My Sensual Journey into Japan's $90 Million Fake Anime Boyfriend Market
Since the 90s, Japanese women have been playing otome ("maiden") games, which allow the player to pursue virtual relationships with several virtual hunks. In the interest of journalism, I spent over $60 flirting with them.
Illustration by Katherine Killeffer
My boyfriend knew about all the other boyfriends I had acquired in the span of a month, but he was surprised to learn how much I had spent on them.
"Sixty dollars?" he asked, incredulously, after I relayed him the sum. While $60 may seem like a meager price tag for numerous flesh-and-blood consorts, my boyfriends in question were virtual. Very hungover on New Year's Day, lying on my stomach and trying to avoid anything involving physical movement, I had decided to look into the romance simulator mobile game genre, a Japanese export of burgeoning popularity.
It kind of spiraled out of control from there. As of publication, I am the proud owner of five dating sim apps and nine boyfriends. Their ranks include a sexually aggressive demon aristocrat, an emotionally withholding celestial deity, and a man with a fedora and a goatee who is unsettlingly referred to as my uncle (he is my least favorite).
This love story—between woman and modest stable of nearly identical cell phone apps—had a precursor. In point of fact, there might have been no $60+ receipt for the iTunes store had I not downloaded, that fateful New Year's Day, a certain initial anime boyfriend. He was a ninja warrior with silver hair from the game Shall we date? Ninja Assassin+. (I was, I suspect, also a ninja, but my character suffered from amnesia so it was hard to be sure.) The Shall we date? franchise requires the player to expend virtual energy in order to proceed; when the energy is depleted, one can either wait for it to regenerate or pay for more. As a deeply impatient person who was also bedridden for reasons of New Year's Day, I quickly tired of this model and began to hunt for something more satisfying. This is how I came across Voltage Inc., a leading romance game producer for iOS and Android. In Voltage games, you pay upfront for each story, all of which have numerous epilogues and sequels, which cost extra.
Within a few days, my professional interest had transformed into pseudo-ironic curiosity and then mutated into a legitimate obsession. "I'm writing an article about this," I told my friends and coworkers in hopes of reassuring them, but they quickly perceived that, like Jane Goodall among the chimpanzees, I had become too close to my subjects. "Callie, can you warn me before you send me a picture of a sensual anime character while I'm at work?" my sister Gchatted me sternly one day after receiving just that. At that point, I was inured to sensual anime characters. They were the static background against which I carried out my daily life; to behold a sensual anime character was a mundane act to me.
Sometimes, though, my anime boyfriends still managed to surprise me. One dreary day in February, I came back from a long weekend to an email from an unfamiliar address with the subject line: "Callie." The brevity made it seem harsh; upon first glance, I assumed it to have been sent by an Internet misogynist. In fact, it was from Scorpio, a character from the Voltage Inc. game Star-Crossed Myth. I had signed up to receive emails from him ("for research") and forgotten about it. "I can't believe I fell for a cheeky, stubborn, hard-headed girl like you. Woman, you really are a pain in the ass to deal with..." the email read (ellipsis his—he really is mysterious). "You're nothing but trouble, but... It looks like... I need you."
A few days later, I received a follow-up. "When I saw you clinging to me desperately in bed earlier, I thought, 'I'm so friggin' glad I didn't let her go,'" said Scorpio. He continued, "Callie, I love you. I'm going to love you until you can't take any more." I don't recall clinging to this invented man at any point in the game's progression; however, copy and pasting his amorous prose into a Word document literally made me start sweating.
Dating simulation games originated in Japan in the 1980s. The first type of dating sim to hit the market is known as bishoujo, which translates to "pretty girl." This description, while terse, is apt: Bishoujo games center on "interactions with attractive anime-style girls" and require the player to control a male protagonist as he attempts to win over said attractive anime-style girls.
