By Gianna Palmer
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nearly two decades since the start of online dating, the match-making sites that launched millions of relationships are spicing things up with online games and going high tech and offline to produce more happy ever afters.
Games, apps and offline events are beginning to replace the ritual exchange of online messages, the basic tenet of online dating, and to blur the distinction between on-and-offline dating.
Match.com, which boasts more than 1.7 million paid subscribers, has taken cues from the $74 billion global video gaming industry by creating short dual-player games to help people express themselves better online.
A game called Food Critic prompts members to answer food-related questions, while Romance Rip-Off is designed for two players to create a love story together. During the game players can instant message each other to discuss their answers, which Match.com believes promotes a more natural way of interacting.
"I don't think there's anything that's quite like this," said Mandy Ginsberg, the president of Match.com, which started in 1995.
Online dating has come a long way in the past 20 years. More than 40 percent of online daters, nearly 7 million adults, have dated people they met online, and 17 percent of them entered a long-term relationship or married their online partner, according to 2006 report by the Pew Research Center.
Brian Schechter, co-founder and co-CEO of HowABoutWe, said his company has been going offline to play Cupid since it started in 2010.
"We were the originators of the offline dating ethos."
Members of HowAboutWe post the type of dates they would like, such as a hike or a bike ride, and others respond. Schechter said nearly one million dates have been posted to HowAboutWe. The site's focus is what sets it apart, he added.
"Traditional dating sites were never focused on facilitating in-world experiences, as much as helping people express their identity online," Schechter said.
ALGORITHMS AND APPS
Other websites including OkCupid and Badoo are using smartphone apps so singles can discover if there are other members nearby whom they might like to meet.
Badoo, which has more than 150 million registered users worldwide, has a mobile app called People Nearby that allows users to see anyone on Badoo who is within a three mile vicinity.
"It kind of adds that level of spontaneity that you don't get on traditional dating sites," said Louise Thompson, Badoo's director of public relations.
Match.com is also planning to launch local customized events for members to foster offline meetings. Groups invited to the events are matched by algorithms incorporating age, gender and interests.
The company plans to host 200 events per month across the United States by September.
"I think we're going to be the largest events company in the world, with the exception of maybe the Olympics," Ginsberg said.
But not all dating websites are opting for meet-up apps and events.
EHarmony, which relies on an in-depth questionnaire about personality traits, said its method has been a success and cites the 542 marriages a day that it claims resulted from a meeting on its website.
"We know that it works very well," said Jeremy Verba, eHarmony's CEO, adding that offline eHarmony events would not work with the way does its compatibility matching.
"eHarmony is focused on getting our members to meaningful offline meetings with people who are deeply compatible," Verba said. "We are not about creating large scale happy hours."
Despite their different approaches the aim of all dating websites is the same -- getting compatible people together, offline.
"Online dating is a funny kind of misnomer, because people don't actually date online," Ginsberg said.
That part, no matter how it's facilitated, still happens in person.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney)