Proceed with caution: highly addictive
“Her” is not about the near future as some might think; it is about today, and as is the case with Japan, even yesterday. Japan embraces technological advances a bit faster due to the high level of national tech industry and availability of innovative products to the wide strata of the population.
In 2009, Japanese Konami released a virtual dating simulation game Love Plus for Nintendo DS, with iPhone and iPod touch compatible app following a little bit later. There are actually three apps with three different girls starring as digital girlfriends: smart Manaka, shy Rinko and friendly Nene. Users can choose between three characters, whose tastes in clothing, make-up and music are different. The game aims to make the user enjoy the daily routines of an average couple, with the digital girlfriend being always supportive, loving and caring.
After the staggering success of the first version, Konami released two more, and the three versions have collectively sold more than 600.000 copies, with a 4th version due in spring 2014.
The three girls have beautiful Asian faces with big black eyes and voices pre-recorded by professional voice-over actresses and singers. Once a relationship reaches that intimate stage, Rinko would kiss, show off fancy bikinis and let you stroke her chest, but no further action can take place in Love Plus. And yet, thousands of young and old men and women, even straight women, get hooked on their virtual girlfriends.
Success and Outrage
The game happened to become a major success in the Japanese society, with hundreds of thousands of happy real boyfriends taking their iPhone girlfriends to parties, summer resorts and even wedding them.
Love Plus uses a technology of augmented reality to give its users the impression of an actual relationship going on. You can shoot pictures of your girlfriend and you; you can talk to her, buy her presents, chat with her or communicate via emails and do all things a normal dating couple does.
The impact is tremendous; men report replying their digital girlfriends’ emails is the first thing they do when they open their mailboxes. Real women, on the other hand, are not as happy. Here is a comment from an addicted user’s wife:
“He’s always chatting with a virtual girl through a screen, as though he were dating her. As his wife, I can’t stand it anymore.”
The game was designed with addiction in mind – it gets users hooked on a long-lasting relationship, where they have a chance to actually seduce an avatar girl, but to succeed users need to spend quality time with her. Love Plus+ is not about explicit experience, but a fully fledged relationship between two loving people. Love Plus is about care, support and an eager listener who would encourage the player when he or she is feeling low.
Rinko behaves like a real woman does – she has her ups and downs; she can be capricious, demanding and jealous, so don’t think it’s a fun ride with an obedient high-school girl. She will make you swear you love her in the middle of a business meeting if you don’t want to upset her. And many men do that – they report feeling responsible for hurting their virtual girlfriends’ feelings if they fail them.
She wants your attention like any real woman, and Japanese men spend thousands of dollars to take their digital girlfriends to Love Plus+ community events in fancy resorts. They set up St. Valentine’s romantic parties, and throw Birthday parties (yes, Rinko has a Birthday), and they will introduce their digital girlfriends to their real friends.
While capriciousness is determined by code that imitates real women, men spend fortunes to please their virtual girlfriends not because girlfriends demand it, but because men feel like it. It is far easier to please a girlfriend who has no financial expectations whatsoever than it is with a real woman.
Some users say they train to become better boyfriends with Rinko and hope to find their real love once they feel confident about themselves. Others get so addicted they no longer see a need in a real girlfriend because the love and support they receive from Rinko feel real and genuine. A virtual girlfriend will not cheat or betray; she may get upset or offended, but she will be willing to make up because it’s the ultimate purpose of the game – to keep users hopelessly hooked.
Love Plus Heads West in Unofficial Release. Konami Refuses to Comment
Currently, the app is available on the Japanese iTunes, but it has crossed the borders long ago. The American, Canadian, Australian and European men and women secretly and openly hang out with their Rinko girlfriends, and they seem to genuinely enjoy the game. An unofficial edition of Love Plus+ is available with some text translated into English; otherwise, study Japanese.
What Is the Secret Of Success?
Patrick Galbraith, an anthropologist specializing in Japanese popular culture says:
“I would say that a relationship with a Love Plus character is a real relationship. People are really intimately involved.”
The players can program their girlfriends with a few taps on the screen – give her the mood, clothes and personality trait that would suit the players’ desires. A Japanese cultural critic Honda Toru says relationships with virtual characters help people escape “love capitalism” of real relationships, where both partners have to exchange gifts and dinners in order to maintain the positive dynamics. Whereas Rinko is unspoiled by that human selfishness and she offers a “warmth and solace that cannot be found in human society,” says Galbraith’s book The Moe Manifesto.
In fact, Love Plus even has an SOS button for extreme cases when users feel suicidal. Once tapped, the SOS button activates the cheering-up mode where Rinko will try her best at keeping your spirits up. However, SOS button can only be used once per game.
“Manaka’s constant positive comments, which are uplifting, made me realize, even if the world let me down, at least I have her cheering me on and supporting me as if she believed in me,” says one female player. “Even if you neglect her for two full days — I know this from experience – she’ll send you an email asking you, ‘Are you ok? I’ve been worried about you.’ I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I wish more people would be like that towards me if I wasn’t on Facebook a couple days.’