The Power of Virtual Love

Happy Valentine’s Day!

snoopy-hug

…or as a friend cheekily put it once, Happy Singles Awareness Day.

As readers of this blog know, I’m quite a fan of good characters and interesting stories in video games. We’ve talked about the importance of having a good avatar and why we like our heroes to be a little less than perfect. We’ve also learned about how and why we sometimes become friends with non-playable characters, and discussed some great video game romances. But what happens when you fall in love with a video game character?

Image result for what meme

Okay, maybe not literally.

We Found Love in a VR Place

E-Harmony reports that 27% of “young adults” report using online dating, and 20% of current and committed relationships began online. That’s a lot of people. Around 40 million people, actually, according to the popular dating website. While meeting a potential date through a friend is still one of the more popular ways of meeting people, online dating has been on the rise. According to the Pew Research Institute, online dating has increased nearly threefold since 2013 with folks between 18- and 24-years-old. People between the ages of 55- and 64-years-old have also doubled their online-dating time since that year.

These numbers, to my eye, suggest that it’s hard to meet people in the physical world. But, likewise, that doesn’t mean people have stopped wanting to connect. Instead, it means that they are reaching for other means of connecting with people. People are reaching out into the virtual world, trying to make connections that can then be translated into physical-world relationships.

Interestingly, this doesn’t always mean they are reaching to connect with real people.

Enter the Simulation

Like online dating, dating simulators, officially known as relationship simulation role-playing games, tend to be a fairly popular genre of game that no one admits to dabbling in. While this genre is more prevalent in Japan than in the West, it’s worth talking about. What could possibly drive someone to “date” some lines of code made to look like a person?

Image result for the matrix
Like this lovely eligible singleton of your preferred gender

The obvious answer is “loneliness.” While I’m not going to go into an in-depth cultural analysis of Japan, the take-away message is that the kind of loneliness experienced must be profound and pervasive to drive someone into the arms of a fictional character.

The character is always there when the person wants them to be there, never nags them, and doesn’t put more demands on a person who may already be overly-taxed in their lives. The character simply “loves” the player without condition and – to be blunt- without any needs of their own.

So while this may not be the healthiest or most realistic portrayal of a relationship, the fact that this character is providing validation that the world might not opens up the possibility of a secondary reason for “falling in love” with a game character.

In the Looking Glass

It’s possible that these virtual experiences allow us to experiment with who we are and how we would interact in a relationship, without the possibility of really upsetting or hurting another real person (or ourselves). These situations may thus provide, shall we say, practice for real-world interactions. Or, more importantly, they provide us the validation and confidence-boost we may so desperately need in a world that may otherwise not provide us the necessary emotional supports.

tali-hug
Tali says you need another hug

Now, it’s Valentine’s Day (erm, well it was yesterday), so I’m  not going to go into the dangers of becoming so “involved” with fictional characters that you neglect the physical world. However, as you guys know, video games provide us with means of experiencing realities outside of our own, and our brains tend to not differentiate between virtual experiences and “real” ones when it is learning new information and incorporating it into the ways that we think. So who’s to say that these dating sims shouldn’t provide us the same service?

A Personal Story

I admit I fell into this weird virtual romance stuff a few years ago, which is what originally got me thinking about this topic. Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I broke up with the person I dated through college because, long story short, the relationship wasn’t particularly healthy. So, I returned to the world of singledom a little wiser for the experience, and quite a bit happier.

Long story short again (I won’t bore you with details of my life), I tentatively tried online dating at the suggestion of a friend, and immediately regretted it as I was bombarded by people who wanted “someone stable” to take care of them (literally… like, “I just got divorced and have two kids and no job” or “I just moved out of my parents’ house and am really lonely” kind of take care of them. I wish I was making that up).

what-figure

When I finally got up the courage to send a message myself, the users I contacted (each one of them) blocked me, and one reported me for harassment after I contacted them for the first time. That accusation got my profile shut down (but when the site reviewed the “offensive” message I sent, they apologized to me and reinstated my account).

It was overall not the best foray back into the dating world.

Meanwhile, the dating scene in the physical world was less than promising, as well. And unfortunately, all the helpful tips I received seemed to point to the fact that no one would want to date me as I am, because of the hobbies I liked or because I’m “too quite” or because of any other characteristic the advice-giver didn’t like about me. One (now ex) friend even insinuated that I wasn’t really the type of person she could see people really wanting to date at all.

elrond-facepalm2

If these things were said to me now, I wouldn’t take such offense. I know all the comments (except perhaps the last one) were well-intended, and I’ve changed some of my behaviors based on them.

