Date 27: The Doctor, the Garden and the Cliffhanger

So, Date 27 - The Penultimate date. 

Obviously, by this point, while I was hoping it would end up as the ultimate date, I wasn't holding out too much hope - it really is a barren wasteland. I was starting to worry that my Telegraph colleague Tim Stanley might be right, that there might be no woman in the world willing to date a man who still likes model soldiers in his thirties. I mean, it's not like I'm addicted to them.  I just like them, ok? They're not a problem. I could give them up any time. I just don't want to.

Ahem, trips to group therapy aside,  I felt I wanted to maximise my chances, and this was my last shot at a mainstream dating website. I pored over lots of the remaining big sites, thinking to myself, "where am I going to find Ms. Right?" I was getting increasingly disenchanted with the whole process of online dating - as much as I like talking about how great I am, writing essays about how great I am more than twenty times was starting to get to me.

That said, one of the dating sites I've been looking forward to trying is called "Doing Something" - and while pretty mainstream, it's also fairly odd. It's sort of like Chat Roulette, but for dating. All you do is upload a picture of yourself, and a one line perfect first date. That's it. No essays, no pointless questionnaires, no existential crises while you try to figure out if a person who says they like both "staying in" and "going out" is just saying they enjoy "being alive"; usually those people love both "the city" and "the countryside", or as I like to think of it "most terrain". 

That sort of contradictory profile is incredibly common - occasionally they hit brilliant heights of self-delusion - on Guardian Soulmates, I saw a woman who maintained she wanted a man who would judge her for what was inside, not her looks - as long as he was at least 6'2", because "I like to wear heels, and hate midgets".  I'll be honest, I did judge her on the content of her character.

As opposed to other sites, Doing Something is refreshingly stripped down and free of pretence or artifice. I think it just acknowledges the fact most people don't look much beyond that all important profile picture, and a huge amount of what people write in dating profiles is self-important guff or lies designed to make you sound much better than you really are. 

You spin through a bunch of dating ideas, and that (plus a picture) is all you get to judge them on. Of course, writing a short description of what you think would be an ideal date is actually quite hard. While my experience thus far suggested "Couple of drinks in a pub, while we try to work out whether the other one is boring?", I sat and pondered a lovely summer evening date for quite a while. This was a harder challenge than it might at first seem.

Two close friends of mine - who are now in one of those lovely (vomit-inducing) relationships everyone is jealous of, met through the site. To quote the lady of the pair,  "Steve had seen that I had looked at his profile so sent me an invitation to spin the wheel of date. I accepted, in spite of his hideous profile picture and the result was: eat breast milk ice cream."  I wasn't quite exciting enough to go and drink human milk for the first time in 32 years, but I thought I could come up with something that was better than what 50% of people write, which is "Wine on the Southbank".

While I rather like wine, and I'm quite a big fan of the Southbank, I thought I could come up with something more original to stand out. You don't want to sound too weird (Breastmilk?!) but equally, saying "I want to go to a pub" makes you sound like a frighteningly prosaic alcoholic if that's *all* they know about you. 

Lots of people suggest the cinema or theatre for a first date - I think because they think it makes them seem cultured. I'm not sure that's a good idea, as the whole point is to get to know someone; I'm not sure how much you learn by sitting quietly next to someone, other than whether they understand social norms relating to silence.

I'd like to say I instantly came up with something brilliant, but as Mark Twain said, sometimes a good off-the-cuff remark takes weeks to think of. After a couple of hours of pondering, I hit on the idea of going for a walk around Chelsea Physic Garden, a sort of hidden botanical garden down by the river, that not many people know about. I found out about it from a Tim Powers book about time travel, apothecaries and wizards on stilts. 

The real garden has a distinct lack of stilt-magi, but it is beautiful, especially on a pleasant summer's evening. It also has the advantage of being near loads of lovely West London pubs - so if things went well, we could repair to one of those for booze and more chat. After a week or so of trying, I managed to arrange a date with a lovely psychiatrist. Now, I'm sure some of you are saying "Thank god, he's finally getting help", but this was an attempt at a romantic meeting, rather than a therapeutic one.

