Japanese ‘Dream Girls’ Choose Intimacy in Love Simulation Games
Why a growing number of girl gamers are rejecting traditional romance.
This article is third in a three-part series on the “DESIRED IDENTITIES – New Technology-based Metamorphosis in Japan” conference in June. It explores the popularity of fictional characters in Japanese media culture—and considers their potential in sex tech.
The massive popularity of “love simulation games” among Japanese women suggests the desire for virtual lovers cuts across genders and cultures.
Otome games, for example, are Japanese dating simulation games specifically designed for female players. In them, the main female character gets to choose from a selection of eligible male partners.
The goal of “otome” or “love simulation games” is to establish a relationship with the most romantic and desirable suitor.
Carrying out research on women's interactions with characters is Dr. Agnès Giard, who is part of the research project “Emotional Machines: The Technological Transformation of Intimacy in Japan.”
At the June conference, her presentation “Becoming an Avatar in a Japanese Love Game: Female Identity and Desired Alienation” considered women’s focus on “otome” games.
Giard’s also sought to challenge the stigma against the “otome” gamer.
She criticized sexist attitudes that belittle and undermine female players because of how they spend money in the game on gifts and accomplishments.
Giard instead suggests we consider how such games might offer new spaces to challenge traditional romance, specifically in outright rejecting it in favor of virtual romance with male characters.
By rejecting traditional romance, “otome” gamers are often ridiculed for their celibacy and rejection of family values. Giard suspects this is because it is so threatening to Japan’s already waning family institutions and birth rate.
Speaking exclusively to Future of Sex, Giard elaborates: “Despite stigmatized as ”losing dogs” (make-inu) or ”parasites” (parasaito), the gamers positively call themselves ”dream girls” (yume-joshi), in order to fight against social exclusion.”
Otome games are VERY popular
Considering relationships with characters from a female user’s perspective has been seriously underexplored in Japanese and Western contexts alike, but offers an interesting touchstone to see how this might evolve in the future for Western female users.
Giard explained in her interview that language barriers and cultural nuances make the games difficult in terms of accessibility for non-Japanese gamers. However, she highlights that this doesn’t stop their popularity:
In spite of the stigma associated with artificial realities, these games are now spreading around the world, inspiring an entire subculture of dedicated players and opening ground for a whole industry. In 2016, Voltage (which was the world’s leading company specializing in Virtual boyfriends) claimed 50 million women, worldwide, were registered as users. In 2017, one of its releases—translated in English as Midnight Cinderella— entered the Top 100 Overall Sales Ranking in the App Store with over 1,600,000 downloads. As these figures show, the rising phenomenon of “otome” games is not limited to Japan.
Giard used Loveplus as an example to show not just how characters could become increasingly important for sex tech development, but also suggests a growing propensity (and popularity) for female players.
Tracing its genealogy, she pointed out that “while at first they were classified as a subgenre of ”erotic games” (ero-ge) for male otaku, the romance games did not appear as much more than a geek commodity. But with the widespread use of mobile phones, the industry shifted towards the App market aimed at women and now, in Japan, “otome” games (love games targeting females) are much more popular than bishōjo games (for male).”
Existing sex tech avatars have been criticised for being sexist in their portrayal of women, but this is perhaps hardly surprising when so few sophisticated examples of masculine characters exist.
While sex tech developments tend to see technology as a tool to create intimacy or sexual enjoyment, it seems that technology in Japan, and also in China is creating virtual lovers with technology as object of affection—and they are increasingly popular.
Could we see the same soon with American, European and other Western products?
While this presentation highlighted that there is still plenty of stigma attached to emotional interaction with technological others, it shows how Japan leads the way in design and popularity—and allows us to creatively consider what the future of intimacy will be.