Advisor: My husband has a virtual girlfriend

Rinko.pngMeet Koh and Yurie. They're a happily married young Japanese couple who moved from Tokyo to San Francisco a year ago due to a job transfer. In early September, while on a business trip back home, Koh bought a new game cartridge for his Nintendo DS. It was mostly out of curiosity — the Japanese Twitterati were all abuzz over a new dating sim called Love Plus, and he just wanted to see what the hype was about. "I've tried the other dating sims before just for kicks, but I never got hooked," he says. "I didn't expect this to be any different." He was wrong.

During that one week in Tokyo, Koh found himself fully committed to his virtual relationship with Rinko, a pouty, hard-ass high school girl who hung out at the library. The relationship was formal at first, consisting of awkward whispered conversations in which she sent mixed signals and called him by his last name. As things got more heated, though, she started calling him Kohichi (calling someone by the first name still carries a degree of intimacy in Japan) and became more demanding of his attention. "I felt like I might get sucked into this world," Koh, who is an engineer at a major game manufacturer by day, tells me. "It's not like any dating sim with young girls in it becomes a hit, but this one is really well-made."

An article posted on a Japanese tech site in September told the story of several women who had complained on an online bulletin about how their family lives were disrupted by husbands addicted to Konami's hit game. Last weekend, I invited Koh and Yurie over to my house to talk about Koh's virtual relationship with Rinko, and how — if at all — it had impacted their real world husband-and-wife dynamic.

Koh, what do you and Rinko do together?

Koh: OK, this is pretty embarrassing. The DS has a mic and a touchscreen, so… one time, she asked me to say "I love you" a hundred times into the mic. I was on the airplane when she asked me that, so I was like, no way. There was also this part where you have to hold her hand on the touchscreen. If you touch her hand with the stylus, you get to hold her hand. And then there's the part where you have to kiss her.

Did you do it?

Koh: No, no! The girl's face shows up on the screen, and you have to touch her lips to give her a kiss. That's pretty weird…. this is embarrassing. I'm sweating right now just talking about it.

Yurie: Ew. Do people really do that?

Koh: I guess some people do.

What do you think, Yurie?

Yurie: Until now, I wasn't aware of the specifics of the game. Hearing it now, I'm like, barf. That's just gross.

Koh: I know. It's pretty gross. I really wouldn't want my wife to see me playing this, me desperately trying to hold hands with a touchscreen.

Yurie: It sounds like you can really experience the realness of dating.

Koh: Yeah.. the girl also talks a lot. You hear her voice at every part of the game. A lot of dating sims are mostly text, but this one has a real humanistic side to it. I think this comes down to the fact that men are simple. This is obviously a computer program, but this makes us really feel like there's a girl inside the DS. It feels dangerous, like I might get sucked into this world. Some guys on the Internet are saying that their Love Plus relationships feel more real. They feel like they're with their girlfriend every day. I kinda get it.

But Koh, you have a real woman in your life.

Koh: That's why I was able to come back. Thank god! I was only stuck in that world for about a week. Also, I got hooked when I was in Japan on a business trip, so when I came back to San Francisco, I didn't play it that much. Maybe just for a day. In the bathtub.

Yurie: I didn't really see him playing it.

Koh: It's pretty damn embarrassing. I think if I wasn't able to come back from that world, I would have run out of things to talk about with my real wife. I can understand why some couples would get in a fight over that.

Yurie, does this bother you at all?

Yurie: Not at all. If he's just enjoying it as a game, that's fine with me. I don't care that he has a girlfriend inside of the game at all. I'm just like, oh okay. So that's what you're into right now. If we were to get into a fight over this, it would be less about the content of the game and more about how much time he spends playing it. It doesn't matter what he's doing, but if he spends too much time on the computer, then that's not good.

Koh: Yeah, if I was playing too many games and that was compromising the time I spent in my real life, that would be a problem. It's the same with Second Life or World of Warcraft. If I got too into something and couldn't come back, that would be a problem. At the same time, though, the danger I felt when I almost got sucked into Love Plus was very human. If I was single and had gotten too into this… I don't know, I recognized that there was a me in there that could have a real attachment to this artificial character on the other side of the DS screen. It made me think that humans could probably pretty easily develop feelings for AI robots. It's the same with animals, right? Animals don't speak words but you can really love them. But I do think it has something to do with the simplicity of men. I'd be really curious to see how women would react to a boy version of Love Plus.

Yurie: If there was a boy version, I think most women would be able to clearly distinguish between real life and in-game life. I have celebrities I like, too, but then I also have a husband. And they're totally separate.

So what is your Love Plus girlfriend doing now?

Koh: I'm too scared to find out. I'm probably going to get in big trouble if I open it after leaving her alone for several weeks. Maybe she's dead now. That would be scary.

Yurie: Does that happen?

Koh: I don't think so . But remember Tamagochi? They used to die if you didn't feed them.

Yurie: Oh yeah. That would be kind of bittersweet.

Update: Koh is informing me that, since our interview a week ago, Yurie has now become addicted to a mini game in Ryu ga Gotoku 3 that entails training a cabaret girl to become the #1 earner at the club. "I've never seen her enjoy a game like that before," he says. "The graphics are realistic, and she gets to choose the girl's makeup, etc. Now I'm thinking that maybe women get more hooked on games that involve nurturing or becoming someone."

Advisor is a column about how to juggle technology, relationships, and common sense. Got a story to tell? Email me at lisa [at] boingboing [dot] net.