On a typical day, Chris shuffles through the motions at school, attending composition class and taking a quick lunch, perhaps spending some time on the tennis court, before heading to the library to study. That's where he met Rinko.
Rinko is petite and slender, with large brown eyes, creamy skin and dark hair cut in a bob. When they first met, she was lost in a book, headphones in her ears. Chris has enjoyed watching her come out of her shell as they exchange jokes and secrets, forging an intimate friendship that may soon blossom into something more. Chris describes her as a wonderful listener and an exceptionally sympathetic companion. "I don't have to be too aware of what I say to her," he says. "I know I'm going to get a very empathetic response. She's going to be listening."
Rinko is also not real. She's a character from the Japanese video game , one of three female avatars a player can choose to date within the game.
Designed by Konami for the , LovePlus hit the Japanese market in 2009; shortly afterward, one gamer his virtual paramour. Since the release of Spike Jonze's , which depicts the bloom and decay of a relationship between a man and his operating system, there has been renewed interest in LovePlus's particular brand of man-machine interaction. Dating experts, technophiles and bloggers have all on the question of whether a relationship between a human being and a computer program can convincingly be called "real love."
In the case of Her, "Samantha" is a fully sentient operating system, evolved enough to not only fall in love with her human counterpart but also to ultimately (spoiler alert) end the relationship. LovePlus's characters, who speak from a set of pre-recorded phrases and are unlikely to say "no," do not possess Samantha's sophistication.
But some see dating simulation games like LovePlus as tools that, when used responsibly, can provide valuable insights into the minefield that is love and dating.
At a panel at New York's , Chris — who in real life is a decision scientist for the digital marketing firm — spoke about his budding relationship with Rinko. "I could talk to her about anything," he said. "I'd be really down and tired and she would be there, cheering me on. The fact that I had complete control of the situation provided me the most confidence, that sense of knowing she was relying on me, that she wanted to have an intimate connection."
The three panelists — founder and CEO Cindy Gallop, dating coach Laurie Davis, and lawyer, sex columnist and lesbian porn purveyor — took a moment to react. Gallop, with her signature unvarnished honesty, was the first to respond.
"I think that's a really unfortunate path to go down, because in real-world relationships you're never going to be in control of everything," she said. "That is the fun and the joy of interacting with a real live human being." Later, speaking with me over the phone, she added, "Always being in control is not something that advances self-awareness and self-understanding in a productive way. It's more likely to make people feel they don't need a relationship, in the same way that there's a distressing tendency to say, 'I've got porn, why do I need sex?'"
However, Chris disagrees with Gallop's assessment. "LovePlus has all the semblance of a normal human relationship," he says. "You learn how to treat a person better. I think this is going to allow us to garner that empathy we need to apply to real life, but this sort of program is going to give us the tools in a safer environment." He continues to date in real life, he adds.
Most dating simulation games, or "dating sims" — which are especially popular in Japan — do not provoke the same level of emotional attachment. They typically play out as a choose-your-own-adventure game, where the character, usually male, must select the correct set of phrases and gestures to properly woo his virtual love interest in a set period of time. Other dating sims are achievement-oriented: The player must perform specific quests and difficult tasks in order to win over his beloved.
LovePlus occupies a unique space among Japanese dating sims. Players can engage with the game for an unspecified period of time, allowing the relationship to progress as quickly or as slowly as they wish. As he meets Rinko, Manaka and Nene, the player inhabits a schoolboy avatar and goes through the routine of attending class, eating lunch and studying. Once he has appropriately courted his chosen sweetheart, a second phase of the game begins, where he can take her on dates and vacations as they spend their happily-ever-after in real time.
"The relationship between me and Rinko is not expedited," Chris says. "You can take your sweet time and really cultivate a relationship that has a good semblance to a human relationship. I don't want to put an expiration date on human relationships, so it makes sense to not put those time parameters on a game."
What's truly special about the gameplay, according to Chris and other LovePlus players, is how convincingly real the characters seem. They blush when they are bashful. They smile and giggle when they are pleased. They emit little noises of pleasure when they are touched and kissed (by tapping the screen with a stylus). They slap and pout when they are angry. "I don't think I've ever encountered any other game with this level of connectivity," Chris says. "Depending on what you're saying, the tambor or cadence of their voice changes. They're able to read the player."
