Happy Valentine’s Day!
…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?
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?
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.
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).
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.
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:
And I met this bard:
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?”
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?
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.
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?
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!
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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