Thursday, July 3, 2014

June's Book: The Game

The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss
Journalism (2005 - 452 pp.)

The Game is journalist Neil Strauss's foray into the world of pickup artists (PUAs), which he does in true investigative fashion - by becoming one of them for two years. The adventures Strauss and other PUAs get into are some of the most entertaining things I've ever read, and I speak as someone who's read Strauss before. I've also taken more notes on this book than any other. Rather than being like, say, a history book with a thesis and a narrative that builds toward that thesis, The Game often feels like an unending barrage of crazy quotations. For a full list of my favourite quotations from the book, click here.

Some brief background: A PUA is someone who approaches strangers with the intention of closing (in Mystery's terms, number-close, kiss-close, and I'm sure you can imagine a few others). PUA training is typically given in seminar form by a guru to AFCs (average frustrated chumps) who want to become better socially, have more girlfriends, and so on. There are also lots of acronyms involved, as you may have already guessed. A glossary of them, and other terms, appears on page 439. The art of pickup started in 1970 with Eric Weber's book How to Pick Up Girls before taking off in the '80s and '90s with the teachings of Ross Jeffries. Since then, mPUAs (master pickup artists) like Mystery, Style (Strauss's pseudonym) and David DeAngelo have emerged. The community typically consists of online message boards and local hangout spots called lairs in various cities. The timeline in The Game is the early 2000s, as the reader is reminded through references to then-popular Kazaa (190) and Party Poker (192). The only development since that I'm aware of is the mainstreaming of pickup through reality shows.

The book starts with Strauss, an AFC at the time, agreeing to write a story on PUAs when goaded to do so by a friend. This segues nicely into Strauss's first time meeting Mystery, at one of Mystery's seminars. That first seminar contains some of Mystery's statements of philosophy, such as "A pickup artist must be the exception to the rule. You must not do what everyone else does. Ever", (18) and "Think of tonight as a video game. It's not real. Every time you do an approach, you are playing this game." (19) Being special in some way, or "demonstrating value" as Mystery puts it, comes off as a codification of a basic social principle. The second quotation sums up the book in some ways. Pickup is in large part about treating each rejection as a chance to respawn.

Strauss's first reaction to Mystery is that "This was a guy who thought about seduction nonstop, like a mad scientist working on a formula to turn peanuts into gasoline." (22) Strauss's humour shines through frequently in quotations like these. In expressing disbelief at his first time seeing PUAs in the field (in this case, Mystery and a wingman entitled Sin), Strauss notes that:

To Mystery and Sin, these clubs didn't seem to be reality. They had no problem whispering in students' ears while they were talking to women, dropping pickup terminology in front of strangers, and even interrupting a student during a set and explaining, in front of his group, what he was doing wrong. They were so confident and their talk was so full of incomprehensible jargon that the women rarely even raised an eyebrow, let alone suspected they were being used to train wanna-be ladies' men. (27)

Mystery's lack of trepidation about being seen as a PUA is evident from the above. Strauss's comparative lack of confidence at the start of the book is shown in "Sexual Frustration", a poem he wrote as a teen. (30-31) A more prosaic depiction of Strauss's pre-PUA existence is that "Somewhere, in another life, I used to wake up in the morning, sit at a desk before even eating or showering, and stew in my own filth as I sat typing on a computer and not getting laid." (227) Gaining confidence is a crucial first step to becoming a PUA. For those wondering, a set is a number of people being approached. For example, a group of three people is a three-set.

Not even the most hallowed PUAs have always had such confidence. Ross Jeffries is described as being "beaten down". (124) A quotation from Jeffries about rival and former student David DeAngelo highlights the combination of competitiveness and insecurity capable of existing within the seduction community: "The guy is so fucking good-looking and well-connected in the nightclub scene it just astounds me that people think he could ever understand their situation and the difficulties they encounter in dealing with women." (125) This can be coupled with a feeling of being denied something, as in the following conversation between Mystery and Strauss: "'I'm the world's greatest pickup artist,' [Mystery] grumbled in my direction. 'How come I don't have a girlfriend?' [Strauss:]'Well, maybe because you're the world's greatest pickup artist.'" (182) The frankness of the situation, that Mystery has such a difficult time maintaining a relationship throughout the book despite at times seeming to want one, speaks to the surprisingly isolated and wanting life of the PUA. In a particularly crass demonstration of desiring women from afar, Extramask, a student of Mystery's, remarks that he plans to "pound out the biggest batch thinking about that girl who just kissed you" to Strauss early in the book. (64)

Different PUAs have different solutions to this problem. Some are admirable in their sheer honesty, whereas others are inexplicable. One otherwise unmentioned PUA approaches 125 women in one day, an impressive feat regardless of his intentions, which are never stated. The man claims to feel far more confident after the experience, albeit with little success. (298) At the very least, it must have been fun to try. A stark contrast is found in a method Rasputin advises during a seminar. Keep in mind the following was said to a crowd of men during a motivational speech: "You don't shower or shave for a month, until you smell like a sewer. Then you walk around for two weeks wearing a dress and a goalie mask with a dildo strapped to the front. That's what I did. And you will never be afraid of public humiliation again." (140) This is a method for improving confidence I find far more difficult to embrace. It is highly entertaining to read, though. 

A rather ironic issue PUAs tend to face is their rapid exposure to more men than women. The seduction community consists almost entirely of men, and friendships with fellow PUAs are far more likely to last than encounters with women. Strauss observes, "Since I'd started spending so much time with PUAs, I'd lowered my standards for who I hung out with... And though the community was all about women, it was also completely devoid of them." (129) In the case of gurus offering seminars, often at substantial rates, seduction is about competing for paying students rather than for women. Jeffries, Mystery and others compete for students throughout the book. Popular techniques are cyclical in the community, leading Strauss to find that "These were trends that had nothing to do with women and everything to do with male ego." (232) The most jarring example of the lack of women in the seduction community occurs late, when Project Hollywood (a mansion full of PUAs) is falling apart: "At Papa's twenty-fourth birthday, not a single woman showed up." (424) Papa is the same PUA who once acquired Paris Hilton's phone number at a taco stand, (256) although he never saw her after that, and whose name appears on the mansion's lease.

On the sadder side, a certain dissatisfaction can come from so much pickup. At a particularly distressed point, Strauss muses that "Every girl in my life could disappear and never call me again, and I wouldn't have cared." (373) When he finally meets one who does make him care, it's almost too late. After so long in the game, Strauss notes that asking a woman out to dinner feels strange to him: "It was so AFC of me. I was asking her out on a date." She, of course, said that "I was wondering when you were finally going to ask." (400) When the date arrived, Strauss admits that "It was one of the toughest dinners of my life. We'd spent so much time together already that I literally had no more material left. I was forced to be myself." (409) Thankfully, the couple survives this dreaded dinner date. Even so, it serves as a cautionary tale for having pickup skills but little else. Strauss's words of wisdom earlier in the book that "...the best way to pick up women is to have something better to do than pick up women" (301) ring true here.

Since I've read the book, a few friends have asked me what I think about PUAs. Some variation of "Isn't this unethical?" inevitably surfaces. Without fail, I've replied that I think there's a good side and a bad side to the seduction community. The good side is that the mPUAs often function as quite effective motivational speakers. For people who have a difficult time approaching others in social situations, having a community to talk to about socializing is probably a boon. The bad side is the falsehood that sometimes surfaces in peoples' personalities. Examples come up with Jeffries, as in when Strauss notes that "there was something artificial and rehearsed about the way he spoke, the way he moved, the way he looked at me" (48) and with Mystery, who, before Strauss befriends him, "seemed to be a conscious, rehearsed invention". (20) Tyler Durden is probably the worst of them in terms of this issue, as Strauss is told later in the book that "[Tyler Durden]'s not motivated by girls. He's motivated by acquisition and power." (427) When it stops being about social interaction as a way to meet people and starts being about social interaction as a way to control them, that's when it gets dangerous.

I expected to completely disagree with the everything the book stood for which I've done before. What I ended up doing was reflecting on my own social interactions, comparing them to those of the PUAs. I'm not a Satanist or a communist, but could I be a pickup artist? Yes and no. Yes, absolutely, in the sense that I'm comfortable approaching people in social situations, even - gasp - HB10s. (These are women so attractive they merit a 10/10 score based on their looks. How this is calculated is never explained.) No, absolutely not, in the sense that a Mystery phrase like "Everything I say in a pickup has an ulterior motive" (152) goes completely against anything I would ever do. I've also never used canned material, nor would I ever. Those who continually do so fail the "Are You a Social Robot?" test (300). It's that good/bad dynamic again. Then again, everything is.

A note on the term "AFC": As someone who grew up during the latter half of the unprecedented 13-year streak of Superbowls in which the NFC emerged victorious (1985-1997, those being the years in which those Superbowls were played), the idea that AFC game is weak brought a smile to my face.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: N/A*

*How educational this book is goes by a variety of factors, including but not limited to:
1. Gender. The book is very male-centred in that the only pickup artists witnessed are men.
2. Marital status. I can't imagine this book being that educational to married people, with a few notable exceptions.
3. Social inclinations. Some people just aren't interested in pickup. Further, some people feel like they don't need it. People in either category may not gain as much as others.

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