December 2, 2022 – When a young man falls in love with a 300-year-old cyborg in the 2019 sci-fi film Alita: Battle Angelshare the following exchange:
“Does it bother you,” asks the cyborg (Alita), “that I’m not fully human?”
“You are the most humane person I have ever met,” replies the young man (Hugo).
Cinema is full of examples like this, of people getting along well with non-humans. See also the 2013 film shein which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a virtual assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson and the 2014 sci-fi flick Ex Machinawhere a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) gets close to an AI robot that happens to resemble a beautiful woman (Alicia Vikander).
But for many, the concept goes beyond the canvas. In Japan, an entire subculture is dedicated to romantic video games (RVGs), in which players flirt with one another computer generated person and develop a relationship that some players describe as real. RVGs are played worldwide but are particularly popular with Japanese women (although there are several games for men as well).
Bizarre? Maybe even unhealthy? No doubt many people would agree. But psychologist Mayu Koike, PhD, sees things differently. She and her colleagues at the University of Hiroshima are investigating whether such “virtual romantic relationships” could improve psychological well-being or even help people cope with the stress of real-life romance. So far, the answer to both questions is tentatively yes.
“People want to love and be loved, desires that can now potentially be fulfilled through virtual agents,” says Koike, who hopes to “cultivate a new field called ‘romantic anthropomorphism’ and bridge the gap between anthropomorphism and relational science.”
Anthropomorphism – or the attribution of human characteristics to non-human beings – is not new to psychology, but Koike aims to apply the concept to help us understand “virtual romance,” a romantic relationship between a human and a virtual partner .
In general, Koike says, her studies showed that when a person felt a connection to a “virtual agent” — what psychologists call “positive affect,” their mood improved.
“People think that playing RVGs can improve their social skills,” Koike says, “and our ongoing study also shows that gamers want to practice a romantic relationship with a virtual agent before committing to a human-to-human.” -Enter relationship.”
your recent work, “Virtual Love: The Role of Anthropomorphism in Virtual Romantic Relationships”, published in British Journal of Social Psychologydescribes three experiments examining the effects of “anthropomorphization” of the virtual partner.
The results were mixed. When a player humanized the agent, the relationship felt more authentic. They also felt better and were more likely to want a real relationship with the agent. But in a final experiment in which 104 female players subsequently met attractive male actors, there was no correlation between the women’s perception of their virtual relationship and the way they interacted with the male actors.
Still, that mood boost is reason enough to investigate the process because “it has strong potential to improve our real-world relationships,” says Koike. This type of research “could help reduce loneliness and improve well-being.”
Her most recent work builds on her 2020 study in the journal Plus one entitled “What factors attract people to play romantic video games?” These factors include a human-like voice and even touch, which in some games is simulated (G-rated) by using, for example, a Wii controller to stroking someone’s hair, or a balance board for massage.
As technology advances and the quality of virtual agents improves, so will the potential for virtual romance, Koike notes. Such relationships could contribute to the human need to love and be loved, or even serve as “a training tool for someone who is afraid to date.”
“We should continue to explore how these virtual agent relationships may affect relationships in the modern world,” she says.