Adriaan de Jongh wants to make games that help people fall in love. It's a bold ambition for a bold man. And depending on how you attribute the origins of one's romantic relationship, he may already have succeeded.
The Dutch independent developer first made the scene with his local multiplayer iPad game Fingle in 2011. The novel title by de Jongh's studio Game Oven could best be described as Twister for your fingers. Players would have to keep their digits on moving targets while their opponent would do their best to manoeuvre their fingers around yours. Inevitable players would touch each other.
Sometimes it would do a lot more than that, however. Speaking to de Jongh at GDC, the eccentric developer boasts that Fingle was responsible for Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail's ongoing relationship with software developer Adriel Wallick. "They have a relationship because of Fingle," he tells me at a Dutch local multiplayer party at San Francisco's Cartoon Museum. "They met two years ago at PAX East in Boston, happened to be on the same plane, and when they got back they told me 'hey, you know what? We played Fingle for three hours!' They credit their relationship to me very often." I have since verified this story with Ismail, and it is indeed true.
But that was only the beginning of de Jongh's quest at playing Cupid. The Fingle creator's favourite anecdote about his creation came from a complete stranger. "The coolest thing that happened was there was an ex-Blizzard employee who came to me and very casually told me "oh Fingle, I've played that. Me and my girlfriend totally had sex after playing it.'"
"This is probably the biggest success I've had in the game's industry," de Jongh beams. "Screw money! Seriously. I made people have sex!"
And with sex can come more good things (or bad, but let's be optimistic here). While the whereabouts of the former Blizzard employee remain a mystery, de Jongh insists that his lawyer's offspring was the result of an enthusiastic night beginning with Fingle. "He and his wife had a baby, and he calls it 'the Fingle baby,'" he boasts. "How f****** crazy is that?!"
Yet getting laid - and potentially procreating - is only one part of what de Jongh's trying to achieve with his physically intimate social games. He wants people to straight up make people fall in love. Or come as close as one possibly can based on a mobile app.
While Fingle is perhaps de Jongh's best known game, he's since experimented with some even crazier apps designed primarily as flirting tools. His most recent title, Bounden, was nominated for the IGF Nuovo Award and Innovation Award. Developed in association with the Dutch National Ballet, Bounden is a mobile game that uses the device's gyroscopic motion controls to teach people how to dance. Or at least get all giggly and interested in dance, which is just as interesting.
De Jongh also made a failed experiment called Friendstrap: a game in which two people hold onto a phone that brings up various topics of conversation. The first person to let go loses. "Considering that there's nothing else to do, because the game is so super boring, you start talking about the subjects," de Jongh explains. Unfortunately, he wasn't satisfied with the result.
"I took it off the store because it was really s*****, but I'm going to make more specific context-sensitive versions of the game," he tells me. "So if you're on a date: here's Friendstrap! It has like a thousand topics that would be super interesting to talk about if this is your first date. Here's another version of Friendstrap which is super interesting to talk about if you're family or friends to deepen your bond or connection. To talk about all the things you never talk about. That's really the kind of stuff that I'm so f****** interested in. Why can't we build trust, or build love, or build all these amazing things through games? I think it's totally f****** possible! So that's what I'll be doing."
Sadly, in order to do this de Jongh is having to shut down Game Oven. Bounden made its money back, but despite getting a lot of press, the dancing app barely made enough to pay Game Oven's employees more than minimum wage over its five month development cycle. As such, de Jongh can't afford to keep paying his team until he has another project that he's feeling financially secure about. And his next few projects are definitely not financially secure.
"One of them is a game in which two people put their actual tongues on a phone licking [virtual] ice cream. And the whole idea is I want to make people actually touch each others' tongues," he says, completely seriously. "Of course I've kind of done this already with fingers for Fingle, but I think this is totally next level. I actually haven't playtested this yet, though I think there's only one person I'd really want to playtest it with."
"Who's that?" I ask.
"My girlfriend, of course," he laughs.
"That's a pretty limited target audience. Any plans to bring this to the public?"
"I would somewhat try to make it commercial. I would send it to a lot of press to [let them] know that this exists. That we can do this being games. Being this industry. I think there's a lot of playfulness that a lot of people are kind of missing out on. We can do so many things with games, and everyone's making all these genre games, which is of course really fun within each genre, but I'm absolutely extremely serious about these playful games, because I think that's what makes being social fun."
Of course, licking one's phone is far from sanitary. Isn't that a concern?
"Yes, it's very unsanitary," he laughs. "But f*** that. Seriously."
He makes a good point after all: love is never clean. Sometimes you've just gotta go for it, bacteria be damned!
"Obviously I really love this social interaction thing happening. And you can make people do things [in games] that they normally don't," de Jongh says. "I really think that there's a super power to games. I really think that we can use games to do these things all the f****** time. Why is there only one game that can make people have sex? Why is there only one game that can make people actually touch each other and rub each other's fingers and get into a super intimate state? Why can't we also make other games that bring people into that setting?"