We met, wandered, and chatted. She told me what she could about her practice, within the bounds of confidentiality; asked me about what possessed me to write a dating blog. We swiftly left the plants and ended up at a pub.

As ever on an online date, the topic of odd online dates came up. It was fascinating to hear a psychiatrist's perception of the world of online dating. She said she'd been on probably as many unfulfilling dates as I had; especially, she'd found Guardian Soulmates an enervating experience.

It seems, from the female side of the site, there's an army of wistful, chin stroking men who long for the relationship they had when they were 19 - they're looking for a "manic pixie dream girl" who they can educate about what's cool in music, books and films.

Of course, this being the Guardian, that means being lectured about late 90s indie bands, "graphic novels" where Superheroes go through a bruising divorce, and Belgian art-house films only being shown in one dingy cinema in Crouch End. It's almost enough to make you choke on your organic Quinoa.

She said "It is something of a shock, as a highly-educated 30 something, to find yourself recast as captive student against someone who knows significantly less about the topic than you do. I happen to possess an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of crap indie bands myself. Being female though, I don't like to brag."

For the record, she was definitely better on 90s bands than I was, despite my own tragic past as an Indie shoegazer. I used to go to gigs in purple velvet trousers and acid yellow DM boots. Yeah, I was 19 once too. Fortunately for the psychiatrist, I've spent the last 14 years trying to grow up. Well, apart from the whole "toy soldiers" thing. 

Following on from the Manic pixie chat ("What really interests me though is the word 'manic'. It's used (as far as I can tell) to denote a preference for some form of mental instability. What on earth is that about??"),  I asked if she'd ever been on dates where she thought the other person had needed professional help. She gave me an answer that made me worry a little (and not for the first time) about the sort of people who are drawn to online dating.

Still, lack of lecturing aside, we had managed to amuse each other, and we both seemed pretty normal. We kept talking, covering all sorts of odd topics - we actually got into a quite heated argument about the rights and wrongs of prostitution and drug abuse. It was lovely - a great date, all told, a genuinely interesting intellectual conversation, and we had lots in common. I'd say she was my intellectual equal, but she was clearly a damn sight smarter than I was.

However, after the date, I sent the following text:

That wasn't an excuse (although I'm told it's often used) - the psychiatrist was genuinely lovely, and I do wonder what would have happened if I'd met her earlier.

So, there you go... there's a lady in my life now. I have indeed, won at internet dating. Tune in next week for the last tale from the wasteland... the tale of how I finally escaped!

Date 26: The Video Gamer and the Zombies

So, after 25 Dates, I was starting to get exhausted. That's part of why the blog has been moving forward with all the alacrity you'd normally expect from a Mississippi sheriff's department investigating the murder of a young black man. 

The other reason was that the end was looming, and I was still single. While at this point I'd met at least two women I'd thought about ending the blog for, it hadn't panned out. I was starting to dread writing some kind of nonsense about "every woman being date number 28" or something equally trite to round this damn thing off happily. No, the "every woman is Date number 28" thing would never work. I mean some of you are married or lesbians or part of the whole QUILTBAG or whatever.

Anyway, feeling exhausted and burned out by the relentless grind of the dating (well over 50 dates at this point) and the blog, I decided to take a bit of a break, take stock and indulge in some of my hobbies - you know, the ones that don't involve receiving sex injuries while searching for Ms. Right. I luxuriated in a couple of weekends without dates, where I could just slob around in my dressing gown, playing computer games, watching box-sets of TV I've missed, and at no point having to make small talk while drinking an overpriced gin and tonic. No, I was at home, so I could make myself a cheap gin and tonic, while kicking myself about forgetting to buy ice.

I always feel a bit guilty about drinking at home alone, and I especially feel guilty about playing co-operative computer games drunk. I've written before about how playing particular games is a bit like being in a bad relationship, and we all know how fast that can go downhill when you add booze. In between playing games, I was still logging on to dating sites, trying to find a particular kind of lady.

