A day-trip date with the virtual romantics of ‘New LovePlus+’

by Francesco Fondi

Special To The Japan Times

While Japan’s video-game industry no longer dominates the world, there is still one niche of digital entertainment that this country does better than any other: romantic man-machine interaction.

Love with a virtual being is something plucked straight out of science-fiction. But in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, hundreds of dating-simulation games are sold in stores, aimed directly at an audience of otaku (obsessive hobbyists). The most successful of these is the “LovePlus” series, in which players strike up a relationship with an on-screen character and pursue her through daily interactions.

The games are on Nintendo’s portable DS and 3DS consoles, allowing players to take their “girlfriend” anywhere, and it unfolds in more or less real-time — meaning that if you make a date with your girlfriend at 7 p.m. next Friday, you’d better boot up the game at 7 p.m. next Friday, or risk being chastised for standing her up. Much of the courtship takes place within a high school, with the protagonist and other characters as students, and flirting opportunities seized between lessons or in the library may result in dates somewhere further afield — which I’ll come back to later. The actual relationship is played out through dialogue trees that allow the characters to chat about love and other affairs of the heart and mind.

Westerners might consider this kind of attraction creepy, something that could happen only in “wacky Japan.” But in fact, the concept of an intimate relationship with a machine was explored in the United States back in the 1960s, when Joseph Weizenbaum, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed Eliza, a computer program able to mimic a therapist. Way before hikikomori (shut-ins who avoid human interaction) was even a word, users of this software communicated with Eliza and started to consider it as a real person.

“LovePlus,” a game series published by Konami, pushes the illusion of intimacy to a new level, so much so that it is considered the first game of a new genre called “communication.” The series has three heroines: Rinko, Manaka and Nene. Woo whichever is closest to your ideal girl and try to win her heart. The latest version, “New LovePlus+,” was released last month for Nintendo 3DS.

“A dating communication game has no particular end goal to reach,” explains Akari Uchida, the game’s producer. “The entire point of the game is to just keep on communicating with your ‘girlfriend.’ ”

The first “LovePlus” was released in 2009 and quickly built up a cult following. After just a couple of months in a virtual relationship, a Japanese university student known as SAL9000 decided to marry his digital girlfriend, Nene, a stunt that was covered as an “only in Japan”-type story by international media outlets. But there’s more to it than that.

” ‘LovePlus’ is an experiment with virtual relationships,” says Patrick W. Galbraith, an Alaska-born ethnographer who has studied otaku culture for over a decade. “I find it very exciting because the ‘game’ is open-ended and real-time. So it’s not really a game: It’s an experiment with love between a human and a nonhuman entity.

“This raises all sorts of fascinating issues that I hope we won’t shut down with the crude response, ‘Those guys are weird.’ ‘LovePlus’ provides a challenge to our norms, reality and worldview.”

” ‘LovePlus’ definitely is not a game that we designed to teach the player something,” says Uchida. “However, many fans of the game have told us that the more they took the time to seriously play the game and treat their (virtual) girlfriend’s feelings with as much care as possible, the more they started noticing little changes in their own lives.

“For example, they became more positive about real-life dating and managed to get a girlfriend, they started getting on better with their wife, they began paying more attention to the way they dressed, they became more inclined to take vacations (together) — all sorts of things.”

A video game that can help players to become a better person in real life? With this idea in mind, on March 29, I joined a group of 40 “LovePlus” fans on a day trip to the tourist town of Nikko: a special bus tour Konami organized to promote the new game. Scenic spots from around Nikko actually appear in the game, as the characters enjoy a high school trip — and all the romantic potential such a scenario entails.

Many participants were dressed accordingly in school uniforms, and everyone received a small itinerary booklet drawn by Taro Mino, the game character designer and illustrator.

The majority of our “school mates” were in their mid 20s and early 30s. They usually communicate via Twitter and this was the first time many of them had met face-to-face. Surprisingly, there were some women in the group, too. Although the game is clearly targeted toward men, these fashionable young female fans told me that playing “LovePlus” is no different to reading a romantic manga or watching a movie where the protagonist is male.

As we visited the shrines and temples of Nikko, I had time to chat with the group, who were more open and friendly than stereotypes would have you believe. Some of them told me they have a real-world girlfriend as well as their virtual one. Let’s just say you can try “New LovePlus+” without worrying that you will quit your job and turn into an antisocial hikikomori.

Just one piece of advice: If you choose Nene as the object of your desire, don’t forget that her birthday is coming up (on April 20) — or you’ll just have to live with the guilt.

“New LovePlus+” is out now for Nintendo 3DS.