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Virtual Boys (and Girls)

The increasingly immersive future of romantic and sexual fantasies.

We’ve always used popular entertainment as a form of escapism. In a world that can often be both mundane and heartbreaking, escaping into the pages of a good book or the drama of the screen to experience heroism and greatness is natural. Of all the genres that have captured our thoughts and imaginations however, it seems there is nothing more appealing than escaping into a fictional world to experience that crazy little thing called love — or fucking, as the mood may demand.

These romantic forays vary depending on the person and the era; some people will get lost in a movie, others have hilariously-titled romance novels (shoutout to The Bull Rider’s Christmas Baby), but with the rise in technology over the last twenty years, there have been ever more escapist opportunities for those who seek them.

I’m an avid gamer, so that is the area where I’ve noticed the most changes. There has been a rise in romantic options for your character in video games; developers like Bioware (Dragon Age, Mass Effect) have made navigating the tricky politics of relationships an integral part of their games.

Meet my Mass Effect boyfriend Garrus ... he has a great personality. (Photo via writeups.org)
Meet my Mass Effect boyfriend Garrus … he has a great personality. (Photo via writeups.org)

Personally, I love games that give you the choice to romance characters. It enhances the storytelling and deepens my connection to the game to let me have that freedom. I’ve played plenty of games that have simply given me a richer experience with the addition of romance (Mass Effect) but I’ve also played and adored visual novel games that are wholly focused on developing a romance (Sweet Fuse: At Your Side).

While not everyone may be familiar with the extent to which romance has infiltrated video games, it’s certainly no secret that technology and sex go hand in hand. From the earliest chat rooms to massive multi-user 3d worlds like Second Life or Red Light Center, those looking for emotional connections or random hookups online have access to them. For those looking for a solitary experience, there are even plenty of interactive sex simulations out there.

Like anything else in the world, such digital romance and eroticism has its share of consumers who take things too far and let their use turn to addiction. We’ve all heard stories of internet porn addictions, or people who neglect their real-world relationships while living alternative lives inside video game worlds.

There have been growing concerns that such problems could get worse with the rise in virtual reality technology. Very soon, devices like the Oculus Rift will be available and by all accounts, they will offer an incredibly immersive experience. It’s going to take everything digital to the next level of realism, and that is going to include the digital romances and sex games.

Outside of the Rift, we also have to tangle with the advancement of artificial intelligence. People are increasingly able to interact and develop relationships with AI that is getting smarter. Dating simulators on the Nintendo DS have emerged as a significant source of “serious” relationships in Japan, exchanging emails with their users, holding conversations through microphones, and even chastising players who miss dates.

People fabricate photos with their “girlfriends”, purchase cuddle pillows with the faces of the characters, and, in at least one instance, a man even held a ceremony with a priest to “marry” his girlfriend from one of these simulators.

One can only imagine where this will go when the romantic interest jumps from a cellphone-sized screen to fully immersive virtual reality. I have read concerns about where these trends could lead and honestly, I’m not sure.

I have been in a healthy, loving relationship for a decade now. Games are a fantastic, fun hobby of mine but I know their place in my life. I am aware though that there is a segment of the population who don’t have the same sort of grounding. There are those who take things too far, to the point where they almost seem to lose sight of reality, and while that is troubling, I don’t really blame games for that.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t be overly worried about such advances in technology. As with everything else, we need to look at people from an individual perspective. Most people will be fine. Some people may need support and perhaps even intervention, but that’s not really much different from the situation we face now.

Who knows, perhaps practice with increasingly lifelike virtual love interests will help teach some of the more awkward among us the basic social skills needed succeed in that most difficult of final boss challenges — a functioning relationship with a real live human.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go explain to my confused fiancé why my true love in Mass Effect is Garrus Vakarian, an avian alien space cop gone rogue.

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