But at the time, each blocked message and each self-improvement tip reaffirmed what my ex always insinuated about me: no matter what, it was always my fault. I was never good enough. Worse, each weirdo who only “wanted” something from me drove home that I only attracted people who wanted to “use” something of me, like my ex essentially did.

It was overall not the best foray back into the dating world.

Between the years I spent dating my crazy ex and then the feedback I got when trying to date again, I felt, as much as I hate to admit it now, alone and unworthy.

That was the state my brain was in when I played this game:

dragon-age-origins

And I met this bard:

leliana

Wait wait wait – stop those thoughts right now. This isn’t the reason I love Dragon Age: Origins so much. But it’s one of the many reasons I love it so much 🙂 Okay, now you may continue judging.

Anyway, I was new to role-playing games and so I decided that, while I learned about leveling and class builds and also concentrated on not getting lost in Thedas, I would “role play” as myself the first time, like a self-insert fanfiction. My personality became my Warden’s. Not knowing what else to do to “self-insert,” I made our hair colors the same. I took the skeleton of similarities between myself and the Warden and filled in the blanks that the game left out. I projected myself onto her, and I responded to people the way I thought I would in real life.

The Bard Who Loved Me

I wasn’t completely sold on Leliana’s character at first. She seemed nice enough, though, so when we were at the camp I’d be polite and talk to her, because that seemed like something I’d do. I teased her occasionally, but was understanding of her past. I listened when she was upset. I loved the stories that she told (and her accent), and was an interested and active audience. I told her that we shouldn’t lose faith in love, even if it seems unlikely, because I say sappy, cliche things like that sometimes. If there was an option to mention I was worried about the quest, I took it, and she was supportive and nonjudgmental. Later, I even chose the option to delay going to bed with her, and not only did she understand, but I got a bump in approval!

Before that happened, though, she joked with my Warden about the Warden being so quiet, but said she knew that the Warden was always there for her, anyway. She said she enjoyed the Warden’s company.

… and then one evening she confessed to my Warden that “You are our leader, and my friend, and… m-maybe… we could be more than that?”

Image result for massimo d'alema meme

Me??

I stared at the screen for a long time. I don’t think that moment would have been as profound if I hadn’t actively been trying to role-play as myself in the game. But here was someone who took virtual “me” and was attracted to her. Not because she needed something, like the crazy people who messaged me online. She saw the Warden’s insecurities, acknowledged she was quiet, and still thought she was worth noticing. It was so simple… she liked my Warden. She liked “me.” I often say that I “accidentally” romanced her, and maybe I did. It was unexpected… and unexpectedly nice, too.

After being in a bad relationship (in real life), going through a terribly dramatic break-up, being blocked and accused of harassment online, and being told all the things I was lacking, Leliana was the only “person” who quietly accepted me as a “romance option,” for want of a better term. She might not be real, but what is real is that she fulfilled an emotional need that was lacking in real life. But what does my little story have to do with dating sims?

Wanting Sim-body to Love

I used to think that the use of dating sims was mostly about gratuitous sex (and maybe some are). But after my experience with Leliana, I realized that it’s not always about finding something “gratuitous.” Like other connections we make in-game, be it to our avatar or to NPCs, we are fulfilling psychological or emotional needs.

Love Plus is a dating sim only released in Japan that lives up to the relationship-simulation role playing game mouthful of a genre. The player is basically presented with three women and needs to successfully court them/one of them. They each have different personalities and, I assume, respond to different characteristics in a potential mate. Sure, I could rail against it because the story is all about getting a character to fall in love with the playable character, but Mass Effect was accused of being a sex simulator, and have you played any of the Dragon Age games? Or The Witcher 3? Or even The Sims?

Image result for dragon age romances

Another dating sim, 3D Custom Girl, is one that could really grind my gears, as it sells peripherals to use with the game so you can… erm… experience physical closeness with your virtual girlfriend. But if you translate what the young woman says when you open the game and exit it, a slightly different picture is painted, at least in those moments.

When you open the game, she greets the player with excitement, saying she missed you. When you leave, she asks you not to go, tells you she’ll miss you, and says she’ll be waiting for you to return.

