Candles flicker, their flames dancing in pixelated yellows and oranges. Smooth jazz music plays from the floor below. Beyond the rooftop, the city twinkles. Two singles sit down, eyes locking for a moment. The jitters are real—they haven’t done this for months.
So they ease into it slowly, hoping for a steady WiFi connection and a good icebreaker to carry them through the night.
Welcome to Elm City Date, a new experiment in virtual speed dating for pandemic-weary singles who have put in-person dating on hold for the past 12 months. Concocted by puzzle enthusiast Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, the series is set to make its debut on March 12. Rodriguez-Torrent is hoping for 20 singles for the first 90-minute iteration, which lives on the social platform Gather.
“Online dating apps give you a lot of options, but I’ve often found them to be a huge waste of time and kind of confidence destroying,” he said in an interview Wednesday, as his avatar scurried around couches and candlelit tables. “Then there’s this extra factor of like, it’s a pandemic. I don’t think I’ve met anyone socially in the past nine months.”
The only requirement—other than being single—is that participants must live in New Haven or the greater New Haven area. Rodriguez-Torrent was quick to say that the event is not associated with Escape New Haven, which he runs with New Havener Max Sutter. Click here to register.
Elm City Date comes out of Rodriguez-Torrent’s own experience with dating—or more recently, not dating—in New Haven. For years, he tried dating apps, but found them exhausting and demoralizing. Before Covid-19, he tried Elm City Speed Dating once, but didn’t have much success with it. His friends also weren’t optimal wing-people: they all knew each other, and they were all already coupled.
He imagined a forum where he could meet new people organically, without his phone mediating the whole experience. Then a global pandemic hit New Haven. He hasn’t been on a date for almost a year.
He has, however, continued to gather for games online. A few weeks ago, he was playing the game Wavelength with his ex-girlfriend when she mentioned that the format would be great for speed dating. For Rodriguez-Torrent, who has been using Gather to socialize with friends, something clicked. In December, he used the platform to design a virtual space for the Bradley Street Bike Co-Op’s New Year’s Eve Party. While it can host hundreds of people in a single meeting, he felt like 20 was the right place to start.
"We’re running on vague intuition,” he said with a laugh. In practice, that means asking registrants to include their gender and age, as well as the genders and ages of the people they’re hoping to meet. It’s how he’s trying to control for the most potential matches out of a 90-minute event, when speed dating can be an aggressively hetero, and young space.
To fit different needs in the community, he said he can already imagine hosting an LGBTQ+ specific speed dating night, or a speed dating night for older people only.
Inside the platform on a recent Wednesday, he walked his avatar through a room set up with red couches, the angles hard and cartoonish as he made his way to a card table. On the tabletop, a blue-green icon glowed. With a quick click, it opened a game of Galactic Run, on which players help a spaceship chart a course home. Rodriguez-Torrent said that the games are meant to lubricate conversation after months of quietude and not dating. If two singles prefer chatting, that’s okay too. In its current format, the event is scheduled for one hour of games, followed by half an hour of unstructured hangout time.
When singles enter the platform, they have the option to follow a person through the space, or move a squat, pixelated avatar around the room themselves using the arrow keys on their computer. Wednesday, Rodriguez-Torrent hurried by an old-school game room and crackling fireplace to a secret door, which took him up to the roof. That space is where the bulk of the inaugural event will take place.
On the roof, a bay of candlelit tables sit waiting for potential couples to settle in. A few feet away, couches are configured neatly around a rug and stone patio. The steel and fluorescent skyline of a city glimmers in the distance. In this digital space, none of the avatars have to wear masks or carry tiny bottles of hand sanitizer. For just a moment, it’s reminiscent of a time when getting a drink on a rooftop bar downtown wasn’t a life-or-death decision.
He’s also letting his pre-pandemic experience guide him. After watching a mad rush for phone numbers at the end of an in-person speed dating event, he has set up a system through which attendees let him know if they would like to be contacted, and by whom. Only if there’s a match does he put the two in touch.
Then, it’s up to them to connect. He said the idea is that they can begin in virtual space, and move cautiously into the real world as the weather gets warmer and more young people receive their Covid-19 vaccines. If going outside isn’t an option, they can stay on Gather or a similar platform for as long as they choose to.
While “I have no idea” whether the model will work, he’s excited to roll out the first event. At the end of the night, no one will have had to swipe right on anything. And someone, maybe, will have found the missing piece to their cosmic puzzle.