I was determined to get at least one date off of a site that catered to people who like playing computer games. It's always been a bit of a dream of mine to date a woman who I can play games with. I've got a couple of friends who met and married through playing World of Warcraft together (you know who you are, Alice and Phil). Once you've been to a wedding in Stormwind Cathedral, I suppose it leaves a mark. 
Stormwind Cathedral. Nice venue, but the catering charges are extortionate.

They have a lovely daughter called Caelia now, and I suspect if she ever has to ask her parents how they met, "raiding the Troll city of Zul Gurub to slay the Snake headed blood god Hakkar" is a pretty amusing, if non-standard answer.

As I've got closer to the end of the blog, I've realised that I may never get a date off sites I'd quite like to do, like arranged marriage website (although a successful date on that could complicate the blog as I've already done Ashley Madison), circus performer and clown dating site, Boo Hiccup (no sexy trapeze artist for Willard, it seems)  or that one where your Jewish mum creates your dating profile and talks to other Jewish mums about how great you are. I'd even suborned a New York Jewish comedian friend to pose as my mother, but alas, no takers.

You'd think finding a gamer girl would be easy, given that something like 48% of the gaming market is ladies these days, but actually, not that easy at all. I suspect it's because while tons of women play and enjoy games, very few self-identify as the kind of person who wants to go on a gaming dating site. I suspect it's because most people imagine a gaming dating site will be not unlike this Tim and Eric bit:

Ahem. I could probably find a lovely woman who could tell a Space Marine from a Colonial Marine on something like Ok Cupid or My Single Friend, but the point was to get 28 dates from 28 dating sites, so I persevered.

There's quite a variety of gaming dating sites out there, and in my brief dating hiatus, I've tried most of them. It's not the most promising of fields. In digging around, I managed to find, Date A Gamer - a website which prompted Harry Langston of Vice to say of it "Gamers – no matter how integrated into mainstream culture gaming is becoming – are still thought of as lonely, weird, socially awkward individuals who struggle with the opposite sex. Not all gamers fit within those stereotypes, just like not all footballers are racists who sleep with their teammates' wives, but, as with that particular example, there are always some who snuggle up comfortably within the cliche." Date a Gamer seemed dead, at least in London;  the adult hookup version, seemed to have quite a lot of escorts, not a lot of real women looking for dates. 

Another, GamerDater, had one of the ugliest websites I've ever seen, and I struggled to find a date from it, or even get a response to a message. I choose to believe that's because it's a mostly console dating site, and I'm much more of a PC gamer. Ahem. Yep, that's the story I'm sticking to.  Quite a few others - including Warcraft specific site World of Datecraft, and bizarre "pay girls to play games with you" site Gamecrush seem to have gone bankrupt.

The best one I found was LFG dating - LFG being gaming slang for "Looking for Group". It's a small American site, but at least it seems to have real people on it. It's pretty basic, although slightly tweaked for a gaming audiences. For example, amongst your preferences for going out, there are boxes to check for "LAN parties" (where a bunch of people get together in a house and link their PCs together, a very 1990s phenomenon) and  "LARPing it" (dressing up like a goblin and being hit with big rubber swords).

Having found a site that was at least alive, I commenced looking for my gaming lady. There was one problem - LFG doesn't have many Brits. Still, think back to the story of Phil and Alice, when they "met", he was in Aberdeen, and she was in Southampton. For this date, maybe it didn't matter where the lady was, at least in the first instance. Also, I'm a sucker for an American accent. So, a bit more looking, and I eventually struck up a conversation with a lovely Yankee lady.

I explained the whole blog thing, she was charmed, and thought it sounded like fun to go on a literally online date, where we'd play a game together, chat online, and see where that took us.