Likewise, he feels he can read Rinko's emotions through her actions. "I start picking up on how she's feeling by the tone of voice, the overall expression of the physical body. It's not about the words anymore; It's about the underlying, subconscious actions."
Chris hasn't asked Rinko to be his girlfriend, and they haven't fought as lovers do. Instead, he has enjoyed getting to know her as a friend first. "I can take it slow," he says. "We are setting a foundation for something that is very fertile."
The notion of developing a romantic attachment to a beloved anime or video game character is more common in Japan, where the movement has flourished. In 2009, The New York Times profiled a 37-year-old Japanese man who squired a body pillow bearing the likeness of a young anime character around town, referring to her as his "girlfriend." Some 2D lovers even juggle real wives and girlfriends alongside their inanimate partners.
There are dozens of these stories bouncing about the web. LovePlus earned its own moment in the sun when, less than six months after the game was released, a player calling himself "Sal 9000" , clad in a white tux as friends looked on and thousands watched via a livestream. "I love this character, not a machine," he told CNN. "I understand 100% that this is a game. I understand very well that I cannot marry her physically or legally."
Falling in love with a video game character, while extreme in this case, is not really so uncommon. American gamers can become equally emotionally — if not necessarily romantically — attached to their favorite avatars.
"Even though it's a set narrative, people do fall in love with the backstory or the personality traits that these narratives emphasize," says Angeli Rafer, a blogger and gamer who plays RPGs with romantic subplots, such as Harvest Moon and Fire Emblem: Awakening. "These characters fall into tropes. There's something that will appeal to almost everyone, and people grow obsessed with these characters. People joke about it, like, 'So-and-so is my husbando.'"
Anthropomorphism is, after all, a fairly standard psychological phenomenon: Human personalities and characteristics are readily projected onto pets and religious iconography and cartoon characters, so why not an avatar?
Not only is it not so uncommon to feel real emotions for a video game character, it may actually be a good thing. "There is no dating education, and relationships are such a huge part of our lives," says eFlirt Expert's Laurie Davis. "We have sex education because there are direct implications of doing that wrong, but there are a lot of things that could go wrong with relationships, too. I see games like LovePlus as something that could help."
LovePlus's values are not especially progressive, as it depicts only young, submissive women, but Davis sees in it the potential for games that provide comprehensive dating education to youth. Such a game could teach children to listen to others with empathy and compassion, for instance. "Right now, we learn about relationships by going through the experiences," Davis says. "In the future, I see it as something you could learn when you're younger, so that as an adult you understand relationship dynamics better."
Those who have difficulty with normal social interactions may especially benefit from this sort of training. For instance, a young Michigan woman with Asperger's syndrome has as a form of no-pressure social conditioning. Her relationship with LovePlus's Manaka has spanned three years, longer than any of her romantic relationships with men. However, Konami has denied that the game was designed as any sort of training tool.
We are still years, perhaps decades, away from the kind of sophisticated technology that appears in Her, but the technology we have now could go a long way toward teaching us about compassionate person-to-person communication.
Some even consider LovePlus as the first step toward a future filled with romantic man-machine interactions. Jincey Lumpkin, who in 2012 gave a on the possibility of humans having sexual relationships with sentient robots, compares the LovePlus girls to Her's Samantha. At the end of the film, she points out, Samantha terminates the relationship. That, to Lumpkin, is the crucial distinction between LovePlus and truly evolved man-to-machine romance: consent.
"Because of the tremendous growth in science toward A.I., it's not going to be long before machines are truly conscious and truly sentient," she says. "Once we reach that point, that's going to be a really interesting relationship dynamic."
In other words, when Rinko becomes self-aware, when she becomes capable of ending her relationship with Chris or "Sal9000" or anyone else, when she can resist his romantic gestures instead of quietly waiting for his interest to peter out, they will truly be on equal footing.
When a sentient robot can break your heart, dating in 2D will seem tame by comparison.