Richard Smart on the lonely hearts craze that could be coming to a store near you
Men in Japan have a novel way of turning their 'girlfriends' on: they reach for the power switch on their Nintendo DS.
Software maker Konami's 'LovePlus' series of video games, in which players -- it's safe to assume the majority are men -- build up romantic relationships with juvenile female characters, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
"The game is a dating simulation. You have to take your character to the point where you are dating one of the girls in your high school," former LovePlus fan Taisuke Endo, a 30-year-old office worker from Tokyo, says. "But it differs from other dating simulations because you participate in the relationship after you actually get the girl."
Players of the game have three girls that they try to impress at the start of the game -- Manaka Takane, Rinko Kobayakawa and Nene Anegasaki -- all of whom are attributed hobbies, likes, dislikes, blood types and other such characteristics to make the relationship experience more lifelike. All the girls are aged between 16 and 19.
"We call LovePlus a communication game rather than a dating game because it is about more than just getting a girl," says Mina Okumura of Konami's public relations department.
As well as having conversations with the girls and taking part in activities such as after-school tennis classes, the game also sees players try to kiss the girls, and take things even further.
The realistic dating and relationship experience has led some to take the game to extreme levels. In November last year, one man going by the name of 'Sal9000' married his in-game girlfriend, Nene Anegasaki, at a ceremony in Tokyo, attracting global media attention.
And last summer, the resort town of Atami in Kanagawa Prefecture hit on a money-spinning idea: use the game as a way of attracting customers. The town had hit hard times since the end of the bubble era in the early 1990s, with a less-wealthy Japan bringing fewer people to the town.
A collaboration between Atami and Konami saw thousands of 'otaku' (fan boys) flock to the city to go on dates with their LovePlus girlfriends. Konami even developed an iPhone app that allowed fans to add their favourite LovePlus girl to their photographs.
Souvenirs from the game were sold throughout the city, and one hotel had a guest room for two for players to share with their DS. The tourists attracted to the city by the game brought a boost to the city's economy this year.
While it sounds surreal, LovePlus and similar games may not be as dystopian as they seem. The characters in the game carry out conversations on a very shallow level -- LovePlus is not yet advanced enough to have the girls discuss issues such as the day's news with players.
But most players are happy just to treat the game as a way of wasting time on the commute to work.
"I started playing the game because I was single, had a long way to the office and it seemed like a bit of fun," says Endo.
"I don't really take the game seriously, but it is interesting."
Japan resident Brian Ashcraft, a senior editor with the gaming site Kotaku.com, argues that rather than representing a problem with Japanese society, LovePlus simply demonstrates that there is more than one way to enjoy video games.
"I always find it odd that in the West, games in which the objective is to kill other people is the norm," Ashcraft says. "Nobody raises an eyebrow. Yet many Western gamers have a knee-jerk reaction to these types of games.
"[LovePlus] shows that in Japan it is possible to capture the imagination of players with games based on human relationships," he adds. "It isn't necessary to make a high-definition game that involves killing or shooting."
A television series became a hit in 2005, leading to a grudging acceptance of fan boys ('otaku') as a genuine, if relatively small, force within Japanese society. Using Akihabara as their centre -- a suburb of Tokyo famed for its stores selling electronics, computer games, costumes, sex toys and anime memorabilia -- otaku have grown to become a cultural and economic group to be marketed to and consulted.
The schoolgirls of LovePlus have a real-life equivalent -- AKB48. The Akihabara-based pop group comprises 48 young women who dance and sing in a theatre on the eighth floor of a discount store. Their popularity has risen to phenomenal levels. Hit singles, ubiquity on television and sell-out crowds are now associated with the girls.
The group, however, are generally seen wearing school uniforms, and some of their songs have been criticised for their sexual content. But they seem to be here to stay.
AKB48's shift from the edges of society to the mainstream emulates that of the otaku. Once the outsider, he now enjoys the attention of the PR people at seaside resorts, he has programmers looking to take him further and further into his relationships with the schoolgirls of LovePlus and is perhaps waiting to grow into a truly international force.
Former prime minister and manga enthusiast Taro Aso has argued for the past decade that Japan's pop culture, including those aspects dear to otaku, could prove to be a key export over the years to come. It is a message not lost on Konami: "We are doing research right now. We have just released it on the Japanese market but we are considering releasing it overseas," says Okumura.
For those men outside of Japan looking for peace and quiet from a Japanese schoolgirl that they can't get in real life, however, Endo has a warning.
"The girl in LovePlus became as much of a pain as those that I have had in real life. Whenever I turn on my DS, she asks why I haven't been calling. If I don't send her a goodnight text every day she gets into a sulk.
"I'm not playing the game as much any more."