Love + delusion

“Humans will start falling in love with [and marrying] robots, probably in about 30 or 40 years.” –David Levy (2007)

On Nov. 22, 2009 guests were invited to a Tokyo wedding and, along with those who watched live via the Japanese website NicoNico Douga, celebrated the love between the Japanese man nicknamed “Sal9000” and his bride, Nene Anegasaki, a character from the Nintendo DS video game Love Plus. As the priest announced “You may kiss the bride,” Sal9000 pressed his lips to the screen, and the two were husband and wife. Even David Levy, a Canadian astronomer and science writer, did not see this coming so soon

When Konami (which developed video game hits like Metal Gear Solid, Dance Dance Revolution, and Yu-Gi-Oh!) created the PC dating simulator Tokimeki Memorial in 1994, the Japanese video game industry was changed forever. The new genre called “visual novels” became wildly popular. Soon, as technology advanced, gamers began playing more sexualized games, and Japanese developers took notice. Tecmo’s fighting game Dead or Alive first appeared in arcades in 1996. It was especially popular because half the characters were attractive, busty women. They eventually made one of the most graphically sophisticated games to date when the Xbox-exclusive Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball (which had an all-female cast) was released in 2003.

Konami’s Love Plus was released in September 2009, selling over 100,000 copies in the first month. The game is a dating simulator where the player takes the role of a high school student who tries to get a girlfriend. Every “day” in the game involves 4 tasks (homework, exercise, etc.) which you can strategically select to raise points. Random events also occur, such as running into a girl or writing an exam. If 100 “days” go by before you get the virtual girl, just try again. If you succeed in attracting your digital crush you move on to the “open-ended” section of the game, which could theoretically go on forever.

I decided to investigate the game myself, and a few things caught my eye. First, it’s probably the best-looking DS game to date. Adding to the experience was the dialogue which was voice-recorded for every character — rare for DS games.

The game is constantly monitoring your behaviour, in ways that you might not even imagine. For example, once I turned the game off without clicking “save & quit.” When I later turned it back on, one of the girls angrily popped up demanding an apology — literally. The DS has a built-in microphone, so I was required to verbally apologize to her in Japanese. She forgave me, but warned me to properly turn off the game next time, and some of my stats decreased.

Clearly, the game is trying to be semi-realistic. Players are rewarded for acting carefully and playing extensively. In fact, if you spend too many days without checking in on your virtual girlfriend she will be very upset the next time you play. Mine stormed off during our subsequent date. For the hardcore players, there is a mode that lets you interact in real-time, as well as a mode where you can have a private voice-conversation . . . that’s the point where I stop playing.

Arguably the most popular girl is Nene Anegasaki, whose “birthday” was celebrated on April 20 by fans all over Japan, who posted pictures of birthday cakes and presents next to her in the game. Sal9000 certainly enjoys her company, though he is aware that she is just a character and that their marriage is not legally recognized. When asked in an interview if he would give his virtual wife up for a real flesh-and-blood girl friend, he politely declined. While the casual observer might think Sal9000 has a serious problem, gaming addiction researcher Hiroshi Ashizaki believes that Sal9000 is not actually an extreme case, he says that many Japanese people just find it easier to express themselves in the virtual world.

Wives and girlfriends in the real world, whose partners have shacked up with these virtual vixens, however, are not so understanding. One man was accused of adultery when his wife discovered one of his virtual-girlfriends on his DS while he was at work. She determined that Nene was a threat to their marriage and sold the DS. The husband was just glad that they did not divorce. The wife’s friends then checked their respective husbands, and three others were “caught” with the game.

Another incident involved a man who consistently came home late, to the annoyance of his wife. After one fight he finally said “I’d much rather be welcomed home kindly by Nene!” ultimately resulting in their divorce.

A number of Japanese women were interviewed on their thoughts about these events. Many felt unthreatened by the game, but others expressed surprise and disdain, the most telling of which came from a woman who said, “If he is going to fall for someone else, at least make it an idol. You just can’t compete against a 2D character.”

Not only is the franchise becoming hugely successful, but at this year’s Media Art Festival run by the Japanese Cabinet’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, Love Plus was voted a “artistic work at the very forefront of art” — quite an endorsement for a dating simulator. With the add-on Love Plus+ going on sale soon, and the 3D Nintendo DS announced at this year’s E3 conference, we must consider how our relationship with increasingly sophisticated technology will affect us — and if will it be a good thing.