When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine's Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better.
2007 was an objectively terrible year to publish a book about heterosexual cruising techniques. Online dating, already widespread, was moments away from being normalized. Within a few years, an Old Testament flood of hookup apps would populate most everyone's rapidly-improving cell phones and all but decimate the demand for a guidebook about how to accost attractive strangers in public. Which is kind of nice! In a vacuum, reading about how to conduct romantic and sexual pursuits without iMessage might be refreshing; instead, Strauss spoils this almost-analog throwback with the worst #tbt of all: regressive gender politics!
Despite being a sequel to his classic pickup artist text The Game, Neil Strauss's Rules of the Game isn't really a book about sex, dating, or relationships. Though the putative goal of the Rules is to help the reader pick up, succeed with, or otherwise achieve women, the book doesn't have much to say about women as anything other than an endgame. With that in mind, here are some things Rules of the Game actually is: a time capsule, an RPG and strategy guide, a bog-standard self-help book, a pro-magician propaganda document, a catalyst for the incel community, and a short story collection.
The core of RoTG is a 30-day challenge, called the "Stylelife Challenge," because "Style" is Strauss's pickup artist nickname/alter ego/presumably his AIM username at the time. The Stylelife Challenge is part self-help, part tactical guide to hornily approaching strangers, and part fun little worksheet. Should readers complete all of the readings and "missions" they're tasked with over 30 days, Strauss promises his faithful acolytes both self-betterment and significantly improved odds at access to women and their affections.
What "success" with women looks like is left up to the reader; Strauss asserts that "The Prize" for completing the 30 days is: "The company of quality women, the envy of your peers, the lifestyle you deserve." The Rules are here to tell you at what point in your seduction routine you should deploy a magic trick for an optimal "demonstration of value"—the value demonstrated presumably being monetary, what with all those quarters you'll be pulling out from behind unsuspecting women's ears. As Strauss writes:
Your goal today is to be so cool that she doesn't want you to leave. The quickest way to reach this goal—the hook point—is to demonstrate value. After all, she has the possibility of meeting any number of guys that day. Why you?
What Strauss isn't here to advise you about is sex, or even what to do should you actually wind up on a date. This book is more thirsty than it is horny; its are teachings primarily concerned with how to transmute your desire for others into making women desire you. His thesis is clearly outlined in the "Day 7" section of the Challenge (shockingly, with one of the book's only disparaging mentions of magic):
If there were a single sentence that magically made women fall in love or lust, every man would be using it… What does exist is a specific sequential process that can be used to develop a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman.
The idea that there might actually be a way to hack human interaction and speed-run your way to love or lust is broadly appealing—the Times has their 36 questions shtick, which promises potential couples the ability to fall in love after mutually answering 36 carefully designed questions about themselves, their goals and their values—so how is that kind of boldly analytical optimism so different from the Rules? Consent, is how! Talking through a series of increasingly intimate questions, exchanging astrological star charts, or even speed dating requires two or more parties mutually debasing themselves to try to find the keyboard shortcut to passion; ROTG relies on one-sided manipulation and coercion.
The book openly admits that the romantic tactics Strauss outlines are manipulative ("So is this material manipulative? Of course it is. Every great romantic comedy begins with some sort of manipulation"), and that its foundations are misogynistic and essentialist pseudoscience. Sentiments like, "Men pay more attention to youth and beauty, women to wealth and status," are offered as "universal principles of selection"—inarguable facts to be internalized quickly so the reader can continue to seek the attention of people who, according to the Rules, behave more like magpies than human beings.
Anyone who's been even vaguely online over the last decade could draw a direct connection between broadly describing women as social-climbing golddiggers and the unfulfilled promises made by professional pickup artists like Strauss to the propagation of anti-PUA forums. These forums promptly congealed into havens for incels and other less savory parts of the manosphere.
Among all those graver sins, one glaringly obvious fault stands tallest in The Rules of the Game: This book is corny as hell. It's not just the magic tricks. (Though magic is brought up a fucking lot.) The sample dialogue is corny:
Don't touch or grab her right away. If she touches you say, with a smile, "Hey now, hands off the merchandise."
The insistence that the reader raise their nonspecific, but seemingly essential "status" is corny:
Study after study has shown that women are attracted to personality, dominance, and status… In other words, if you exhibit the right traits for success, some women will take a chance on you even if you're currently unemployed.
The turn-based-strategy game approach to human interaction—opener, hook, root, display value, dodge, attack, dodge—is not just corny, but backbreaking. Every part of a conversation, from inserting yourself into someone's conversation to (somehow) obtaining a phone number, gets its own special name and explanation for how it can be optimized to prove to the woman you're talking to that 1. You don't want to sleep with her, but 2. She should definitely, definitely want to sleep with you. It's almost a shame that Rules was released before the proliferation of dating apps. While systematizing in-person conversations is flat-out sociopathic, an entire, slightly less repugnant industry has grown up around gaming the various dating apps and helping users accrue more and better matches. Had Strauss focused his energies on coming up with quirky introductory messages to send to Tinder matches, or recommending ways to move a conversation from DMs to texts to a coffee date, Rules of the Game could've been sinister-yet-practical, instead of sinister-yet-hopelessly-outdated and a foundational text for a new strain of violent misogyny. Sliding doors, man.
While reading the book, I wrote in my notes, "What is human interaction. Why and how do we do it," and I hadn't even gotten to the short stories yet. (Did you think I was kidding about those?)
After the Challenge and a brief interlude comprised of various scripts for readers to employ in their seduction routines (like "The Albino Gary Coleman Opener," where one approaches strange women to ask if they would date an invented unattractive friend in order to suss out what personality traits they value; "The Double Date Threesome," the subtle art of inviting a second woman on a previously one-on-one date at the last minute; or "Blood-strology," which is something about assigning personality traits to blood types—even for this book, suggesting the reader approach a stranger and demand to know what their blood type is is 100 percent buck wild), Strauss treats the reader to 11 short stories, all framed as roman à clef "diaries" from his pickup artist exploits. Don't worry: One of them absolutely features Strauss's misadventures with a magician.
The stories read like Tucker Max blog posts with all the fratty joy surgically extracted from the prose and replaced with gritty "realism," a few limp gestures towards the erotic, and some obvious examples of Strauss's narrator deploying the PUA techniques the reader has presumably mastered by this point in their journey with the Rules. Here, Strauss's narrator tries to develop an emotional connection ("Create an emotional connection" is step three of his five courtship "checkpoints"):
"If you had to choose one thing in the world that makes life worth living, what would it be?" I asked as we walked in the room.
"Hmm," she said, nodding her head and pulling off her dress.
Mostly, the stories depict a burnt-out and sad Strauss acting the part of an international playboy despite himself. In the years after Rules of the Game's publication, Strauss reportedly checked himself into rehab for sex addiction, retired from pickup artist life, got married, and spawned. In 2015, he wrote a book called The Truth about his journey out of the "seduction community" and assimilating into monogamous, heterosexual adulthood. In a later interview with The Atlantic, Strauss described pickup artist tactics as "objectifying and horrifying," and said The Game, the prequel to the Rules, "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."
Though he's out of the game himself, Strauss's books and their cultural impact are still with us. Well, most of their cultural impact. Try as he might, he hasn't done much for magicians.
Follow Calvin Kasulke on Twitter.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.