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Gender Dynamics and Consent in Dating Sims

Even in these early stages of development, the dating simulation genre of gaming raises many implications for our understanding of intimacy, consent, and social connection.

Still image from the video dating simulation Star Crossed Myth from Voltage (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

Dating Simulators or “dating sims” are the most prominent example of what I have termed the “gamification of intimacy.” These sims are a sub-genre of video games which center a user forming and maintaining romantic relationships with digital partners — often making use of still developing technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence. It is clear that dating sims are increasing in popularity, and that they are having a positive impact on previously excluded demographics. Whether or not mainstream society will eventually substitute human intimacy with digital objects and experiences on a mass-scale is still unclear. However, the technology behind this gamification of intimacy is rapidly expanding. Even in these early stages of development, this genre of gaming raises many implications that can have a significant impact on our understanding of intimacy, consent, and social connection.

Within the last few years, dating sims have expanded outside its niche, otaku-centric roots, into the mainstream. This growth is partly due to a genuine need for connection some users lack in their real-life interpersonal relationships, but realistically, it is also due to a perfect storm. This tempest brings together the boom of mobile game development, comedic YouTube Let’s Play videos (which subjectively document with commentary the experience of playing a video game), internet community-oriented culture, and an all-around more expansive demographic beyond straight, nerdy males.

Voltage, a game development company specializing in romantic narrative games, are one of a few who produce games featuring — not the typical anime-inspired girlfriends prominent throughout dating sim titles — but instead, anime-inspired boyfriends as their games’ main digital companions. The male characters developed by Voltage are often depicted as men in positions of power, though other archetypes are present. For example, there is the mysterious, and enigmatic love-interest. This genre of simulator is titled an “otome” game (乙女ゲーム Otome gēmu).  Its most direct translation is “maiden game,” and this sub-genre of dating sim has attracted roughly 22 million users online. Otome games are a prime example of dating sims attempting to attract a wider audience. These games also have the most success attracting Western audiences too, resulting in Voltage opening a North American branch in 2014 which currently boasts 17 titles across both iOS and Android devices.

I gave Star Crossed Myth a try — a highly recommended Voltage game. This title (and many others) center less on gameplay mechanics and true-to-life experiences, but instead focus on an invented narrative, much like an interactive graphic novel. While the game’s contents are less explicit than its contemporaries, the heavily scripted nature leads to slightly more engaging character development — which tend to be missing in other games within this category of gameplay that looks to create intimacy.

It is also interesting to note when looking at dating sims targeted to men and women respectively: both make the design and narrative choices to feature stereotypically traditional gender roles. These games usually stick to a heteronormative romantic-narrative formula. This design choice could be an indicator that for many people, an established, culturally validated comfort zone is a prerequisite for intimacy. Perhaps too, the rigid, simplistic options — with regards to which characters users can be intimate with and what their role in the relationship can be — allows for avoidance of choice paralysis (the condition of being overwhelmed by options to the point where one is unable to act on any of them). In turn, perhaps these games provide the desired comfort users lack in their real-life interpersonal relationships.

However, it is important to remain cautious when discussing this particular justification for stereotyped characters — since it tends to exclude members of the LGBTQ community who also engage with this genre of games.

Still image from the video game LongStory from Bloom Digital Media

Another important realization my research has produced is that despite the growth of dating sims targeted to women, female companions are still the dominant type produced. Heterosexual men still control the industry via producer roles for these games — which is an indicator that a societal shift towards the gamification of intimacy was more than likely an effort to cater to and capitalize on the insecurities and desires of straight men, at least at first. A cultural shift which has roots in serving a male audience is one to be wary of, especially within the context of teaching and defining consent.

A company making strides in diversifying the rigid gender roles present within dating sims is Bloom Digital Media, the boutique video game company behind LongStory. Bloom Digital Media is one of the emerging companies that game intimacy, allowing for a customizable experience, specifically to include members of the LGBTQ communities. Their flagship title LongStory allows users to decide their gender, and the genders they are attracted to. This kind of work within dating sims is proving to be incredibly important for members of these communities who are limited in their ability to express their romantic desires or are still in the process of exploring what their romantic desires are. Due to the isolation and loneliness many members of the LGBTQ community can experience, especially in less open-minded arenas, these games have become a powerful tool in providing a safe space for many users.

There isn’t a vast supply of studies investigating the effects that dating sims can have on mental health. The common beliefs are that dating sims have the potential to impact both positively and negatively depending on the individual. For some, these simulations contribute to developing antisocial personality traits, but for others dating sims can provide a means of coping with loneliness and depression, and exploring their sexuality in a safe environment.

Looking at the games discussed in this article and my previous piece, “The Gamification of Intimacy Through Dating Sims,” contemporary dating sims, like most video games, make use of hard-coded boundaries, preventing users from engaging in harmful behavior. But what if those boundaries were removed and the future iterations of these companions have a sophisticated enough artificial intelligence to experience feeling and emotion on par with humans? At what point will we acknowledge them as deserving of rights, if ever? Moreover, how is consent defined if the “person” being taken advantage of is literally a digital object?

Still image from the video dating simulation Star Crossed Myth from Voltage

Given our current level of technological sophistication, this thought experiment doesn’t hold much urgency, but the question has become a popular one to explore within recent film and television. Take for example Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her, which is centered on a man falling in love with his computer’s AI operating system. Another example is Alex Garland’s 2014 film, Ex Machina. The film centers on uncovering the exact criteria for an AI to be considered human by the science community. There are also the widely successful series Westworld and Black Mirror which also address humanity’s relationships to AI. The popularity of these examples in entertainment serve as further evidence that the implications of digital intimacy and the gamification of intimacy are pertinent for contemporary developed society.

Again, there is substantial historical precedence that there is the potential that these games will become our reality in the future. While a definitively positive impact has been made by these dating sims, we need to be aware that the development of the supporting technology should continue with caution, and we must be mindful of how drastically current human social experience may be shifted.

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