Japanese dating simulators are all the rage
My phone is always within easy reach. Surpassing my oft-neglected computer, it will teleport me anywhere in the world for work, friendships and narcissistic bumps of self-esteem.
But what if I need romance? Romance free from the risk of reality and rejection, a secret supplement to augment the every day. Sounds pathetic, right?
Turns out there's an app for that.
Known as dating simulators or ren'ai, the games started in Japan, a land where technology is considered the solution to all of life's problems. Constructed similar to the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books from the '80s, players can chose through different scenarios to move the stories to different endings (and results). Choose the object of your desire, download the story for a price, and get your wooing on manga-style.
Dating sims are designed along heterosexual lines with clear gender and sexual stereotypes on display. Catering to men, bishojo ("pretty girl game") are sexual, allowing men to seduce as many as possible or develop a relationship with a woman. In some cases, men have formed such strong attachments; one married his virtual girlfriend, while a new bride destroyed her groom's dating sim game cartridge (and thus her virtual love rival).
However, dating sims for women are a different bag altogether, borrowing some of the same stereotypes (like tsundere, the grouch with a heart of gold) but reconfiguring them to match different gender expectations and perceived needs.
According to Yuta Ogi with games developer Voltage, this is deliberate. "In Japan, these games originated with the changing position of women in society, which resulted in a need for content that would support working women."
Yet, curiously, the games enforce many of Japan's expectations about women. Women are loved for their ability to be selfless, to clean and cook in a manner that supports Japan's famous work ethic but rarely to achieve high career goals. In fact, most of the games can be "won" simply by supporting your love interest towards his goal in the story.
While there are some "nice guys" in the games, most dating sims feature the tsundere stereotype: an aloof, rude man just waiting to be changed by a woman's love - the stuff of romantic legend. In addition to this, male characters prove their desire by expressing possessiveness and jealousy and occasionally even forcing kisses (and more) upon women.
One of the more bizarre aspects of the games is that the woman's face (i.e. you, the player) doesn't have eyes in contrast to your love interest or other characters, who have fully defined manga-style faces. It adds to the alienation of being less than equal in a game where you're chasing a powerful man's approval by demonstrating your subservience.
And yet - I will admit it - these games are fun. More than fun, they're addictive. You submerse yourself in the story, feeling disappointment when you don't reach the ultimate "super happy ending". You develop favourites, laughingly admonish the sexism, squeal when things turn well, stressed when they don't and, look, I may have blushed a few times.
But mostly, I just felt embarrassed. Despite loving all things Japanese, this felt like a bridge too far into loserland, population: me. I made jokes to friends to try and cover over the fact this interest was edging close to one of the most mocked genres of all and home for frustrated single women everywhere: romance.
As little more than an interactive story, dating sims fit into the world's most popular genre comfortably like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. The lead female character is typically underdeveloped (or eyeless!) so the reader can easily imagine themselves as the lead chasing their one objective: true love.
It's a deliberate strategy for dating sim developers, like Voltage. The developers surveyed Japanese women extensively, asking about their lives and needs before adapting their games to match. Based on their research, Ogi says dating sims are specifically tailored for women so they can "experience the butterflies feeling of a romance and also an experience outside their normal, day to day lives."
According to Ogi, half of women playing dating sims are in relationships and consider themselves "casual users", unlike their male counterparts who often regular gamers and fit the otaku, or obsessive fan, stereotype.
So maybe I'm not that bad and won't end up trying to marry one of my apps.
But if renowned Ikebana artist Haruka and I get married, just be happy for us, OK? And don't tell Sakeru, Subaru or Yamato; they're the jealous type.