Dating games are for lonely women and socially inept men who would rather marry a sexy anime character on a pillow than talk to a real girl. That’s the stigma right? And that’s the same stigma for all hobbies we consider feminine from romance novels to knitting. It’s usually acceptable for girls and young women to like them, but if a guy expresses interest he’s considered unmasculine or creepy.
But what if I told you that all of us have probably been playing dating games for the past 10 years and you didn’t even notice? Some of the biggest and most popular, award-winning games are secretly dating games which use other genres as padding to distract you from what you really care about: sex and love.
You might think of dating games as only being the Japanese ones where you play a cute girl and you have to go on dates with handsome anime guys until you’re able to win one as a boyfriend. These are the typical otome dating simulation games that started the trend (otome meaning “maiden” or “girl” in Japanese). Most of the market is filled with these types of dating sims, because the original consumer base in the early 1990s was primarily made up of young women aged 20-30. With these kinds of games, girls could explore relationships and romantic fantasies in a safe, non-judgmental environment. And so could guys. Dating sims geared toward men with a male protagonist trying to court women are called bishōjo (“pretty girl”) games and they also focus on romance and sexual encounters. Most of these games use a tasteful fade-to-black for sex scenes, but some are sexually explicit or outright pornographic. Called eroge (a portmanteau of “erotic” and “game”), these porn games are usually geared toward men, although there are exceptions.
However, most men, especially in the West, would feel too embarrassed to say they play bishōjo or erotic games. That stigma I mentioned before kept many fans closeted for decades and there are still a few even today who aren’t quite comfortable being public about it. But as social norms shift, Western dating sim players are multiplying and becoming more open about their love lives and love of the genre.
In 2014, it was reported that over 22 million women worldwide were playing dating sims and most of this comes from the genre’s increasing accessibility outside of Japan as well as Western developers making games patterned after them. The targeted audience for dating sims is still men and women aged 20-30, who nowadays make up the generation known as “millennials,” who — studies have shown — are generally more knowledgeable about sex than any previous generation. A recent study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior confirmed this and also indicated that millennials were more likely to have and talk about having casual sex since they spend more of their young adulthood unmarried and therefore have more opportunities for it. Sex and talking about sex is just another Tuesday now, so seeing it turn up in our games as well should only feel natural to us.
For instance, right now, the American erotic game HuniePop has almost 10,000 downloads on Steam and nearly that many positive reviews. That means that 10,000 people not only played the game, but were openly willing to talk about and recommend it to other people without any noticeable shame! Even places like Gamasutra, a website geared toward game developers, are publishing things like in-depth comparisons between polyamorous sexual encounters in games like Fallout 4 and those in real life. Players of these games are becoming more open about their sexual gaming experiences, and it has made dating sims as accessible as any other genre. And that same type of open conversation has already taken over traditional Western role-playing games without most people even noticing.
For the West, it started with minor relationship quests in games like Baldur’s Gate II and Jade Empire and gradually expanded from there into games like Fable and Skyrim. Eventually relationships became a bigger part of the role-playing game experience for both Eastern and Western audiences and together they grew the genre with that in mind. Some of the most popular and recent Japanese games have relationship systems at their cores. Games like Catherine, the Persona series, and Fire Emblem have dedicated systems built around encouraging you to interact with other characters in a platonic or romantic sense. These kinds of relationship systems have seen steady popularity growth in the West as well, because, though there are dating elements, the games aren’t pure dating sims and they still strongly resemble the role-playing games many of us grew up with. Today’s big budget Western role-playing games (Fable, The Witcher, Skyrim, and BioWare’s titles especially) all include relationship simulators into their structures in order to provide more choices and connect players to the created characters in an interactive way. From a writing perspective, it’s much easier to make a character interesting when you can give the player the option to actually get to know them romantically just like they would want to in real life. And you’ve seen it working for years now.
For example, when someone brings up Mass Effect, they almost always talk about which alien hunk/babe they ended up dating or sleeping with. Now, the relationship portions of Mass Effect, which are big enough to warrant their own guides, were not nearly as prominent as the rest of the game’s features, yet the biggest takeaway among many fans was the romance aspect. It connected them more deeply with the characters than any other parts of the game. It’s the same with Dragon Age — I can’t talk to anyone about those games without hearing some allusion to Iron Bull! And there are so many others outside of Bioware games like Fallout 4 and Skyrim. If you didn’t know the games and you overheard most of these in-group conversations, you’d honestly think they were all playing pure dating sims. Despite the great storylines and epic battles, the romances are the experiences that players become the most proud of, because they mean something to them on a deeper emotional level.
What the Western market capitalized on is a formula to reduce the amount of shame felt while playing a dating sim while also creating an in-depth role-playing experience that can tap into all aspects of human emotions. You can slay your dragons and shoot your aliens while also developing real feelings for an artificial companion that may or may not lead to a sexual encounter, all of it presented in a way that feels mature enough that you don’t have to feel ashamed for enjoying it. It’s brilliant when you think about how it subverts our lingering social stigma. Guys who would normally feel self-conscious won’t be turned away by the overly romantic tones, because they are too well-hidden within the typical RPG experience, and people of any gender who might feel turned off by “macho” action games find that these have something more to them. Players for whom dating sims would normally hold no appeal will be too busy tinkering with other features and living within the game world to realize they just spent hours wooing a beautiful woman into bed the same way they would in an eroge or bishōjo game.
Dating sims are acceptable now, and those who don’t think so have already been enjoying them in their RPGs without thinking about it. With players who are more open about their sexual experiences and have more access to the genre, we’re finally in an era where anyone can play dating sims without feeling self-conscious. So the next time you play an otome or bishōjo game and someone makes a face at you about it, just ask them who they slept with in The Witcher 3 and why. They’ll find out very quickly that you are both playing the same kind of game.