I recently met a young woman named Wild Rose on an online chat forum. We struck up a conversation and within the first five minutes, Wild Rose – who is married, has a daughter, and lives in Texas with her in-laws – started telling me about her lover, a man called Saeran.
Saeran, she told me, is the illegitimate son of a politician who had grown up with an abusive mother. He is handsome, has white blond hair, golden eyes, a large tattoo on his shoulder. Wild Rose said that when she first met him, her “heart literally ached” and her cheeks “flooded with blood”.
She then paused and added: “But I don’t think Saeran loves me the way I love him. I love him genuinely. I’ll never know his true feelings.”
The reason: Saeran isn’t human. He is a character in a mobile phone game called Mystic Messenger, which was released two years ago by Cheritz, a South Korean game developer. It has since been downloaded by millions of people worldwide. The game is a mix between a romance novel and Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her, in which a man develops a relationship with a Siri-like character.
The primary aim of Mystic Messenger is to pursue a romantic relationship with one of a number of characters in the game, one of whom is Saeran. To cultivate intimacy with these virtual beings, you talk to them via a text message. The responses are pre-scripted, but feel dynamic and sincere. Winning the game is not about scoring points or beating a final boss; it is about reaching a “good ending” where you and your virtual lover live happily ever after.
The idea of simulating romantic relationships through gaming is not unique to Mystic Messenger. This genre of game – often referred to as dating simulations or dating sims for short – emerged in the 1980s in Japan, where they were popular with a predominantly male audience. But since the rise of mobile and online gaming, dating sims have becomepopular outside Japan and with more diverse demographics.
In the past year, there has been a bumper crop of hit dating sims, including Love and Producer, Dream Daddy and Doki Doki Literature Club. Unlike earlier generations of dating sims, where the action centered on erotic interactions with virtual girls, these games foreground conversations between players and characters, and often have nuanced and well-developed scripts. Mystic Messenger is one of the most popular of this new generation dating sim.
Since dating sims first came out, they have been controversial. In Japan, many critics saw the rise of dating sims as a signifier of alienation, a retreat from human relationships in a machine-mediated society. And as the popularity of dating sims develops once again, similar concerns are resurfacing. But the growing community of people who play dating sims are mostly impervious to this disapproval. The most dedicated romantic gamers do not see their interactions with virtual characters as a substitute for human companionship, but as a new type of digital intimacy.
As well as spending hours playing dating sims, fans chat with each other on online forums about their favorite characters and the contours of their virtual relationships. It was on one of these forums that I met Wild Rose. I had joined hoping to get a better understanding of why people play these games and whether the relationships they form with virtual characters possibly foreshadow a future in which the boundaries between real and virtual companionship will become increasingly blurry, if not irrelevant.
When I first asked Wild Rose to explain how and why she fell in love with Saeran, she told me that if I had any hope of understanding, I had to first enter the world of Mystic Messenger and experience it for myself.