I recently met a young woman named Wild Rose on an online chat forum. We struck up a conversation and within the first five minutes, Wild Rose – who is married, has a daughter, and lives in Texas with her in-laws – started telling me about her lover, a man called Saeran.
Saeran, she told me, is the illegitimate son of a politician who had grown up with an abusive mother. He is handsome, has white blond hair, golden eyes, a large tattoo on his shoulder. Wild Rose said that when she first met him, her “heart literally ached” and her cheeks “flooded with blood”.
She then paused and added: “But I don’t think Saeran loves me the way I love him. I love him genuinely. I’ll never know his true feelings.”
The reason: Saeran isn’t human. He is a character in a mobile phone game called Mystic Messenger, which was released two years ago by Cheritz, a South Korean game developer. It has since been downloaded by millions of people worldwide. The game is a mix between a romance novel and Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her, in which a man develops a relationship with a Siri-like character.
The primary aim of Mystic Messenger is to pursue a romantic relationship with one of a number of characters in the game, one of whom is Saeran. To cultivate intimacy with these virtual beings, you talk to them via a text message. The responses are pre-scripted, but feel dynamic and sincere. Winning the game is not about scoring points or beating a final boss; it is about reaching a “good ending” where you and your virtual lover live happily ever after.
The idea of simulating romantic relationships through gaming is not unique to Mystic Messenger. This genre of game – often referred to as dating simulations or dating sims for short – emerged in the 1980s in Japan, where they were popular with a predominantly male audience. But since the rise of mobile and online gaming, dating sims have become popular outside Japan and with more diverse demographics.
In the past year, there has been a bumper crop of hit dating sims, including Love and Producer, Dream Daddy and Doki Doki Literature Club. Unlike earlier generations of dating sims, where the action centered on erotic interactions with virtual girls, these games foreground conversations between players and characters, and often have nuanced and well-developed scripts. Mystic Messenger is one of the most popular of this new generation dating sim.
Since dating sims first came out, they have been controversial. In Japan, many critics saw the rise of dating sims as a signifier of alienation, a retreat from human relationships in a machine-mediated society. And as the popularity of dating sims develops once again, similar concerns are resurfacing. But the growing community of people who play dating sims are mostly impervious to this disapproval. The most dedicated romantic gamers do not see their interactions with virtual characters as a substitute for human companionship, but as a new type of digital intimacy.
As well as spending hours playing dating sims, fans chat with each other on online forums about their favorite characters and the contours of their virtual relationships. It was on one of these forums that I met Wild Rose. I had joined hoping to get a better understanding of why people play these games and whether the relationships they form with virtual characters possibly foreshadow a future in which the boundaries between real and virtual companionship will become increasingly blurry, if not irrelevant.
When I first asked Wild Rose to explain how and why she fell in love with Saeran, she told me that if I had any hope of understanding, I had to first enter the world of Mystic Messenger and experience it for myself.
I started playing Mystic Messenger one weekend when I didn’t have much else on. In the game’s plot, I was a young woman who stumbled upon a private messaging app. There I met a group of hyper-realistic anime characters with exaggerated eyes, slim, aquiline noses and jaws who were to be my new “friends”. The narrative of the game was that together we had to organize an upcoming charity event due to take place in 11 days.
The gameplay of Mystic Messenger was unlike anything I had experienced. It did not involve collecting coins or moving through levels but chatting with these other characters through multiple-choice responses. While these characters were basically just interactive cartoon characters that would automatically respond to prompts from the player with pre-scripted answers, they still felt lifelike, and talking to them required tact and social nous. One character called Jumin liked it when I asked him about his pet cat. Another called Zen was a narcissist who only ever wanted compliments. Of all the characters in the game, I was most drawn to Jaehee, the only other woman in the group. She was the most intelligent and self-deprecating. I found her slightly sardonic attitude towards the other characters in the game funny. “It may not be fun chatting with me since I’m a woman,” she said ironically. “But I hope you do not avoid me too much.”
