One of the more charming elements of gay male culture is our tradition of assigning ourselves certain "tribe" labels based on body type and sexual proclivities. I’m talking about groupings like pups, otters, silver foxes, and bears. (Google if you’re curious!) Jokingly, I once told a friend that I was a wolf, since I had always been drawn to the friendly/sexy energy of the bear scene but didn’t see myself as one physically—polar, muscled, or otherwise. I didn’t feel like a cub, otter, chub, or chaser either. Truth was, I knew I could pass for at least one of these common categories, but I was reluctant to conform. I made the wolf thing up instead, because they’re hairy too, and I just liked the animal. As it turned out, it took traveling all the way to Tokyo to find out that in my wolf identity, I was not alone.
According to 9MONSTERS, a gay hook-up app popular mainly in South East Asia, I was definitely a wolf—specifically a Muscle Wolf Level 11, by the time I left Japan after about a two month stay. I first heard about 9MONSTERS from a guy I met in Tokyo’s gay district, Shinjuku Ni-Chome. He described it as a game, though his explanation was convoluted. Maybe I’d had too many drinks, but I didn't get it; eventually, he told me to just give the app a try.
I downloaded 9MONSTERS the next day, joining approximately 150,000 active users in Japan and 300,000 worldwide. Initially, I found it similar to other gay hook-up and socializing apps like Grindr and Scruff. You start by setting up a profile using pics and physical stats, but the difference is that you’re also assigned an egg. In that way, it reminded me of the ‘90s handheld virtual pet, Tamagotchi. With Tamagotchi you began with an egg but only needed to wait five minutes for it to hatch into one of the pets. 10 minutes into 9MONSTERS, I was still an egg.
The backbone of the app is its “breeding” function. You need to breed with other users and they breed with you, but in this instance, breeding has a different meaning from the one often used regarding bareback (condomless) gay anal sex. Here, breeding is about showing interest in someone and vice versa, sort of like a “woof” in Scruff. As the name suggests, there are nine monsters you can hatch into, and the type that you become depends on which monsters breed you. You aren’t what you eat in this instance, but what eats you, so to speak. If you’re bred mostly by one type of monster, then you become that monster.
To make things slightly more complicated, you also have a “Breeder” type, which indicates the type of monsters you breed most often. This can be different from the type of monster that you are. For instance, after I bred some dudes, my breeder type became Wild Bear, indicating a certain preference on my part. But eventually, after being bred for a while, I hatched into a Muscle Wolf.
Given that I had already expressed lupine tendencies, this result shouldn’t have surprised me. However, “wolf” for me had always been more of an anti-label. Using a bear-focused hook-up app like Growlr, you find all the usual types like polar bear, super chub, and silver daddy, but there’s no wolf. Being a devout individualist and something of a loner, I gravitated to the aloofness of my gay animal. But in 9MONSTERS, I was just another part of the menagerie.
And that menagerie was a diverse one. At first, I tried to equate the various monsters with labels we might see in North America. I assumed that Slim Cat was twink, Cool Monkey was hipster, Sporty Panther was jock, and Chubby Pig was obviously a chub. I was confused by Bulky Bison and Wild Bear since both were bear-like—equally bulky in my opinion. Athlete Kong and Lovely Dog were more ambiguous to me, so I decided they must be cross-breeds.
Digital zoology aside, all this categorizing does have a purpose. According to Mr. Chiwata from 9MONSTERS public relations, the point of the monster classifications is to allow users to get an idea of people’s type and who they’re interested in without having to ask. Basically, if I were to happen upon a Wild Bear who breeds Muscle Wolves in the wilds of Tokyo, we’d theoretically be ready to walk down the aisle. Unfortunately, most of the bears I was sniffing out were only interested in mating with other bears, true to what their profiles indicated. My breed worked against me, so I found that I wasn’t nearly as lucky as I have been using Grindr or Scruff, where “tribe” labels aren’t so front and center.
Like other apps, 9MONSTERS is not just about breeding and gawking. If you feel like a chat, you can have it—and do whatever else you want from there—similar to Grindr. There’s also a “Howl” function that allow others to know when you’re in heat and need to meet now. And at the bottom of the grid of prospective mates, there’s another mini-grid of similar monsters, making cruising efficient if you’re into one particular type. What’s missing are some essential classifications found on other apps, such as “leather” and “daddy” (which together is a personal favorite), and they don’t have self-identification options like “poz” or “trans” either, which on other apps have seemed productive in creating visibility.
In any case, once I learned from 9MONSTERS that being a “wolf” could be part of the queer vernacular, I myself turned to Google to learn what that might mean. One site claimed that it’s a mysterious and semi-hairy guy who enjoys a lot of sex. That’s not the worst label, but I still have trouble submitting to it. It’s true that in gay culture we assign ourselves these funny names, but with an app like Scruff, they feel much more playful and fluid, and there’s often the option to choose more than one community with which to identify. 9MONSTERS is entertaining, but at the end of the day, being assigned a single identity by strangers seems overly simplistic. Gay men may be “beasts” at times, but we’re also creatures of nuance—something tells me we’ll be hunting a while still for an app that captures that.