Finding Real Connection on a Virtual Dating Show

How the District’s Homegrown Game (Show) of Love Helped Me Connect with Others — and Myself

Cassie Osvatics
Jul 14 · 8 min read

I had finally decided to take dating seriously. No more flings or dates with men who were more unsure of themselves than they were of their dating aspirations.

Then the world shut down. In-person dates stopped, and Zoom dates and Netflix-party-and-chill from afar began. This was not how I imagined getting back in it.

Around 4 weeks into social distancing, there it was. An article on Facebook about online dating shows that were popping up to bring DC singles together during the pandemic. Fresh off binging Love Is Blind, I was hungry for more dating shows. I especially wanted to watch a dating show without one-size-fits-all beauty standards.

The Game (Show) of Love seemed like the next step in my growing love for dating shows. I watched only a few clips of the show before realizing that, unlike Love is Blind, this was not a show that drew the conclusion that love is blind only when everyone looks like they live at the gym. GSOL appeared to be a show that said, “honey, we will take your size 16 curves, because we just care about what you’re into.”

I didn’t just need to watch. I needed to become a contestant.

Sure enough, the application didn’t ask my size or weight. It just asked about my interests. My hobbies. My deal breakers. It only asked about what truly matters in establishing a deeper connection with someone. There was a clear decision to maintain access for all and create a platform for making connections.

The Game (Show) of Love is the brainchild of Emma Mankey Hidem, a producer, filmmaker, and CEO of Sunnyside Productions in DC. When I spoke to Hidem, she explained that the show came out of a conversation with a friend about Zoom dates during the pandemic, as well as a desire to fill the need for connection at a time when many people feel so alone.

To adapt a dating show to Zoom, Hidem created a basic layout for the show, adaptable for the uniqueness and needs of each episode. Six contestants would come together on Zoom with a live and interactive audience. Throughout the show, contestants are asked a series of questions and play games that allow them to get to know each other. Between games, the audience gets to vote on which contestants will go on a 3-minute mini-date. “I did do a lot of research in terms of past dating shows…I knew there were models I didn’t want,” Hidem told me.

Hidem also expressed her desire for representation and inclusion, and reached out to communities constantly left behind on dating and reality shows including the LGBTQ+ and poly communities. Unlike the many dating and reality shows on TV now, when you watch an episode of GSOL, you do actually see contestants from different backgrounds. As someone who, growing up, only saw my sexuality represented in reality shows through A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, this was something that drew me in to the show even more.

Dating for me had never been easy, and signing up for the show took a lot of courage. But it was also a big milestone in my personal development.

I went on my first date at 18 during my freshman year of college. It was with a boy two years older who I had gone to high school with. After a good deal of sexual trauma in high school, I was terrified to go on this date.

Unfortunately, the date set up an unhealthy pattern. He took me to a Chinese takeout restaurant after deciding he didn’t want to wait the 15 minutes in line at Texas Roadhousethe most ideal date spot in my hometown in good ole St. Mary’s County, MD.

I had my first kiss with him following that less-than-romantic dinner. What I didn’t expect was for him to coax me into going further than I wanted. I grew up around a culture of boys who got an inch and tried to talk their way into a mile. (Asking your date “is this okay” wasn’t sexy at that time, but is truly such a turn on now.) In my teenage desperation to feel loved, I took what I got. It was an unhealthy way for adolescents to view dating at that age, especially during the pre “MeToo” era. We were never taught about consent or boundaries.

It set up some unhealthy patterns. I didn’t try to date anyone again until after I graduated from college at 22. At that point, I joined all the apps and went on dates every other weekend. When I did begin seeing someone long term, I was constantly changing myself to fit their needs. Don’t want a relationship? “That’s fine, we’re totes on the same page.” But all that lying to myself and then crying every time one of them let me down finally made me realize I needed to take back some control.