It's easiest to think of a dating sim as a very loosely interactive choose-your-own-adventure game, the bulk of which is static text. Once in a while—about twice or three times per "chapter"—the player must choose between two behavioral or speech options: Will you comfort your attractive anime-style woman of choice when she seems upset, or will you pretend nothing's wrong? Will you ask about her family, or will you ask about her career? And so on. The choices the player makes will affect the game's ultimate outcome—and as Guan van Zoggel succinctly put it in his paper "Serious 'Techno-Intimacy': Perceiving Japanese Dating Simulation Video Games as Serious Games," the goal is to "eventually engage in a relationship or have sexual intercourse with one of female characters before the game ends."
I quickly came to find the virtual experience of blandly flirting with a variety of assorted hunks, all of whom are inexplicably obsessed with me, very absorbing.
About ten years after the first bishoujo game hit the market, a dating sim expressly marketed to straight women came out. Titled Angelique, it was the first romance-based interactive game to feature a female protagonist surrounded by attractive anime-style men—a genre that would be come to known as otome, or "maiden," games. In her essay "Falling in Love with History: Japanese Girls' Otome Sexuality and Queering Historical Imagination," Kazumi Hasegawa writes that the term otome "invokes the ideal of... femininity or virginity." To contemporary Japanese society, she notes, "otome sounds classic and outdated."
Angelique, which came out in 1994, was developed for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. According to Hyeshin Kim's essay "Women's Games in Japan: Gendered Identity and Narrative Construction," the game centered around "a blonde teenage girl... who is chosen as candidate for the next Queen of the universe." As potential universe regent, the player is given responsibility over nine male Guardians. "Although the initial goal is to become Queen," writes Kim, "the real objective lies in achieving romantic ends with any of the Nine Guardians." This is achieved through "increas[ing] the score on the affection meter of a Guardian by repeated conversation and dating."
Twenty years after Angelique's release, otome games have become a huge cultural force in Japan; while they've come to occupy a wide variety of genres, the basic idea of increasing an affection score through conversation or dating has remained the same. According to Kotaku, romance games are now so popular "that if you go to many game retailers in Japan you will find a shelf specifically dedicated to... 'games targeted at women.'" The rise of the smartphone has made dating simulators even more accessible to women—according to a 2014 report, over 22 million women worldwide play Voltage Inc. romance apps.
As with any cultural artifact beloved by young women, otome games have an active and vociferous fan base: Countless blogs around the world are devoted to the genre, replete with reviews and walkthroughs. Dawn, a 29-year-old woman living in Italy, maintains one of the most popular English-language otome game fan sites, Otome Otaku Girl. According to data she sent me, the site has received over 11 million visitors since she started it about four years ago. The bulk of those—about 5.3 million—come from America.
Dawn first came across the concept of otome games in a manga. A female character was playing one, she recalled, and the concept intrigued her. "I got curious about that game, especially since you could date a guy and change the outcome of the story," she said over email. "I searched in the Google Play Store for such a game and was rather surprised that there seemed to be a lot of them available in English."
At that time, Dawn said, Voltage Inc. had only released "four games with about three to four characters each." Now, according to a company fact sheet provided to Broadly, Voltage has 84 different romance apps, more than 40 of which are currently available in the US. In 2012, the company opened a subsidiary in San Francisco, Voltage Entertainment USA, Inc., and their presence in America has grown since then. Two of their games—Kissed by the Baddest Bidder and Star-Crossed Myth—were among the top 30 highest-grossing smart phone apps in America as of November 2015. Last year, Voltage's global sales exceeded ten billion yen, or almost $90 million. According to a survey Dawn conducted of her readers, it's currently the best-liked romance game company in existence.
I asked Yuka Gray, a press representative for Voltage, what makes a good romance game. She listed two main characteristics: that the "user can feel sympathy" for the story and it provides "heart-racing moments for all women." The traditional dating sim is fairly formulaic in terms of structure. Generally, the female main character (MC) is flustered and virginal, naïve and self-effacing to the point of self-annihilation, while the male characters conform to personality archetypes that are more aggressive and active.
