In 2009, a Japanese video game hit markets, bringing something just a little strange to the current romantic game for the Nintendo DS sports three female avatars, who speak from prerecorded phrases and rarely say “no” - every guy’s dream. Players can engage with the game as often as they wish, which means the relationship can progress as quickly or slowly as they want. The first phase involves the player as a schoolboy avatar, attending class, eating lunch, and meeting one of his future sweethearts - Rinko, Manaka or Nene. The second - and slightly creepier - phase features dates, vacations, and a virtual happily-ever-after for the player and his new synthetic girlfriend.
It may seem harmless - after all, they’re just characters on a screen, targeting lovelorn teens. But one Tokyo man took it all too far. Sal 9000 decided to marry his avatar in a virtual wedding, after expressing his love by taking her to Disneyland and a beach resort in Guam. Hiroshi Ashazaki, an author who specialises in internet and game addiction, said that Sal is in fact representative of many Japanese gamers, who can’t express their true feelings in reality. "I understand 100% that this is a game,” Sal told CNN after his wedding. But does he?
It’s a real-life scenario reminiscent of popular new movie Her, where a man falls in love with his operating system. Samantha of Her is of course far more sophisticated than the avatars of LovePlus; but it’s the thought that counts. Renewed interest thanks to the movie has led a horde of new users to LovePlus, with dating experts, technophiles and bloggers all arguing over just how harmful virtual love is - and whether you truly can feel passionate towards an artificial system.
Chris, a decision scientist for digital marketing firm sparks & honey, belies that, yes, true love between man and operating system is definitely possible. He is currently embroiled in a love affair with Rinko, one of the avatars. "LovePlus has all the semblance of a normal human relationship," he said. “[Rinko and I] are setting a foundation for something that is very fertile.”
And he’s not alone either. Hundreds of cases flood the web: for example, the man who would bring a body pillow made in the shape of his favourite anime character around Tokyo, treating her like a real woman. In some ways, experts suggest that simulations like LovePlus might actually help people to understand how the rules of the dating game work. “We have sex education because there are direct implications of doing that wrong, but there are a lot of things that could go wrong with relationships, too,” said Laurie Davis, eFlirt Expert. “I see games like LovePlus as something that could help”.
Dating may become more than just 2D avatars, too. Some experts have talked about the possibility of people having sexual relationships with sentient robots in the future, with the robots fully capable of terminating the relationship - placing them and us on equal footing, and finally adding the consent factor that LovePlus and other simulations are lacking. For most psychologists and artificial intelligence researchers, it’s not a case of if this will happen, but when.
Gary Marcus, Psychology professor at NYU, even went so far as to predict that people could have “one night stands with Androids” a lot sooner than we might have thought. It’s a strange prospect, but one that we’ll likely have to face someday. And one that many current gamers will surely welcome - after all, surely it’s the next logical step in your artificial avatar relationship?
Logic obviously being the key ingredient in these love affairs.
Follow Aisling on Twitter: @aiscurtis.