After a year of therapy, I found myself back on the apps, but this time was different. I started saying no when someone treated me like garbage. Did I put my foot down immediately? No. But I was learning. And I soon found myself in a committed relationship. We said “I love you” on the second date, moved in after being together almost two months, broke up just before the 9-month mark.

I had changed my entire life for this person. Moved to another state. Found a job. But in a matter of a few days of disagreement, we went from talking about joint savings accounts and naming our kids to breaking up. When I say I didn’t see it coming, I honestly didn’t. Usually, when people say that, there were probably many red flags that are realized in retrospection. But, perhaps we had moved too quickly and I was blind to that big red flag lurking in my peripherals.

If that relationship taught me anything, it’s that I still have work to do to become more independent. I’ve since gotten a new job, moved back home, and fixed my finances so I can move out and be able to rely on myself for my own security.

After submitting my application, I heard back in less than a week on April 20th and had an interview set for the 24th. Hidem and I spent 15 minutes chatting, we recorded my intro, and I was set to be on the show. Not a week later, Hidem asked me to be on Episode 4 of GSOL on May 6th.

I spent an hour getting my hair and makeup just right and picking out a shirt that implied I hadn’t been living in yoga pants and oversized t-shirts. Then on to the setting. I had managed to commandeer my dad’s office, which meant having a desk at just the right angle, as opposed to the awkward sitting-in-bed-as-my-home-office look I had accepted for my other Zoom calls.

To say I was nervous is an understatement. Terrified seems more apt. I was going to go online and be vulnerable on camera. I can admit most anything on paper — but saying the words is different. I couldn’t hide behind the screen or think about my responses like I have the luxury to do on a dating app. People were going to watch me go on a date. Live.

What I struggled with most on the show comes back to honesty. It’s difficult to not overthink the words coming out of your mouth and alter your personality when people are watching live, judging you, and you know that you’re being recorded for the world to see. I had this fear that I might spew word vomit and accidentally go viral with an embarrassing, unintentional story about my sex life or something I’d done after drinking.

Ultimately, I think I did just fine representing myself. I only had a few anxiety blackouts — a true accomplishment. I went on two mini-dates, answered questions honestly despite my fears, and walked away without embarrassing myself. I ended up matching with two contestants, one of whom I had a few Zoom dates and two socially distant, in-person dates with.

In the end, though, it didn’t work out. And that’s fine; more than fine, it’s a big step for me. I didn’t take it personally or try to change myself to make it work. A huge milestone in an unexpected way.

I’ve had two main takeaways from being on The Game (Show) of Love. First is that I know for certain I’m ready to be open and vulnerable with another person, and that doesn’t mean my life will drastically change in a negative way. Unlike before, it has shown me that I do have the capability to date, state my true feelings, and move on if I’m not happy with something, rather than allowing someone to make me feel as if I’m the problem. Some things just are not meant to be, and that’s okay.

I wouldn’t have been able to learn from my experience and grow from it had the show not been set up to be inclusive. I was able to see people from different backgrounds, identities, bodies, and sexual orientations all in one place. When I last spoke to Hidem, she pointed out how intentional she had been in creating inclusion. “I really want all different types of people on the show and have all different types of relationships represented,” she said. “I’m bisexual and I understand representation matters. I want to actually achieve that.”

That type of inclusivity is what leads to my second takeaway: the friendships I’ve built with other contestants. As the show has continued since I was on it, I’ve begun interacting more with contestants from other episodes. It all began with a post-show dish and has led to forming some beautiful new friendships with people that allow me to be my honest self. For the first time since college, I feel part of a community. That sense of belonging is absolutely priceless.

For a show born out of a pandemic, at a time that many others like myself needed to be brought together, it will be interesting to see the post-pandemic future. “A lot of people assume that once quarantine is over, the show no longer exists, but I think it lends itself well to a live event. It could be filmed at a bar or other venue and it could be really fun,” said Hidem. “It’s a very adaptable format.” A space where everyone is welcome, and a reminder to contestants and viewers alike that they should not have to compromise themselves to find love.


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