For the date, she decided the most fun would be for us to spend an evening being chased around Chernarus, a zombie filled Eastern European shithole, the setting of rather good indie computer game Day Z. Or, as she'd have it, Day-Zee. The basic concept of this game is you rock up in a zombie filled wasteland with nothing but the shirt on your back and a gun that's so worthless it might as well be a kazoo, and then just do whatever you want, until you get eaten by Zombies or murdered by another player who wants to steal your boots. It's terribly, terribly realistic - you can freeze to death if you don't find a coat, break your bones, all that sort of thing.

Or "whatever we wanted" would be to go on a date as survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. Romantic, eh? So, we logged on at 8pm one Saturday evening, and started chatting while we tried to navigate our way to each other. I'll be totally honest, while I'd played DayZ before, she was much better than I was. By the time I actually got to the Orthodox Church we'd picked as a meeting point, I'd almost died about three times. I felt this was the online gaming date equivalent of turning up late with a huge egg stain on your tie. Still, we'd been chatting the whole time, and getting to know one another.

She was a single mum in Chicago, running a little cafe she'd bought with the cash she'd saved up in the military. We talked about a bunch of current affairs stuff - she was fascinated to meet a real-live journalist (Well, "meet", anyway). We talked about the USA, the Middle East, geopolitics and so on. She proclaimed it to be "pretty refreshing" to find someone she could talk to about politics without getting them getting bored.

We decided to push out into the world, try to find some decent guns and canned food. One of the nice things about DayZed (definitely, definitely Zed) is it's very persistent, so we knew we could log in at the same time and play together again. It *was* great fun, walking around an abandoned town at night, scavenging for firearms, trying to avoid zombies, all while getting to know one another. it did feel vaguely like we were the protagonists of a zombie movie - exactly the kind of fun fantasy experience gaming is meant to deliver.

We talked about her military career, her ex-husband, what it's like to be a woman in a male dominated environment. She told me a few chilling stories of the kind of sexist abuse she gets as a female gamer - the kind of thing you can find here at Fat, Ugly or Slutty, a website that exposes the sort of everyday abuse women get for beating people in computer games. Maybe it's not so surprising that the "date a gamer" websites are so dead.

 Indeed, as we started to investigate an abandoned farm, we came across one of the internet's archetypal douchebags, the thirteen year old boy in a high place with a sniper rifle. Fortunately, he was a bloody terrible shot, but the problem with the loud noises of a rifle is it brought an army of zombies down on us. Taking shelter in a barn, we realised if we went out outside, sooner or later he'd get us. Equally, if we stayed on the ground, we'd get eaten. She was a much better shot than I was - so, proper gent that I am, I gave her the last of our bullets for our Lee-Enfield rifle, and decided that I'd run out across the open ground, luring all the zombies over to our teenage tormentor. Hopefully, he'd see me coming, pop his head out, and she could waste him.

"She said "Ok, decent plan, how will you deal with all the zombies then?" I said, "Well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it". I knew I was going to die. She knew I was going to die. But we did it anyway. I ran out, and against my own expectations, managed to get into the building with the sniper - while still pursued by a flesh eating moshpit. I dashed up the stairs, and had the satisfaction of surprising our sniper chum by getting behind him with a double-barrelled farmer's shotgun. I, of course, missed completely, despite being at point blank range and he chased me up on to the roof, where my date wasted him with a single shot to the head. It was a genuinely brilliant moment - we hooted and whooped and laughed. 

I picked up his massive tricked out sniper rifle from his cooling corpse, which turned out to have precisely zero bullets in it - which sort of explained why he hadn't killed me. Shit. This left me trapped in a building full of zombies, with no way out. Except jumping off the roof. Pumped up with thinking I was an action hero, I did exactly that, and broke both my legs. By this point, we were both crying with laughter at my spectacular ineptitude. She came over to me, and got the sniper rifle from me as I bled out, so at least I didn't die for nothing.

It was a great date - probably one of the best I've done, if I'm honest. The lady confirmed if it had been a real date, "I'd have kissed you at the end of the evening for sure. Even if you can't shoot for shit".

Anyway, only two left to do! Hoping to get the penultimate piece and the last ever date up next week...