Virtual Ronmance The Next Big Thing In Dating?

Imagine a world where a forbidden affair with a coworker or a sexy thief would have a happy ending nine times out of 10. Welcome to the world of romance gaming apps.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Think gaming apps, and chances are, the first thing that springs to mind are the Tsum Tsums and cooking games of your youth. But now gaming is all grown up – and wildly popular here in Asia. Simulating high-octane love dramas, these games are providing women with the opportunity to date a boyfriend who never falls short of your expectations.

In Japan, romance gaming apps for men – called “bishoujo” – have been popular for decades. But in the late 1990s, developers started making these apps for women. The trend really took off in 2006 when Japanese businesswoman Nanako Higashi and her husband, Yuzi Tsutani, released My Lover is The No.1 Host. It was an instant hit.

“Before that, when we started producing romance apps, we had less entertainment for women in Japan compared to men because women didn’t earn as much money to spend on games,” says Emi Tanaka, spokesperson for Voltage. “But recently, more women work as much as men. And as women work more, they also get more stressed and need to be distracted.” To date, their company Voltage has released 99 titles for women, which have been played by 50 million users around the world. In 2017, Voltage made more than $100 million.

How it works

The games work like chooseyourown-adventure manga stories, with floppy-haired men of all sorts (including samurai, nerds and bad boys) appearing at unusually regular intervals with flirtatious propositions that could lead to love. Players decide which invitations to accept over a series of love challenges to “live happily ever after”.

In Japan, where 44.2 percent of women are virgins and 60 percent of unmarried women aged 18 to 34 are not in relationships, the games have been a huge hit. “Nowadays, Japanese women are making more independent decisions, and may be bored by a real world pursuit of love,” says Dr Nancy Snow, a professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and author of Japan’s Information War. “Also, men may not be able to afford to romance like they could during Japan’s economic heyday, so women may think: ‘Why not spend time trying out different types of guys online?’ It’s not really that taboo anymore.”

Welcome to Singapore

But their popularity isn’t limited to Japan. In China, women there spent more than $40 million on a romance gaming app called Love and Producer in January 2018 alone, making it the topgrossing app in Apple’s China App Store. Developed by Pape Games in Shanghai, the dating simulator has more than two million daily active users who are mostly women in their 20s, according to research firm Jiguang. The apps are also big in South Korea, and those by Voltage – which is by far the market leader in romance gaming apps targeted at women – have a growing following in Singapore.

Singaporeans make up the fifth largest customer base of Voltage’s Love 365 app, which pulls together a variety of stories for players to choose from. Emi thinks these apps are big in Singapore (and Asia in general) because anime and manga culture are already popular here, so there’s a sense of familiarity.

Another reason could be the rise in single Singaporeans. About 63 percent of women aged between 25 and 29 are single in Singapore, according to the 2015 General Household survey. Most cited putting their career before relationships as the reason for their current status. Singaporeans are also becoming more accustomed to mixing their romantic pursuits with technology, due to the rise of dating apps such as Tinder and the locallymade Paktor.

But given that there’s a big difference between going online to find a real boyfriend and simulating a romance with a virtual partner, should we be worried?

Virtual vs real

Psychologist Jean Shashi, director of counselling service Relationship Matters, believes such apps could potentially play an educational role in a user’s real love life if approached with the right frame of mind. “If you have simulated someone that you feel comfortable with, you’re doing a self-discovery process, and that’s a wonderful thing. Eventually, when you find your real partner, you’ll be able to communicate your own needs better,” she says.

The danger, Jean cautions, is when the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred. Dr Snow agrees. “People who take it too far and lose the ability to distinguish between real and virtual are addicts, plain and simple. If they are compulsively engaged in this activity, that’s a troubling sign.” Like any addiction, it’s important to disengage when you’re becoming reliant on it. However, Emi says it’s not a common occurrence and that half of the women who play Voltage’s games have a spouse in the real world. “They understand the fantasy story and reality are totally separate,” she adds.

Another danger is that the fixation on finding the “perfect man” in a game can transfer to bad dating habits and warped expectations in real life. “Technology is feeding the need for constant attention and thrill to escape from everyday mundanity. What real world boyfriend can fulfil a woman’s needs as often as a virtual boyfriend?’ asks Dr Snow.

But at the end of the day, as Jean points out, there’s ultimately no substitute for a face-to-face connection. “Romance is about how a couple interacts with each other and trust each other enough to share their feelings.” And that’s something a virtual boyfriend isn’t so perfect at after all.

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“People who take it too far and lose the ability to distinguish between real and virtual are addicts, plain and simple. If they are compulsively engaged in this activity, that’s a troubling sign.”

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