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The Gamification of Intimacy Through Dating Sims

Digital technologies for games are developing at an unprecedented pace, compelling us ask how they are potentially shifting society’s relationship to intimacy and social interaction.

Screenshot of the game VR Kanogo (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The resurgence of accessible artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies has disrupted how humans interact socially within contemporary developed society.

In a world where digital technologies such as AI, VR, and AR, which I bracket under the heading, the “gamification of intimacy,” are developing at an unprecedented pace, I feel compelled to ask how these objects are potentially shifting society’s relationship to intimacy and social interaction. Furthermore, what implications could these virtual relationships have on our current definitions of consent and appropriate romantic conduct?

Dating simulators are the most prominent example of this gamification of intimacy. These are a sub-genre of video games which center around the user forming and maintaining romantic relationships with digital partners through the use of VR/AR and (for now) rudimentary AI.

The HTC Vive, a virtual reality headset developed by HTC and Valve Corporation (photo by Maurizio Pesce via Wikimedia)

Tokyo, Japan is arguably the hub of dating sim culture, and where the conversation around these technologies is most prominent. Articles firing off facts and statistics about Japan’s stagnation of intimacy and its alarming birthrates are plentiful, along with the “Men in Japan Are Marrying Their Video Games!?” shock pieces. The world of dating sims is also steadily gaining a fascination in the West, and I’d be lying if I said, at first, I wasn’t tempted to cut together an “I Am Dating a Video Game Character for a Month — This Is What Happened!” clickbait video in an effort to capitalize on those sweet, social media, viewer-engagement algorithms. Instead, I opted for sincerely trying to understand these video games and the impact they might have on our “real life” romantic interactions.

My first dating sim encounter, like many users, was with the hugely popular Konami’s Love Plus — a video game that features the player in several scenarios with digital, anime-styled female characters, in which they must select dialogue options and use their device’s touch-screen capabilities to date and maintain a relationship with the character successfully. The character AI can respond to the player prompts but cannot act freely apart from user interaction. Once the user stops engaging with the character, that avatar usually does not go on to interact with a larger game world. Love Plus is the game which initially sparked all the “men marrying video games” articles mentioned above. Despite the case studies and short-form documentaries of users discussing their bonds with the characters from Love Plus, it’s easy to remain skeptical. In my brief engagements with the game, the response options seemed rudimentary and the interactions overtly scripted. There was no illusion of choice or sense that the relationship had progressed organically, nor did it seem the game’s intention to provide either of those things. Konami’s Love Plus exists primarily as a video game — with typical game states, such as a win/loss state and clear objectives for the user to carry out.

An example of Augmented Reality for eCommerce from Augment SDK (image courtesy ChristinaC via Wikimedia)

The next notable dating sim I encountered, VR Kanojo, shifted away from traditional video game elements. This game implements VR for a more immersive experience. VR Kanojo places the player in the bedroom of their, also somewhat anime-inspired, digital girlfriend — with no real objective other than to “hang out” and interact with the AI, and the player’s behavior informs how the girlfriend character engages with the player. While Love Plus had a traditionally more “gamey” approach with rigidly scripted scenarios, VR Kanojo positions itself more as a “slice of life” experience. The AI in this game is capable of operating freely from user engagement. If the user doesn’t interact with it, it will continue to do its own thing in the larger game world. The VR Kanojo experience was far more intimate, not just in the bedroom setting, but in the overall approach to player interaction: There was a give and take present, as well as a sense of uneasiness akin to the nerves of a real life first date. VR Kanojo also features explicit scenes of sexual interaction, presented in the format of step-by-step lessons, each escalating the sexual encounter. For example, one of the earlier scenes will have the player lean in for a kiss. If the player tries to make any other kind of advancement outside the activity set up in the scene, i.e., the kiss, the digital character will shove you away.

In both Love Plus and VR Kanojo, if a player is unable to bond or romantically progress with their virtual partner, they are encouraged to try a different tactic (a different piece of dialogue, or an option to give the character a gift of some kind), but the player can never force an interaction. One may see this design choice as evidence that gamification can impact intimacy with regard to how people define consent in the modern world — and that these technologies need to remain cautious of the freedom they give users.

Screenshot of the game Love Plus by Konami

A video game makes use of hard-coded boundaries. These dating sims’ versions of romantic intimacy are typically experienced through a video game interface, where the controls and rules are present. Their popularity may be indicative of the larger society beginning to desire rigid structures and guidelines for romantic encounters. It is conceivable that society’s current modes of flirtation and courting are often experienced as confusing or overwhelming, and these games are providing a safe trial-and-error space free from rejection and the possibility of misreading non-verbal cues in intimate settings.

Love Plus and VR Kanojo, as well as their contemporaries, can be seen as evidence for the very early stages of a society moving towards substituting human interaction with digital assets for experiencing intimacy and love. Given the work culture and dating sim boom continuously depicted in Tokyo, this shift could potentially be of service within cultures that value convenience and where many feel they do not have time to invest adequately in another human being.

One could see dating sims make an impact in our general outlook on intimacy with regards to convenience, acting as a solution for systemic loneliness, and potential safe spaces. The benefits of this technology seem like useful supplementary tools for social interaction, but these dating sims are not without their potential adverse impacts. It is important to note that dating sims featuring female companions often emphasize shy, submissive, naive personality types for their characters, going as far as to base many their scenarios in a high-school setting, or at least, with a school-girl aesthetic. Even characters who are depicted as headstrong or rambunctious are done so in a child-like manner. A reason for this could relate to Japan’s appreciation of “Kawaii.”  Kawaii refers to the culture of cuteness in Japan, in which aesthetics emphasizing innocence or childlike features are favored. The pursuit of Kawaii traits is prevalent in many spheres of Japanese life and in the nation’s consumerism, and it follows that it may also inform the character design within popular video games — including dating sims.

Screenshot of VR Kanogo

There is, however, a protruding implication when it comes to Kawaii design choices applied to works within this gamification of intimacy. If a game chooses a setting such as a high school for their characters (to achieve a Kawaii aesthetic) and the central gameplay element is to form a relationship with these characters, at what point does society address what is considered an age-appropriate relationship between a human (user) and digital companion? This is crucial to ask especially when many of the users are much older than their digital companions. Furthermore, in a world where the artificial intelligence behind these characters is far more sophisticated, how will this reframe society’s ideas surrounding consent? There are currently no concrete answers, but these are important questions to keep in mind as this technology continues to develop.

The current landscape of dating sims is also currently dominated by female digital companions and a heteronormative, romantic-narrative formula. Representation is not as expansive as it could be — which points to an industry catering predominantly towards a heterosexual male demographic. In my continuing investigations of this phenomenon I will next explore the gender roles presented in dating sims and look at the companies developing dating sims that are more inclusive of women and members of the LGBTQ community.

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