Earth & Conservation

What It's Like to Date a Video Game Character

Japanese otome games give women the chance to meet the perfect boyfriend. The only catch is that he lives on their phone.

What if you could have the perfect boyfriend at the touch of a button? With Japan's otome games you can... as long as you're okay with him being virtual.

Otome is a dating simulation game that is essentially a modern romance novel targeted towards women. Simulation games became popular in Japan in the 80's but the first one targeted towards women, called Angelique, was released in 1994 for Super Nintendo. The success of Angelique made it obvious to the industry that games for women should focus on romance.

Today, otome games are a normal part of Japanese culture. Seeker spoke to Lena, Area Manager for the Japanese gaming company Cybird, who explained that they try to make the romance in their games feel as real as possible.

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"What sets otome games apart is definitely the amount of reality that we bring to all of our games. You really do feel like you're falling in love with somebody. You also feel like 'this really could happen to me sometime,' even if it's outside of this virtual world," she told Seeker.

Otome creators work hard at making the romance seem real. The stories often involve complex plotlines written by talented, mostly female writers, who get very creative in their process. In one of Cybird's most successful games, 100 Day Princess, you play a princess that takes over a magical kingdom and you must choose your prince from nine attractive male suitors. After you select your guy, you fall in love and throughout the game you figure out if your romance will last.

Creating such intricate plots for otome games has worked out well for Japan's mobile gaming industry. Mobile games make up $6 billion of Japan's total gaming market, which is fueled by otome.

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Romance games are wildly popular in Japan, but it's taken much longer for them to spread to the west. On top of the fact that dating simulators are not very common in the U.S., many otome games have Japanese cultural references that are lost on westerners.

However, in recent years several of these romance games have found a way to break through that cultural barrier, helping otome spread to the U.S. and beyond. Cybird released Midnight Cinderella two years ago and they've since had 1.3 million downloads.

According to academic Hyeshin Kim, who wrote about otome in her paper "Women's Games in Japan: Gendered Identity and Narrative Construction," otome games were originally developed for teen girls in Japan. To the surprise of many, they became most popular with women in their twenties. Developers and writers decided to change the dating scenarios to take place in more adult situations in order to better suit their primary audience.

Ayaka Ikeda is one of the young women who plays a lot of otome games. She's in love with Cain from 100 Days Princess and she says she feels as if she's really in love with him. "I feel in love. It's really the same as being in love with him! I'm like "OMG!!" she told Seeker.

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But for Akaya, the romance ends with the game. She's not looking for her real-life Cain. "It's a romance within that time period which is probably why I like it. Even if there was a similar person in real life, I don't think that I'd like him. No. I don't think so," she said.
Even with otome games slowly creeping into western culture, will they ever be as common as they are in Japan? Cybird's Lena says yes.

"I personally feel that this is just an evolution of the romance novel genre. I think as people are shifting away from reading and not buying books, they're spending a lot more of their leisure time on their phones or on tablets and that's where they get their romantic satisfaction from."

-- Molly Fosco