Yes, most of the game is dressing up the avatar and posing her in different ways, but the sentiment of having someone excited to see you, who seems genuinely upset when you leave, and who will always be there for you, can be a wonderful feeling for someone who feels alone.

Final Thought

People crave connections, and enjoy exploring the different ways they can interact with a potential mate, especially if they can “try on” different actions without fear of anyone (including themselves) getting hurt. They can learn more about themselves and what they like, they can indulge in forbidden desires, or they can just fool around and have a good time.

The important part of any virtual experience, or any lesson learned from a game or other media, is that those lessons are applied to real life. I’m grateful for my experience with Leliana in-game, but I’m more grateful for that moment when I felt “good enough” again. It gave me what I needed in that moment, and then I could take that and bring it into my real world. Perhaps it’s the same with dating sims. And if a little virtual love gives you the push you need to find love in the physical world, who am I to stand in the way?

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What do you think? Do dating sims have any redeeming value, or have I gone far afield in my assessment? Did you ever meet a character who gave you the support you needed at a time you needed it? Or should I stop with the feels and just play the game? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena

PS – Speaking of playing games, if you haven’t done so already, please take a moment to play the game I posted last week! It will really help me out with some upcoming posts!!


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24 thoughts on “The Power of Virtual Love

  1. One of the great things about a lot of modern games (RPGs and otherwise) is that they…man, I’m lacking the right words here…but it’s like, even though the games aren’t real, the feelings and emotions that they’re able to draw out of players *are.* And those feelings can certainly be heightened (or muted) depending on any one player’s state of life at the moment. I feel for your personal issues, but it’s awesome to hear how you came out on the better side of things, and with the help of Dragon Age! Sometimes we just need to engage in something that’s beyond ourselves in order to regain a sense of self.

    For myself, I’d use the example of GTA IV, which I never, ever thought would be a game for me. But I picked it up during a transition period in my life; one were I was learning to let go of the instabilities of my past and embrace the stability of adulthood. GTA IV allowed me to be absolutely fearless and reckless during a time when, in real life, I needed stay on the straight and narrow. And it really helped me compartmentalize and easily deal with a number of personal issue that plagued me at the time concerning self-worth, fear of success, and a number of other worries. In GTA IV I was free to be me, and the game was perfectly fine with that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Sometimes we just need to engage in something that’s beyond ourselves in order to regain a sense of self.” This is a beautiful sentiment, and is now on my list of favorite quotes. And thanks. The way I see it, almost any experience can be “worth it” if you learn and grow as a person because of it!

      I agree; sometimes a game (or other media) just hits a person at the right moment and can elicit a profound, life-altering change, or give us the freedom to live without hesitation in a “safe” environment, like your example with GTA IV. That’s wonderful that it helped you cope and work through some difficult issues.

      Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Happy late Valentine’s Day! 🙂 I enjoy reading this post. It’s very entertaining, insightful and heart- warming. I don’t know you in real life, but I feel as if I am reading a friend’s post. One of my friends said similar things after trying online dating. She felt inadequate and blamed herself when things go wrong when the truth is she is actually a beautiful, lovable person. So I can totally understand your experience. Please don’t be tough on yourself! My personal experience, however, is slightly different from yours. After I broke up with late boyfriend, it was difficult for me to want to date. I kept attracting bad boys. So I give up dating for now. 😊

    Speaking of virtual love, romance games for women are on the rise in Japan. I can’t think some of the titles on the top of my head. It’s actually very interesting how modern women are getting emotional needs through “fake” relationship. I haven’t tried those games on my phone yet. But I am very curious to learn about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy late Valentine’s Day to you, too! I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      Online dating, man. It’s an interesting time. Like any online interactions with the mass of humanity, it definitely takes a bit of a thick skin to survive, sometimes! 🙂 Sorry to hear your friend had the same experience. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with “doing you” for a while!

      That is interesting… I’m not an expert on Japanese society, but I think there’s a lot of changes in regards to gender expectations, and it’s putting a strain on the relationship expectations/viability, as well. If you do try out any of those games, let me know what you think about them!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think each person’s experience with game genres is different. I know that the majority of the way I view love and relationships comes from a combination of media (games, movies, TV, books), my faith, and seeing what people do wrong. I’ve learned quite a lot from what others do wrong… I see what doesn’t work and try a different approach.

    I can definitely see how a dating sim and video game relationships can help someone find themselves and learn what love is.

