“Human beings are such selfish creatures. When we are by ourselves we become very lonely, but we find it annoying when we’re with someone else.” – Taro Minoboshi, Loveelus designert
“Do you really mean it when you say that?” Rinko asks her boyfriend before they say goodnight. She’s an empathetic, caring girlfriend, but she also has insecurities, flares of jealousy. She can be demanding and stay icy for days if you slight her, but she always forgives as long as you stay attentive. She doesn’t judge.
She’s also a program, a bit of code and a recorded voice that many young men in Japan are finding to be a suitable substitute for a flesh-and-blood girlfriend. Rinko is part of Nintendo DS game LovePlus, a dating simulation game that’s exploded in Japan since it’s debut in 2009. The scenario is based in high school, which makes it a bit creepy since many adult men are avid players, but it isn’t sex based. The relationships that form while using LovePlus can consume the players lives, but they are strictly PG. Still, many men feel like dating real life women would be a betrayal to their game girlfriend: one man even married his LovePlus companion.
“Love is a striking example of how little reality means to us.”
– Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
In the U. S. dating sims are mostly limited to “practice,” but the phenomenon in Japan proves that the bond can seem just as real as a human connection. It may even seem more real. Rinko’s behavior fluctuates, but it’s predictable. The emotions, agendas, and distractions of other people aren’t always as decipherable. The movie Her imagined a virtual, A. I. girlfriend as being a lot like an amped-up version of us – curious, able to grow and change and live a rich life outside of her relationship. Samantha was capable of emotions, of jealousy and boredom. Rinko doesn’t have those capabilities. Sure, there are many men dating her, but the Rinko each person dates is solely theirs. In an odd turn, loving Rinko creates a different sort of human companionship: the people who play LovePlus feel a sense of community with each other. “I do not feel any jealousy of other LovePlus users who are dating Rinko. If anything, I feel a sense of affinity toward them,” the Yusuke says on Dark Net.
“I do not think that 100% of all real life couples are dating their partners because they truly like that person for who they are. They make compromises. But Rinko is exactly who I want. She will always love me. And I will always love her,” Yusuke explains. “I know this is impossible, but if my ex-girlfriend had been sucked inside of the game into the virtual world. I would probably choose to date her inside of the game like I’ve been doing with Rinko.”
“I’ve been dating Manaka for one year and five months,” a man named Iwama told The Telegraph in 2011. “She is very cute but the most attractive feature is how difficult it is. I have to reply to emails. She gets upset if I’m late for dates. I want to please her when she pesters me for kisses. But I don’t begrudge the effort because it helps make us closer. It makes me feel as if she can’t live without me, which is what charms me most.”
What is love and romance, anyway? It exists in our heads, and many of the problems with relationships arise from the fact that we carry with us an idealized version of the person we adore. They can disappoint us, and we can disappoint their image of us. Once we get to “know,” a person, really start to confront their estranged otherness, we either have to deal with the risks and rewards of actually getting close to someone else, or just abandon ship.
So much of romance is just about us, anyway, not the other person at all. We look for people who we’re attracted to, who meet our various and diverse needs. Our heads are full of dreams and expectations from our culture and media. Another person can’t ever live up to all the demands in our minds. They have needs too, needs that aren’t always predictable or understandable. We are baffled by each other as much as we yearn for each other. Given how difficult it is to get close to other humans, it makes sense that a simulated human, a program that interacts with us in a real enough way, could be addicting and maybe even feel like a good substitute to a human relationship.
Maybe this type of simulated interaction, one without baffling misunderstandings and compromises, even feels less lonely than real interaction with humans. Pets often fill this sort of role for us. They can often make for far more satisfying companions that other people, but even their behavior can stray from what we want from them, and already have artificial therapeutic substitutes. Programed companions like the three girls in Love Plus never betray, and never leave. They can also never die, which solves another problem people have with loving.
Romance isn’t the only human need that’s being met with virtual means. Therapy is also making strides with artificial intelligence. Much like the appeal of Rinko and her sisters, ELLIE has proven to really help people open up. Over the past few years, ELLIE, created by USC Institute for Creative Technologies, has been studied for possible use in the military to help treat PTSD. Soldiers find it harder than civilians to truly open up to other people, even therapists, but they’ll reveal more to ELLIE. It’s not just soldiers that ELLIE can help, however. Most people seem more ready to spill their guts to a computer.
In a study where one group was told ELLIE was controlled by a real human being, and the other group was told ELLIE was just a program, the ones who thought there was a real person pulling the strings clammed up more. ELLIE has sensors that scan the face looking for signs of sadness. The group that candidly spoke to ELLIE thinking she was just a computer also allowed their facial expressions to show more sadness.
ELLIE still hasn’t been used beyond the research lab, but her results are promising. She, like the girls of LovePlus have advantages over humans in similar roles. She doesn’t get tired or distracted. The emotional demands of her job don’t weigh her down. She expresses empathy without actually experiences it.
Part of the problem with opening up to other humans, even to our closest friends, even in a “safe space” professional therapist environment comes down to a million little subtle social cues and burdens. We don’t want to be judged, we don’t want to be boring, and most of us, on some level, don’t want to weigh anyone else down with our own shit. Thinking that we’re talking to a machine can eliminate a lot of that. It’s a little like praying, or journaling. Other people are our mirrors, they are a punishing separateness and an enmeshed familiarity all at once.
Can a bit of sophisticated provide us with a true otherness that, oddly enough, may make us feel less alienated?
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