With real-world romance on the wane, women in Japan are turning to videogames for love

More so than most Japanese games, romance sims are built on cultural values and social norms that don’t translate well outside of the nation’s borders. But the genre is booming, driven by the rise of mobile devices and the demand from Japanese women.

A glance at Tokyo Game Show 2013’s dedicated romance gaming stand proved demonstrative. Instead of the friendless male otaku of stereotype, the area was flooded with girls. They were there to see games that fall within the subgenre of romance games known as otome (maiden) sims.

In these games, the player is given her pick of manga-style men, who then strikes up a text-heavy relationship with her. Such exchanges are usually designed to whisk her off her feet via a mixture of romantic utterances and gentle humour.

The romance genre’s sudden surge in popularity among women appears to be linked to recent societal trends in Japan, where marriage and birth rates are nosediving. A 2011 government survey revealed that 61 per cent of unmarried Japanese men and 49 per cent of unmarried women aged 18–34 did not have a partner. Such trends are reflected in a rising number of relationship services aimed at young singles, from matchmaking websites to shadier businesses offering instant gratification. Against such a backdrop, is it any wonder that the immersive medium of videogames is helping men and women fill the social void?

In My Forged Wedding, players enter a sham marriage with a guy. The frisson, of course, is that it might turn into love.

And the audience is a broad one, stretching beyond gaming’s traditional boundaries. “Rather than hardcore gamers, our users tend to simply be women who are looking for love but have no luck,” says Satomi Muro, a planner and scenario writer at ZZYZX, which makes Kokuhaku (Black & White). At the time of writing, the game has about 12,000 users and, like most otome titles, it is free to download, with either a pay-per-story system or monetised items and social features providing revenue.

“Our users tend to be working women in their 20s and 30s who play on the train going home from work as a way to recover from the exhaustion of their day job by finding romance in a fantasy world,” says Hikari Mizukami, another scenario writer who works at Elementree. The studio’s Hakkenden (Legend Of Eight Dog Warriors) has about 20,000 players, and offers liaisons with blade-wielding heroes in the Warring States period of Japanese history.

“According to the surveys we conduct with our players, women are not looking for the brash sexual titillation that men want from their romance games,” says Yuta Ogi, a spokesman for Voltage, a leading publisher of love games whose Chikai No Kiss Wa Totsuzen Ni (Kiss Of The Sudden Oath) has been downloaded a million times. “Instead, women prefer something that reflects the tenderness and excitement of a real-life love relationship. They want to hear the sweet words that their boyfriends never say, and to enjoy everyday moments with their crush.”

Download figures can be misleading, but it appears sales are high in the genre, too. “I can’t give out our exact figures,” says Sunsoft’s Wakase Basashi, director of the Ore Pri (I Am Princess) series, “but around 20 per cent of our 200,000 users pay to play, which is a much higher conversion rate than most social games.” Ore Pri is a boys’ love or ‘BL’ game, a subgenre in which all the characters are homosexual men. Its lead complicates things further by cross-dressing. “Most otome games are about a female protagonist finding romance with a hunky guy, but I prefer BL games,” Basashi says, “because it’s a slightly more niche subgenre. I make the games in such a way that fans of regular otome games can get into them, too – hence the male character wearing women’s clothes.”

Ore Pri creator Wakase Basashi representing her game’s cross dressing hero/heroine.

While diversity is an ongoing issue for the western industry, one positive side effect of the otome genre is that it is attracting women to the development of games. “Most of the production staff are female,” explains Tomoya Ike from Comfort, which makes La Storia Della Arcana Famiglia for PSP. “All the top experts behind these games are women and they’re very closely in touch with the fans. Women can make the games from the player’s viewpoint.”

But it is still a rare corner of Japan’s game industry that is staffed by and aimed primarily at women – the heads at Sony and Nintendo are always male, as was every game director we met at TGS. Perhaps that is due to change. Modern Japanese women are rising through the workforce, targeted by companies to make up the shortfall in young workers. And as these women endure Japan’s long hours and marathon commutes, the decline in opportunities for socialisation and romance may only fuel their desire for more otome games.