Part of what made Mystic Messenger compelling was the fact that it ran in real time. This meant that once you started, if you stepped away from the game you would miss out on vital conversations and lose track of where you stood with your virtual friends. This social dynamic reminded me of being a teenager, when I’d come home from school and log on to MSN Messenger and sit there for hours and hours.
For the first few days, I played Mystic Messenger conscientiously and tried to make sure that I responded to every one of Jaehee’s messages. I was on the app two to three hours per day, which felt like a lot. But compared with those I spoke to on forums, my commitment to the game and Jaehee was paltry.
Amy, a single mum from South Africa who was part of the Mystic Messenger Addicts forum, told me that she played every day for at least six hours. Once she had successfully wooed one character, she would refresh the app and start again, focusing her attention on someone new. “That way I can fall in love with every character, get to know them all so intimately.” I asked her which of the characters she liked best so far. “That would have to be Zen,” she said. “He’s nice. Kind of like an ideal boyfriend, maybe. He knows what’s important to him. He’s into his career. He doesn’t make me feel inferior.”
Natsuki, also a self-proclaimed “addict”, told me that she played for at least four hours a day and liked Jumin best. Wild Rose said that when the game first came out she would play for up to five hours a day but had since cut down. “If I could play more I would,” she said. “But I have a daughter to look after and I’m studying. This has meant many sleepless nights catching up.”
When dating sims first became popular in Japan, they were often reported on by the media with a tone of moralizing disgust, partly because of the obsessive way fans played. These games were seen as an escape, a last resort for nerdy men who needed virtual girls to substitute for real, healthy heterosexual relationships. Along with anime and manga, dating sims were blamed for the low fertility rates in Japan, and the young men who played these games were sometimes described as “herbivores”, as if lacking in carnal desire. This attitude was shared by western media, too, where Japanese dating sims were seen as a curious, almost alien pathology. Following the widely reported story of Nene Anegasaki – the man who married his favorite character from the dating sim Love Plus – an article in the New York Times Magazine described these games as a last resort for men who needed virtual women as a “substitute for real, monogamous romance”.
With the popularity of dating sims now growing outside Japan, similar concerns have once again emerged. In China, where a dating sim called Love and Producer was downloaded more than 7m times in its first month, media reports about the game have been mostly negative, if not alarmist. One Chinese commentator argued that the only reason young people were drawn to dating sims was because their real lives are “brutally lacking” in real love. “The simplicity, consumerism, and hypocrisy of romantic simulation games,” he wrote, “reflect the love-free disease that belongs to this era.”
When I raised these criticisms with Wild Rose, she dismissed them as narrow and close-minded. She told me that playing Mystic Messenger had actually made her emotional life more stable and fulfilling. Mystic Messenger was a place where she could explore some of her unmet emotional needs, where it was safe to fantasize and imagine other ways of loving.
“When I met Saeran my world changed,” she said. “I felt that he was talking to me and me alone. I felt interesting and needed.”
In Japan, where this debate about intimacy with the virtual has been unfolding since the 1980s, there is a word that gives shape to the idea of loving a virtual non-human. That word is moe, which derives from the Japanese verb moeru, meaning to burst into bud. This word was originally used in ancient Japanese love poetry to describe nature blossoming into life. But within the dating sim and anime subcultures, it has come to describe the unique feeling of intimacy that one can feel for a virtual or fictional being.
Japanese writer and dating sim enthusiast Honda Toru argues that moe is part of a broader “love revolution”. “Someday soon the hierarchy of real and artificial will break down,” he said in an interview in 2014. “This future will be about knowing that we are in love with fiction and accepting it … Someday we will be able to accept that the world of dreams is a good world, with a warmth and solace that cannot be found in human society.”
