“Whether I create a catastrophic couple or the happiest couple is really up to me,” says Yuna, a a programmer who lives in the suburbs of Tokyo (we’ve changed her name here). The appeal of virtual romance games lies in the dreamlike world they offer. “Women have a common frustration that they cannot enjoy romantic situations like those in virtual games,” she says. The scenarios may be “unrealistic,” she adds, but they hold sway nonetheless.
“Virtual companionship, once a niche Japanese subculture, has bloomed into a lucrative global industry” – Pip Usher, Vogue
The first wildly popular virtual romance game created specifically with women in mind, called Angelique, was released in 1994 by a team of female developers at the Japanese gaming company Koei. Since then, others have been quick to capitalize. Voltage, the leading company in the Japanese market, currently offers 84 different romance apps.
The virtual romance gamer is attracted to drama-driven story lines, says Kentaro Kitajima, vice president of Voltage. “[They enjoy] our content like they would reading comics or watching TV,” Kitajima explains. Voltage estimates that a quarter of its 40 million players are overseas. The company has already adapted 33 games for the North American market, and three years ago, it opened a San Francisco office.
“The best part about virtual dating is that you run across all these “interesting” personalities and have a chance to get to know them. If you’ve met any of these fictional serial-killers-in-the-making in real life, you’d be too busy texting “Call 911 if I’m not home in an hour” to your best friend.” – Katai, a Kotaku site user
The games offer a range of approaches. Where Nameless allows the gamer to play matchmaker, My Virtual Boyfriend, an American app, takes a more direct approach, providing a wide selection of male sims that peer out and speak to the player in a pseudo-relationship setup. Whatever the plot, the goal is the same: to create an emotional connection. “When I read their stories, I feel like they are real,” says Mook, a 24-year-old living in Bangkok, of her digital suitors. “It’s like I understand them.”
“Nearly 40% of Single Japanese Not Interested in Romance” – Japan Times survey
The desire for an emotional connection in the virtual world seems to coincide with a decreasing desire for one in the real world. A survey released by The Japan Times last year found that nearly 40 percent of single Japanese millennials were not interested in romantic relationships, describing them as “bothersome.” And in the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2014 that there were now more single people in the country than married ones.
For millennial women, in other words, the status quo is undergoing a seismic shift, one that engineers at gaming companies are busy mapping. Many of them say the appeal of virtual dating games comes down to control: Dating in the real world may be a bittersweet experience at best, but in a virtual universe, the player is master.
Even in the world of virtual romance, love takes practice. It requires us to take risks, face rejection, and revise our priorities. Which begs the question: Can virtual relationships prepare gamers for real ones?