Having a crush on a fictional character isn’t completely new. Throughout the 21st century, people across the world have developed love interests with their favorite fictional characters. Perhaps not to the extent of fans within Japan’s romance video game subculture, though. In Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to prefer to date fictional and virtual characters, as opposed to real-life ones.
But with the popularity of virtual intimacy rising, there have been growing concerns that people are substituting their real-life relationships for unnatural, virtual ones.
Psychologist Mayu Koike, from Hiroshima University, is interested in the psychological and environmental factors that lead people in droves to virtual relationships in Japan, and more broadly across the world.
“I think people are worried about the impression from society when they have online/virtual relationships. People generally believe that real-world relationships are more authentic. However, finding the right person and building a good relationship in the real world is tough. In many cases, relationships are formed by people who live closer to each other, and we cannot control the environments we live in,” says Koike.
Koike pioneered a new field of research – romantic anthropomorphism, or giving a non-human agent human-like characteristics in a romantic context. It’s challenging assumptions about the authenticity of virtual relationships and explores how these new environments are reshaping our social lives.
“In Japan, Sal, a man from Tokyo, got married and he seems very happy with his virtual romantic partner. I think it is important to understand whoever makes you feel happy and whoever is comfortable to stay with you, rather than just to completely ignore virtual relationships,” says Koike.
Koike thinks it’s natural to feel worried about broad changes happening in our social landscape, especially since we are living in an era where people constantly adapt to new technologies. And generations of people have openly adopted new technologies, like social media, that have drastically altered how we interact with one another.
Specifically, Koike’s research used romantic video games (RVGs) to examine how romantic anthropomorphism could predict if an individual's connection and relationship with a virtual agent was genuine.
“Our study revealed that romantic anthropomorphism of a virtual agent predicted desire for a real-world relationship with the virtual agent and greater positive affect via feeling that the relationship built with the virtual agent was authentic,” says Koike.
“I think authentic relationships are growing wider and players are likely to desire a real relationship with a virtual agent because their virtual romance felt authentic. People want to love and be loved, desires which can be potentially fulfilled by virtual agents,” she adds.
From the perspective of Koike’s research, the scope for what we generally define as an authentic relationship is expanding to include virtually intimate relationships.
The growth of virtual technology and online environments has facilitated this new landscape for relationships to take place. Koike believes that certain global events have also pushed people to seek out new places to find intimacy.
The COVID-19 global pandemic dramatically altered people’s lifestyles. Lockdowns, closed restaurants and bars and bans on public gatherings sheltered people from the world and their relationships. This all caused people to increasingly search for connection in the virtual world. Loneliness has been a serious problem across the developed world, and it has worsened from the pandemic. In this way, virtual environments fulfill a need for people to socialize.
Koike found that players of RVGs generally desired to develop social skills through these games. They also played them to alleviate negative emotions, reduce their loneliness, and increase their well-being. While enjoying their relationship with their virtual partner, people found tangible benefits to their psychological health.
Individuals who suffer from social anxiety, but want to connect with others, are also using RVGs to familiarize themselves with social environments. This helps them to connect with people within the virtual world, but also the real world.
“In Japan, the phenomenon of developing romantic feelings and strong attachment towards a character is sufficiently common that it has its own label (Moe, 萌え). Importantly, this emotion is frequently experienced with comics, animated characters and video games. This points to the scope of romantic anthropomorphism extending well-beyond video games and into other domains containing virtual agents,” says Koike.
The emotion Moe is a Japanese cultural artifact and points to a capacity that all humans have: to experience affection, intimacy and even love towards fictional characters.