held societal standards that framed them them as non-sexual beings who’s primary sexual function was reproduction. This revolution meant that women gained autonomy over their sexuality and could finally have sex for pleasure with whoever they wanted, whenever they wanted - just like men could.
And with this boom in casual sex, came a new way of speaking about sex and sexual interactions. Gamified language - describing something that isn’t actually a game with game-related terminology - was born. Phrases like “get back in the game”, “scoring”, “playing hard to get”, and enjoying “the chase” spilled over from sporting contexts and poured into relationship parlance too.
In some ways, casual sex and relationships being likened to a game could be considered harmless, and even symbolic of a positive cultural shift. The sexual revolution allowed women to be active players in this game for the first time, creating a level playing field between the genders and defying long-held societal norms. Before this, it was far too dangerous for women to “play”; there was a genuine risk of pregnancy that women would have to bear the burden of if they participated in casual sex. Men on the other hand, were always free to have sex as they pleased - and it can hardly be a game if there is only one player.
So maybe it isn’t so bad to describe certain sexual relationships in gamified terms, as long as both partners consent to the casual nature of it. Friends-with-benefits or situationship-style relationships are fun and low stakes by design, similar to sport, so what’s the harm in referring to them with game-like metaphors when they share characteristics with the real thing?
But the key is ensuring that this is the case. The problem lies in the fact that gamified terminology is now the only language we have to describe all relationships, not just those of a casual basis.
What effect does this have on how we value relationships? The persistence of gamified language, to the point that it is almost default to tell people to “get back on the horse” after a break up, has resulted in a limited relationship vocabulary. And if our language is gamified, so follows our mindset.
Not only does this way of thinking devalue the seriousness of relationships and insinuate that they are something to be won or lost, but also teaches that a partner is a prize. As if, once a man has flirted with a woman (that is, played the game), they are owed a relationship or sex as a reward.
Fifty years after the sexual revolution and this mindset has become so entrenched that women being thought of as a reward for men’s efforts to “woo” them has become the norm. If we don’t reconsider our use of language, future generations will be unable to associate meaningful value with women, relationships or sex. As society has developed since the sexual revolution, women have lost their position as players in an equally footed game, and have instead been placed on a misogynistic pedestal as trophies for men to claim. Taking away women’s equality in this way overrides the revolutionary steps forward made in the sixties for women and their sexual autonomy.
Gamified language in its current incarnation signifies a cultural moment that is both good and bad: it is emblematic of sexual equality, autonomy and empowerment, in particular for women who, for so long, were not afforded such a luxury. However, the real life practices that have evolved from it are indicative of a problem - relationships and sex are being completely undervalued. In fact, in 2022, young people - those who were once at the forefront of sexual liberation - are now having less sex and fewer relationships than ever before. Could this be because Millennials and Gen Z’s are unable to assign worth to either any more than they would a football match?
We have to reconsider how we use language and the consequences it has on how we think and act. We’ve all been told to “think before you speak” and, when it comes to relationships, it’s important that we all do so. If not, we risk creating a society in which its members are unable to form respectful relationships of any kind.