It's Friday night. After a long day at work, I head to an LA bar to meet a friend for drinks. I get there to find the place densely crowded, and I don't see her anywhere. However, there seems to be no shortage of weird men who want to talk to me.
A guy moves in on me aggressively, immediately grabbing my arm in an apparent attempt to spin me around, for some reason. Confused and disoriented, I go along with it. He introduces himself as Julien and demands to know my name and what I do. At this point, I'm over trying to entertain him and I just want to find my friend. I try to suggest this, but he doesn't really care and tries to compel me to move to a different part of the bar with him. "I love you. Come on. Over here," he says. "Two minutes! Just two minutes!"
Taken aback, I hesitate, which he takes as a sign that now would be an appropriate time to put his arms around me. My body tenses up and he barks at me: "What's your problem?" I tell him, explicitly this time, to fuck off and he backs away. Unfortunately, there's entire group of men from whence he came ready to reenact a version of the same pick-up.
Fortunately, however, I'm not actually in a shitty bar in Los Angeles, surrounded by self-proclaimed "seduction coaches." I'm just playing a video game on my laptop. The Game: The Game, designed and developed by the artist Angela Washko and currently playable at the Museum of the Moving Image, is a dating simulator that captures what it would be like to interact with so-called experts in the field of getting women into bed. Think Dream Daddy, but with nightmare men and a haunting soundtrack by Xiu Xiu. These men have developed entire systems to mechanize the act of "seduction," and they evangelize and sell their methods to other men who wish to improve their dating life.
With funding from grants, Washko purchased every "course," book, and guide available from the community's most prominent figures to create The Game: The Game and allow players to have an experience with a pick up artist—from a safe distance. Set up for a choose-your-own-adventure style of play, the game culls its text and characters directly from these materials. For example, Washko says she designed the game so that Julien, the guy I first talked to at the bar, enacts the same behaviors and lines that the real-life Julien Blanc, who is barred from entering several countries, promotes.
At the opening of her exhibition, Washko screened a clip from one of Julien's "instructive" videos. The video, filmed with a hidden camera, shows Blanc cornering a seemingly very drunk woman outside of a club, trying to get her to go home with him. At one point in the video, he backs her into a literal corner and kisses her while she meekly protests. He counts this as a successful pick-up. Julien's "style" is aggressive, loud, and persistent, unless you're aggressive in return. Through his company Real Social Dynamics, Julien sells his curriculum—a multi-DVD program branded Pimp—for up to $497, if you want the "diamond" edition.
There are six pick-up artists you can encounter in the game, including Daryush Valizadeh—who you might recognize better by the name Roosh V. (and who in The Game: The Game is named Luke, another pseudonym of his). Valizadeh is perhaps the world's most notorious pick-up artist, known for writing articles like "Street Harassment Is a Myth Invented by Socially Retarded White Women," who has most recently made a foray into the alt-right. Other options include Neil Strauss, arguably the predecessor for both Valizadeh and Blanc, who wrote The Game, the book, as well as some belated mea culpas for The Game, and Erik Von Markovik, who goes by "Mystery" and was once so mainstream famous that he had a show on Vh1. (Towards the end of Markovik's story line, he attempts to get you to go into his room by offering to show you what his house looks like on Google Earth.)
For Washko, it was important to embed consent into the game. "I would never want to force anybody through the experiences you can have in this game, which would be very traumatizing to have in person," Washko tells me in a phone interview. When approached by one of the pick-up artists, one can choose, to an extent, to further the interaction (either enthusiastically or reluctantly) or tell the man to "fuck off." Negative yet passive responses won't always get the pick-up artist to leave you alone.
The project grew out of Washko's research on—and fraught firsthand experience with—the so-called seduction community. She initially encountered their slice of the internet through her 2012 project, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, where she presented herself as a researcher and held discussions with WoW players about their thoughts on feminism. As a woman who played WoW, she often found the space a misogynistic boys' club, and through the Council she sought understand the dynamics of the mostly male community. Many of the people she spoke to were active in what she would soon find out was the "manosphere"—an online community that now encompasses the alt-right and men's rights activists as well as pick-up artists.