For Dawn, the MC's personality is the least enjoyable part of playing otome games. "In a lot of the games, she is shy, clumsy, romantically inexperienced, likes to eat a lot, and works herself to the bone," Dawn said. "Sometimes it really bothers me that she seems to not be able to look after herself and puts everyone and everything before herself. That certainly is not a good example for the younger audience." On the website Women Write About Comics, Cathryn Sinjin-Starr characterized the female protagonist of otome games in similar terms: "Our leading lady is, invariably, most or all of the following: helpless, clumsy, childish, easily flustered, and sexually reserved," she noted. "She is generally that fabled innocent virgin with a heart of gold and a face of vermillion from all the sexually-suggestive hijinks she lands in." (Both acknowledged that this tendency is changing, though; several newer games feature more assertive and rounded MCs, and some give the player the option of choosing a female love interest.)
The user who has a boyfriend plays our app to fill in the unsatisfied part of her boyfriend. Playing the app makes her happy and it helps to prevent fights with her boyfriend.
The plot of 10 Days with My Devil, for example, follows a main character who has somehow convinced a house full of very handsome demons to give her ten days to finish her mundane business before shoving her off this mortal coil. While the plot is obviously improbable—even the most amateur demonologist knows that fell deities are not easily moved by human whims—I found myself most skeptical about the fact that the MC never even considers sleeping with all, or at least most, of the hell-princes as a kind of last hurrah.
The male characters are as constant as the MC, across both companies and genres. "In otome games, most games will start with just three characters," Sinjin-Starr told me over email. "And they are, 90 percent of the time, the same three types: The Pretentious One, The Womanizer, and The Broody Loner." As games become more popular, developers will add additional characters as well. Sinjin-Starr says these additional personality types typically include the "Big Brother," the "Blushing Paladin (strong protector, but a flustering mess when subjected to flirting)," the "Older Man," and a very bad one she calls "Two-Face McRapey."
"Generally, this character puts on a harmless front to the greater world, but is really a monster and tries to turn the main player into his plaything," she explained, adding that she'll stop playing a game immediately if she sees this archetype included. "But it's worrying how often this type of character pops up in otome games."
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When I asked Gray which character types tend to perform best, she told me that the "sadistic but charismatic" archetype is beloved in both Japan and the US. She pointed to Eisuke Ichinomiya, which she says is the most popular character in Kissed by the Baddest Bidder, Voltage's top-grossing game in the US. In most dating sims, the player chooses which story they'd like to play by perusing a character menu rife with alluring boyfriend options; in Voltage games, each character has his own profile page featuring a brief personality synopsis and occasionally a quote describing his hypothetical relationship with the player. On Eisuke's character profile, he is billed in glittering pink and purple script as a "cold-hearted narcissist." His quote is "I'm going to make you mine. And you don't get to say no."
Of course, this isn't unique to Voltage, nor is it even confined to dating simulation games. As anyone who lived through the year 2005 can attest, "I'm going to make you mine. And you don't get to say no" is basically the central narrative of Twilight, an omnipresent cultural phenomenon that went onto influence the Fifty Shades of Grey series, an equally omnipresent cultural phenomenon with the exact same plot. "In real life, most women tend to avoid choosing [this type of person] as a boyfriend or husband," Gray said. In romance apps, however, women can't get enough of it. "Usually [this character is] sadistic and mean to you, but sometimes, when you and him are alone, he becomes so sweet and very kind to you," Gray explained.
Like Voltage's millions of other customers worldwide, I quickly came to find the virtual experience of blandly flirting with a variety of assorted hunks, all of whom are inexplicably obsessed with me, very absorbing. Also like Voltage's millions of other customers worldwide, I was really only interested in the mean and sadistic gentlemen—which is weird, because I actively avoid mean and sadistic men in real life.
