When I showed my girlfriend Boyfriend Trainer, she didn’t seem as horrified as I thought she’d be. Boyfriend Trainer is one of those unfortunate iPhone games that only gains publicity because of its misguided ideas that take advantage as a given cultural zeitgeist, the kind of thing that makes us mad at the creators and mad at those who make such an app successful.
At the time of this writing, the app seems to have been pulled from the app store, almost certainly because the app seems to allow the player to enjoy carrying out a kind of domestic abuse. It’s a game about physically abusing your boyfriend in order to get him to be the kind of partner you’d prefer. Part of its appeal may be that it provides a kind of catharsis for those who find themselves feeling trapped in a less than ideal relationship.
The game tries to get away with this weighty and misguided concept by conveying everything in a cartoonish style. As a way of masking the real-life implications of the actions taking place in the game, it works, by which I mean: it doesn’t broadcast the realities of domestic violence. It smooths them over and makes them appear to be presentable.
The title screen features an image of a self-assured woman standing next to her boyfriend whom she has kept on a leash. He looks afraid, stepping outward as if he might run away if given the chance. The clunkily-worded description on the screen merely says: “No boyfriend is perfect! It’s time you trained him to become one.”
I asked my girlfriend to play the game with me as a kind of experiment. I wanted to see if she would be as put off by the whole idea as I was, particularly at the concept of beating your boyfriend when he fails to meet your expectations. And while she wasn’t immediately horrified, she didn’t seem excited about playing the game. I don’t blame her. There’s nothing interesting about the game itself. It has the same bland mechanic of whack-a-mole with only one unchanging and uninteresting moving target.
The game begins with a warning: “Don’t whack him when he doesn’t deserve it! Your boyfriend needs his space.” Nonetheless, the game is liberal with the kinds of missteps that cause him to deserved to be whacked. Being messy, attempting to change the television channel, and trying out the girlfriend’s wine all result in a brutal smack in the face or taser to the abdomen. The most common boyfriend-crime is the roving eye – the cartoon man’s eyes turn toward another beautiful woman and change into the shape of hearts.
Even that most subtle of transgressions – the lustful glare – is blatant and overblown, painted with as broad a brush as possible. It paints men as oblivious animals who are nonetheless laser-focused on the body parts of newly discovered women. The introduction to level six, a trip to the beach, clarifies the nature of men thusly: “It’s not sunstroke! He’s being what he is – a man! So if he drinks your beer and checks out other girls, smack him hard.” The train of thought here is not easy to follow. In one breath, the game seems to both excuse and condemn him for being “what he is.”
In general, the game has a low opinion of both parties. While the man is savaged as an idiotic man-child, the woman is presented as a loveless shrew, destined to control her boyfriend as a puppet. The game offers no mercy to couples, and presents a loving relationship as a prison for the man and a job for the woman.
While I didn’t quite identify with the roving-eye version of the horrible boyfriend who seemed desperate to hit on every girl, I did find myself feeling uncomfortably empathetic with the poor soul whenever he would drop a shirt on the floor, turn the music up too loud, or dare to change the TV to something he’d rather watch. Like anyone else, I suffer often from these kinds of lapses in judgment, often in the presence of my girlfriend. At one point, I watched her playing the level that takes place in a small apartment. He walks to the closet, takes out a shirt, and drops it on the floor. My actual girlfriend doesn’t hesitate – she taps vehemently on his head until the on-screen avatar smacks him across the face. The same thing when he drops a cup on the ground.
“You’re just like this guy,” she notes.
“No I’m not! I don’t do that! I’m not that bad!” I retorted weakly. I had stooped to arguing that I wasn’t as bad as a cartoonish and exaggerated version of a bad boyfriend.
He’s really bad, too. He doesn’t stop at looking at other girls: at one point, he follows two willing females into a sauna, where we can only assume he is indulging his adulterous desires. His girlfriend walks over to the sauna controls, turns them all the way up, and walks away. The sauna glows red, and the guilty parties exit urgently, gasping for breath.
“I’m pretty sure that’s illegal,” says my girlfriend.
“Uhm. I’m pretty sure all of this is illegal,” I reply.
We finish the game, and are treated to a fairy-tale ending. The couple appears on the screen arm and arm. Both of them seem content. The protagonist in this story has achieved her mission. “Woohoo!” the game says. “You now have the Perfect Boyfriend!”
It’s an anticlimactic ending that seemed to ignore all of the pain that had come before. Surely the boyfriend was bruised, both internally and externally, from all of the trauma he had been through. Surely the girlfriend will continue to face internal self-esteem issues and struggle with trusting her boyfriend in the future. This ending merely captures a brief moment in time. The weeks and months to come will be fraught with all sorts of disastrous consequences. This cartoon couple will inevitably destroy themselves in an endless cycle of cause and effect.
In the bottom right corner, there’s a heart-shaped button labeled, “Play Again.”
About the Author:
Richard Clark is the managing editor of Gamechurch, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and a regular columnist at Unwinnable.
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