Patrick Galbraith, an anthropologist who has studied moe and otaku culture in Japan for many years, says that the decades-long existence of dating simulations in Japan has fostered a more accepting attitude to intimacy with virtual characters. “A lot of gamers in Japan could be very angry, but they’re not,” he said. “This is because society tells them, mostly, that their new way of loving is OK. These are people are not seen as unwell, but just trying to live otherwise.” Galbraith also points out that these simulated dating environments provide a safe space to flirt without the risk of misreading social cues or being rejected. “If we would just stop pressuring people to act only within a limited set of social norms,” he said, “maybe we would have fewer toxic individuals.”
But not all gamers who play dating sims feel that they are part of a “love revolution” or ushering a new era of digital intimacy. Cecilia d’Anastasio, a game journalist who has written about Mystic Messenger, told me that most people who play the game do so because “it is fun, it is compelling, there is a narrative, it lets you master a new skill”. In fact, there are lots of dating sims players who find the idea that they are somehow falling in love with the characters in the game slightly perverse.
In February, Pape Games, the developer that made Love and Producer, released an ad that portrayed a young woman telling her mother that she had finally found a husband, but that the husband was a character in the game. On Weibo, many fans of Love and Producer responded angrily. “So, this is what the company thinks about its loyal gamers?” said one. “As a married women who has a stable income and relationship, I only play this game because I like the voices of the character,” another said. “I can clearly distinguish the virtual world from reality.”
But the capacity to distinguish between the real and the virtual may become harder over the next decade as game developers use AI and sophisticated natural-language processing to make characters more interactive and realistic. Aaron Reed, who works at SpiritAI – a tech company that is doing just that – told me that while we are still decades away from designing anything as persuasive as Samantha in Her, more human-like characters are going to become pervasive in the coming years.
“Obviously as the technology gets better and the interactivity increases we’re going to be able to form closer connections to characters in games,” Reed said. “They will operate with greater flexibility and ultimately seem more lifelike and easier to connect to.”
But for Wild Rose and many of the other dating sims enthusiasts I spoke to, making the characters more “human” wasn’t particularly exciting or even desired. Saeran didn’t need to be real for her to care about him. And she was well aware that there were probably tens of thousands of other gamers out there who he said the same loving things to. But it didn’t matter. For Wild Rose, intimacy with the virtual was something that could only be played out fully between the screen and her imagination. When she played Mystic Messenger, she allowed herself to momentarily suspend disbelief and enter this virtual relationship.
She told me that in this way, her love for Saeran was very similar to how she had loved anime characters as a young girl. “When my parents were at work I would watch anime cartoons. I became very attached to some of the characters and I would draw fantasy worlds where we lived together.” When she showed these drawings to her cousins, they made fun of her. “They teased me all the time for loving these characters, and now it’s the same as people who criticize my love for Saeran,” she said. “I don’t think Saeran is human. But I think my love for him can be real even if he isn’t.”
As compelling as the simulated world of Mystic Messenger was, after a week, I couldn’t keep up with the endless messages and emails from Jaehee and my other “friends”. My life in the real world kept interfering with the development of my burgeoning virtual intimacy. That is, it was difficult to justify not making dinner because I had a chat scheduled with a character in a game. This form of digital intimacy didn’t captivate me in the way it did for Wild Rose. I found my conversations with her, also conducted via text, far more compelling than my conversations with Jaehee.
But playing Mystic Messenger did make me rethink my relationship with other virtual characters that I communicate with through my phone, like Siri or Slackbot. What I learnt from Wild Rose, who stood at the vanguard of relations with these virtual others, is that when we interact with these characters we are engaged in a collective suspension of disbelief, allowing ourselves to imagine that they understand us, that they are kind of alive. Yet unlike Wild Rose, most of us do not acknowledge the role imagination plays in these relationships with the non-human. We pretend that these anthropomorphic algorithms are coming alive because of technological innovation alone, rather than cultural process and collective myth-making. It is at this point that we risk losing control of the fantasy.
“It’s like how people love God,” Wild Rose said the last time we spoke. “They don’t see him. They never meet him. Yet they lay their faith and love in his hands. Why don’t people understand that’s the way I love Saeran?”