Partners in play: The new frontier in the world of online dating, is dating AI
Selena H, 23, a chef in training from Vietnam, has been chatting with a “24-year-old musical stage artist from South Korea named Zen” whom she met online last year. She’s developed a romantic bond with him, she says. “He speaks like a true gentleman and is allergic to cats.” Zen is a character in a romantic “visual novel” game designed to help test your skill at relationships.
These games are available on apps such as Mystic Messenger (launched in 2016 by the South Korean Cheritz); Love and Producer (2017; Chinese developer Pape Games), Dream Daddy (2017; US-based Game Grumps), Hatoful Boyfriend (2011; Japanese Developer Digital) and Obey Me (2019; Japanese developer NTT Solmare).
In Japan, these are called otome or maiden games. The characters in the games serve as dating simulators, or, simply, sims. These sims operate through nuanced scripts; the aim is to make it through various levels.
In Mystic Messenger for instance there are three story modes: Casual, Deep and Another. Each mode has characters a player can choose from. You chat and get to know the sim; make them happy with a gesture or response and you earn a heart; it takes a set number of hearts to make it through successive levels. On each level, you learn more about the character, their life and problems. The goal is a happy ending — typically, dating or marriage.
As in real life, you can also sometimes unlock a new level with money. Make enough wrong moves and you could instead get stuck in an endless loop of bad endings (sometimes the player dies or is blamed for something they haven’t done).
The format is clearly problematic; the focus is too largely on the other person, often in a sort of rescue-mission format. Still, players say they’re learning how to deal with difficult areas — like a temper, moodiness, broaching a tough topic or dealing with differing viewpoints; even just how to approach a guy you’re interested in.
Zen, for instance, started out narcissistic. “Getting him to open up to me has been a nice feeling,” Selena says. “Loving him has become a preoccupation.”
Selena spends four hours a day collecting hearts.
Meanwhile, she says the chatroom function lets her feel like she’s really messaging and waiting for a reply. “It makes the player feel they actually have someone to talk to; it’s quite realistic,” she says.
Visual novel games first emerged in Japan in the 1980s. At the time, most sims were female and most players were men. The aim was erotic interactions with cute anime-like avatars.
In 1994, the first otome game, for women, was released. Angelique, by the Japanese developer Ruby Party, had players assume the role of a high-school student selected to compete for the role of the queen of the universe. Nine handsome guardians served the current queen. The player had to decide whether to pursue a relationship with one of the men or keep their eye on the title.
Today, players say the otome games provide a safe space for trial and error, one that is also free from rejection. Nepali teacher-in-training Roshni Magar, 19, says they’re also a step towards giving female characters more agency.
“I do feel they rely on some stereotypes, like the idea that women have to ‘fix these men’, but at least it doesn’t feel infantilising or demeaning to play,” she says.
Selena says the sims give her a sense of comfort. “I think it’s easier for me to flirt with them. You know that if you pick right, you’ll get a good response. You know being kind will give you rewards. It also gives you a chance to identify emotional needs you didn’t know you had, and gives you the feeling that you are in control.”
The prompts help. If she runs aground and doesn’t know what to say or how to proceed, suggested dialogue is offered to her, through messages that flash on her screen.
“The standout feature of otome games, when compared to real-life relationships, is that fortune usually favours the player,” says American game developer Dan Salvato. He’s the man behind Doki Doki Literature Club, a 2017 satirical take where players are pitted against dating sim tropes in a game that eventually turns into a psychological horror adventure.
“It may take no more than a few key choices to achieve the relationship of your dreams. It provides short-cuts and offers rewards at a far lower level of effort,” says Salvato.
Lizzy Heeley, 21, from the UK, says she likes the fact that digital dating lets you undo wrongs, something you don’t always get to do in real-life relationships. In March she purchased a calling card for Jumin, another character in Mystic Messenger (this is the PUBG of visual novel games; by far the most popular in the genre).
“I started to feel sorry for him because of his philandering father and the way it affected his adult life. As I started to figure out who Jumin is I figured out good options to get to a good ending. I restarted the game several times to see how each route would end. It would take around 11 days to finish a route. If you help Jumin with his problems you get a good ending, if you acted obsessive and possessive, you’d trigger a bad ending.”
If the player has never dated before — Magar, for instance, hasn’t — it could set a strange precedent. Although perhaps not any more than if one were to play Grand Theft Auto before buying one’s first car.
The real twist is the emotion invested in pixels and bytes.
In a 2017 article published in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba, Canada, and sex researcher Markie LC Twist posited that a first wave of “digisexuals” (anyone using technology to drive their dating, relationship or sexual life; via Tinder or even FaceTime, for instance) would be followed by a second wave that would experience sexuality with the help of immersive technologies such as virtual reality, life-like bots and even haptic devices capable of creating the illusion of touch. Such people, McArthur said, would start to see human partners as optional.
Is that part of what’s driving the popularity of the dating bots? Salvato has a much simpler explanation. “I believe the dating sims are really an extension of something that’s been around for a long time — romantic and erotic literature,” he says. “They just use technology to make the experience more interactive and immersive.”