    What’s most important is that what you took from your experience. If playing games helped you to discover your worth in a relationship, then that’s all that matters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely; there is no substitute for learning either from real-life situations and/or a combination of sources. I mentioned in my comment to Cary that sometimes media just strikes someone at exactly the right moment, but that goes for *any* interaction, whether it’s a conversation, an observation of another person, or what-have-you. I’m with you in that I observe others and then strive to avoid the mistakes that they made, too.

      And thank you, I appreciate the solidarity. The story just seemed like an appropriate example of media profoundly changing a person’s view of themselves, the world, and their place in it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Based on your online dating experiences I find it hard to believe that 20% of current relationships started out via web interaction. Leliana was my love interest in Dragon Age too.

    Now that VR has taken off I expect to see more titles that provide “physical closeness” hehe.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great article! I can tell it came from the heart. I think dating sims are fun, even if they’re not real. I believe they fulfill a side in us that simply want to please others. They can indeed be harmful to those who get too obsessed with the characters or to those who believe that’s all people desire in a relationship. But for the most part, they’re fun and usually uplifting, especially when the bachelors/bachelorettes are super nice. I think characters in emotionally charged story-driven games speak to me the most, even if it’s not a dating sim, per se. Like through other media, it can be easy to form a connection with characters that identify with you or “speak to you.” While I can’t think of specific examples at the moment, I know that there are times where a character in a video game helps uplift me. They might not be talking to me, but I resonated with that character. Anyway, I hope you continue to find happiness in who you are despite what happens with all those crazy online people! Single or not, I can feel through your writing that you are a special person. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words 🙂

      Yes, I would agree that having characters express emotions through friendliness or other ways can certainly help build a relationship with the players! That’s an interesting comment you make about resonating with the characters, too. I think there are a lot of different aspects of characters and people that cause that sort of connection to happen. Thanks again for commenting, and again I appreciate your kindness! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. nice write up, I don’t know if I’d say I like dating sims, but I definitely like the games I normally play have a romance element in it. Whether your character may only have 1 romance available or many. When I first played Harvest Moon, this was the first I ever encountered such a thing, and it was with many partners. It was great, got married to one of the many ladies, farm business was booming and we had a baby.

    Fast forward many years later, games like FF8 introduced another romantic story to me between Squall and Rinoa which I loved, games like Mass Effect showed even more of this with not only the multiple partners, same sex, romances, along with hot steamy sex scenes. It became something I prefer having in games.

    Even now being happily married, I still like seeing these things in games. I may not need it to fill any emotional gaps, but being married and in love really helps me relate to love stories so much more, whether it’s games or movies. Recent example, the Witcher 3! I’m blown away by the dynamic between Geralt and Triss, and more touched by the things Triss does to help Geralt on his quest, which really spells out their love for each other. The same way I’ve found my perfect love, I want to help my character find theirs, it’s an amazing element because it makes me really care for all these characters and their eventual outcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely people can appreciate a good love story at any point in their lives, and I’m glad that you appreciate the love in games a little bit more because of your own relationship, and want to help them find happiness in their own stories, too! 🙂

      Like

  7. This has actually been well-studied, by certain segments of the internet. Waifus. Or husubandos, if you prefer. As opposed to physical partners, your waifus and husubandos are never judgmental or irretrievably flawed. Dating them is simple, you don’t have to put yourself at risk to get there, and there’s never any baggage or strings attached that you don’t want to deal with once you start. Their drama is always nice and easy to contain, and all their problems are things that you can help with and can be resolved quickly. They won’t hurt you, and they won’t make you face anything dark about yourself, and they’re never ever jerks except when it’s leading up to something. They are simple, and easy and safe.

    And you know, on the internet it’s easy to find examples of people taking this waaaaay to far, and getting obsessed with their fictional characters, but in moderation, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Feeling affection for and from something else is a window into loving yourself, after all. Even when none of it’s ‘real’. You know what? Especially when none of it’s ‘real’.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to pay Chibi-robo a visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that feeling affection for/from another person isn’t inherently bad or harmful, and maybe when you’re playing a game, you don’t want to really deal with all the not-as-great things that can happen in real relationships. (Although, unrelated, I know that a Warden can piss Leliana off to the point she leaves the party or she tries to kill the Warden, so that’s pretty dramatic haha).

      Any fantasy, even romantic ones, are great for exploring your feelings and personality, and I agree that they are also helpful for providing insight (and love) toward yourself. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      …and enjoy your visit 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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