After being saved from kidnapping, you discover you are the daughter of the prime minister and your life is in imminent danger. You are introduced to a handful of handsome bodyguards and must decide who you want to protect you 24 hours a day.
That is the scenario for one of several role-playing “love games” currently popular in Japan, which allow women to safely spend time with their choice of Mr Right without having to deal with a live person — even as marriage rates in Japan fall.
“In the game, you’re the lone woman and the attention of all the guys is on you,” a 37-year-old office worker who uses the alias han-kura wrote on a blog dedicated to the games.
The role-playing games are based on characters typical of Japanese manga comics, with all the men slender and elegant. The player becomes the heroine and chooses an ideal mate from several “knight-in-shining-armor” characters, developing a relationship through the choices they make in the storyline.
The games, which can be played on smartphones, are especially popular with working single women in their 30s who feel they do not have the time or energy for a real relationship due to their demanding work schedule, said Kana Shimada, a novelist who writes about modern women and relationships.
“It may be virtual, but if it’s ‘a boyfriend from a game,’ then you can enjoy it whenever you want,” Shimada said. “The games that make you feel the ups and downs of a real relationship have all the elements to get women hooked.”
The video game industry has always had a strong male following, but it seems to have found a way to finally capitalize on female users. The sector of love simulation games grew by 30.4 percent with ￥14.6 billion (US$177.3 million) in sales last year, the Yano Research Institute said.
The games come in several episodes, each costing about ￥500.
The growth of smartphones has had a hand in this popularity due to their portability and privacy, said Nozomi Wada, an editor at the AppBank, an app review Web site.
“The biggest reason for its popularity is that users like myself can play it secretly in the palm of our hands without other people noticing it,” han-kura said.
About 10 makers continuously roll out new versions with additional characters and storylines for their popular titles. The difference between a hit and a bust is how deeply the player can immerse themselves in the game, Wada said.
“If it’s a fantasy theme, then it has to be downright illusionary,” Wada added. “You wouldn’t want your imagination to be shattered in the middle of the game.”
Some app makers such as Voltage have released localized versions in China and the US by tweaking the male characters to match the tastes of local women. Downloads in the US, still in the apps’ first year, are currently about one-tenth of those in Japan, Voltage chief executive Yuji Tsutani said.
How do the games differ?
Tsutani said that in the US version of Pirates in Love, the men’s facial features have more depth and realism, and the heroine is more assertive.