Here it is instructive to mention Scorpio, my favorite fake boyfriend. Per his character description, he is "A God of Unparalleled Callousness." His quote is, "I live for terror, dread, and hate..." (Ellipses, again, his.) Scorpio is a star god who was banished to earth after committing a grave sin; we first meet when I fall off the roof of a planetarium and he very begrudgingly rescues me. I later learn that, before ascending to the heavens, he was a child soldier who was brainwashed by a nefarious terrorist, which explains why he is so moody now. He exclusively refers to me as "woman" and "stupid woman."
The allure of the unkind man in fiction is well-documented; in Reading the Romance, Janice Radway's landmark 1984 study of the way women interact with romance novels, Radway details her interviews with numerous fans of the genre. Reviewing the plots of books that were designated as "ideal," she notices a striking similarity in their narrative structures: These romances tend to be "very tightly organized around the evolving relationship" between the female protagonist and a "brooding, handsome man who is also curiously capable of soft, gentle gestures."
The climax of these narratives necessarily involves a moment in which "the hero treats the heroine to some supreme act of tenderness, and she realizes that his apparent emotional indifference was only the mark of his hesitancy about revealing the extent of his love for and dependence upon her." This is also true of otome games—even the gentle male characters tend to have some sort of "hidden darkness," often in the form of an evil alter ego, to facilitate this moment of shocking tenderness. (Mine and Scorpio's tender climax occurs after a run-in with a small militia composed of child soldiers—an unfortunately recurring theme in Scorpio's life—at which point he starts calling me by my actual name and we confess our love for each other. If you pay an additional $4.99 for the sequel story, which I obviously did, you get to fuck him.)
The majority of women Radway interviewed said that they read romance novels as a form of escape. "We can dream," one of the women told her, "and pretend that is our life." Several others said that they enjoyed identifying with the heroine. Both the reader and the female protagonist experience confusion, as the love interest's behavior "vacillates from indifference, occasional brusqueness, and even cruelty to tenderness and passion." At the moment of supreme tenderness, both reader and protagonist engage in an act of reinterpretation, "whereby she suddenly and clearly sees that the behavior she feared was actually the product of deeply felt passion... Once she learns to reread his past behavior and thus to excuse him for the suffering he has caused her, she is free to respond warmly to his occasional acts of tenderness."
In dating sims, the reader doesn't merely identify with the female protagonist—she inhabits her. Instead of merely reinterpreting the male character's cruel behavior, she feels as though she has some stake in having changed it. Dawn told me that what draws her most to otome games is the "illusion" of determining the story's outcome. "Of course, I know that everything was already decided before, but being able to choose between different answers makes it more 'real,' I guess," she said. "It's like when you read a good book and you get really absorbed in the story... I guess being able to have some kind of free will inside a fixed story makes that illusion even more real."
Unsurprisingly, serious otome fans tend to effuse about their virtual boyfriends as though they're actually dating them. In a review on the iTunes store for Star-Crossed Myth, for example, one user wrote that she had fallen "wholeheartedly, head over heels in love" with Scorpio, which is funny, because he literally told me that I was his and his alone several times. In another, titled "So in love!!" another player wrote that she had completed both Leo ("A God at the Head of the Pantheon of Gods") and Scorpio's stories. "I am so in love with both of them!" she said. "The only thing that makes me sad is the fact that after I stop playing I realize it isn't real and I'm practically in love with an animation, and it doesn't help that they're all hot."
Gray insisted that most of Voltage's users "think that their real life and romance in our apps are totally different." However, in the same response, she acknowledged that an elision between fantasy and reality does often take place. "The user who has a boyfriend plays our app to fill in the unsatisfied part of her boyfriend. Playing the app makes her happy and it helps to prevent fights with her boyfriend," Gray told me. "On the other hand, the user who doesn't have a boyfriend plays our apps when she wants to avoid her loneliness or just wants to feel happiness."