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Redefining romance for the virtual age

December 2, 2022 – When a young man falls in love with a 300-year-old cyborg in the 2019 sci-fi film Alita: battle angelthey share the following exchange:

“Do you mind,” the cyborg (Alita) asks, “that I’m not fully human?”

“You are the most human person I have ever met,” replies the young man (Hugo).

The cinema is filled with examples like this, of humans getting along with non-humans. See also the 2013 film Hisin which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a virtual assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and the 2014 sci-fi film Ex-Machinawhere a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) gets close to an AI robot that looks like a beautiful woman (Alicia Vikander).

But for many, the concept goes beyond the big screen. In Japan, an entire subculture is devoted to romantic video games (RVGs), where gamers flirt with a computer generated person and develop a relationship that some players describe as genuine. RVGs are played around the world but are especially popular among Japanese women (although there are several games for men as well).

Weird? Maybe even unhealthy? No doubt many people would agree. But psychologist Mayu Koike, PhD, takes a different view. She and her colleagues at Hiroshima University are studying whether such “virtual romantic relationships” could improve psychological well-being or even help people cope with the stresses of real-world romance. So far, the answer to both questions is a tentative yes.

“People want to love and be loved, desires that can now potentially be fulfilled by virtual agents,” says Koike, who hopes “to cultivate a new field called ‘romantic anthropomorphism,’ bridging the gap between anthropomorphism and the science of relationships”.

Anthropomorphism — or placing human traits on nonhuman beings — isn’t new to psychology, but Koike aims to apply the concept to help us understand “virtual romance,” a loving relationship between a human and a partner. virtual.

Generally speaking, says Koike, his studies have shown that if a person feels a connection with a “virtual agent,” their mood improves — what psychologists call “positive affect.”

“People think playing RVGs can improve their social skills,” Koike says, “and our ongoing study also shows that gamers want to practice a romantic relationship with a virtual agent before engaging in human-to-human relationships.”

His last article, “Virtually in Love: The Role of Anthropomorphism in Virtual Love Relationships”, published in the British Journal of Social Psychologydescribes three experiments examining the effects of “anthropomorphizing” the virtual partner.

The results were mixed. When a player anthropomorphized the agent, the relationship felt more authentic. They also felt better and were more likely to want a real relationship with the agent. But in a final experiment in which 104 female gamers subsequently met attractive male actors, there was no correlation between how the women viewed their virtual relationship and how they interacted with the male actors.

Still, this mood boost is reason enough to study the process, because “it has strong potential to improve our relationships in the real world,” Koike says. This type of research “could help reduce loneliness and improve well-being”.

Her recent article builds on her 2020 study in the journal PLOS A titled “What Factors Make People Play Romantic Video Games?” Among these factors is a human voice and even touch, which is simulated (rated G) in some games using, for example, a Wii controller to stroke someone’s hair or a balance board to massage.

As technology develops and the quality of virtual agents improves, the potential for virtual romance will also increase, Koike notes. Such relationships could help satisfy the human need to love and be loved, or even serve as a “practice tool for someone who is anxious about dating someone.”

“We should continue to examine how these relationships with virtual agents may affect relationships in the modern world,” she says.

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