This lead to to her discovery of Valizadeh and her next project BANGED, which began with the intention of amplifying the stories of the women that the infamous seduction coach has bragged about having sex with in his "Bang" book series. The books are written as "how-to guides" for "banging" women in different countries and cities. She imagined that the women's recollection of their encounters with Valizadeh would, in a word, differ from his. Her project culminated in a two-hour interview with Valizadeh himself, the release of which triggered a pointed harassment campaign against Washko. Because of this, she ultimately decided not to publish the stories of women who have had sexual encounters with him.
The Game: The Game aims to expose the seduction community in a different way. After publishing her interview with Valizadeh, a few men in the seduction community reached out to Washko to make the case that the pick-up artist was on the extreme end of the spectrum. Washko then set out to take a deeper look into various, prominent pick-up artists and their appeal.
"The conversations that I had with some of the community members who aren't gurus of pick-up, or whatever, really informed The Game: The Game and my decision to end up studying the practices of these other coaches very closely," Washko says. "Because at the time I was very ready to be done, after working with Roosh V."
Washko found that there were noticeable stylistic differences between practitioners. "Roosh V. was just one part of a much larger picture. For me, it's important to show a broad range," she said.
She differentiates the practices of Valizadeh from Strauss and Markovik. "It's the difference between things that are structural and things that are transparent," Washko says. "Roosh V. is very transparent about the politics behind what he does. For him, there's an explicit link between progressive movements and how they impact his pick-up," Washko says, referring to the explicit blame Valizadeh puts on feminism for empowering women to the point where they don't need men—and thus why men need game to attact them. (He puts it much more crudely on his blog.)
"The rest of them are less interested in making that connection so they end up being more structurally misogynistic," Washko continues, explaining that they instead frame their seduction methods more narrowly as self-help. Another seduction coach you can encounter in the game, Ross Jefferies claims that he teaches men to pick up women "without engaging in the four Bs: bullying, buying, begging and booze" and has come out against the community's "dark side." As the game reveals, however, their advances and tactics feel similar to those on the receiving end.
But Washko says these distinctions in intent can illuminate why these pick-up artists have become so popular among certain men. "These seduction coaches are targeting men who, for whatever reason, are socially inept and disadvantaged in the dating landscape and are trying desperately to figure out how to communicate with women," she says. "These pick-up artists really have a monopoly on the attention of these men because they're providing answers."
Indeed, other answers are definitely needed. In the years since The Game was published in 2005, Strauss himself pivoted away from the community, calling it "a sad way to live." At its extreme, the seduction community isn't just "sad," it's dangerous: Twenty-two-year-old Elliot Rodger—at one point an active participant in the community—murdered six people in Isla Vista, California, leaving behind a vitriolic manifesto in which he lambasted women for not wanting to sleep with him. In addition, many of the disgruntled men of the manosphere have made their way into the alt-right, helping to usher Trump into the White House on a racist, misogynistic wave.
The pick-up artist community doesn't exist in a vacuum. Their playbook isn't an innovation; it simply reflects pervasive cultural attitudes about sex—that it's, as Dr. Vera Gray, a sexual violence researcher, previously told Broadly, "something that’s done to women." A section of one of Valizadeh's "Bang" books, which Washko points out in her interview with him, is called, "If You Don't Feel Like a Creep You're Not Pushing Hard Enough." Among other advice, this section tells the reader to "move quickly" when it comes to initiating sex and "if she resists, take a break and start over again. Break her down and bang her…"
I doubt Aziz Ansari is an acolyte of the manosphere, but the details of the recent allegations against him eerily mirror this pick-up artist tactic, showing how ubiquitous these beliefs really are. Telling her story to the website Babe, a young woman pseudonymously referred to as Grace said that Ansari rushed to get her home after they had dinner and "things escalated quickly." After she expressed that she did not want to have sex that night, but maybe next time, she claimed Ansari said, "Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?”
Playing The Game: The Game depressingly recalls any given night out for any femme-presenting person. Men do not need to pay hundreds of dollars to learn to view women as a means to an end or to persistently, aggressively pursue someone even after she expresses reluctance; that information is freely disseminated in our culture.
"Something that I realized right away, when [an earlier version] of The Game: The Game was released, was how much men were affected by it," Washko says. "Men who play this game get to have the embodied experience of having their space invaded constantly and being demanded to respond to these people. I hope that this makes the experience a little more real for men in general and also hold them accountable for things that they do that accidentally overlap with things that are strategies employed by these communities."