Loving a Fake Person: Redefining Romance for the Virtual Age

Dec. 2, 2022 – When a young man finds himself falling for a 300-year-old cyborg in the 2019 sci-fi film Alita: Battle Angel, they share the following exchange:   

“Does it bother you,” the cyborg (Alita) asks, “that I’m not completely human?” 

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

Cinema is filled with examples like this, of humans hitting it off with non-humans. See also the 2013 film Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls for a virtual assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and the 2014 sci-fi flick Ex Machina, where a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) grows close to an AI robot that happens to resemble a beautiful woman (Alicia Vikander).

But for many, the concept goes beyond the silver screen. In Japan, a whole subculture is devoted to romantic video games (RVGs), where players flirt with a computer-generated person and develop a relationship that some players describe as feeling genuine. RVGs are played worldwide but are especially popular among Japanese women (though there are several games for men as well). 

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

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

Anthropomorphism – or placing human traits on nonhuman beings – is not new in psychology, but Koike aims to apply the concept to help us understand “virtual romance,” a romantic relationship between a human and a virtual partner.   

Generally speaking, Koike says, her studies showed that if a person felt a connection with a “virtual agent,” their mood lifted – what psychologists call a “positive affect.” 

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

Her most recent paper, “Virtually in love: The role of anthropomorphism in virtual romantic relationships,” published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, describes three experiments examining the effects of “anthropomorphizing” the virtual partner.

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

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

Her recent paper builds on her 2020 study in the journal PLOS One titled “What factors attract people to play romantic video games?” Among those factors is a human-like voice and even touch, which is simulated (G-rated) in some games using, for example, a Wii controller to stroke someone’s hair, or a balance board for massage.

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

“We should keep examining how these relationships with virtual agents can affect relationships in the modern world,” she says.