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The Taming of the Dude: From Harlequin Romance to Virtual Boyfriends

Dating sims and apps may bring a new level of interactivity, or even intimacy, to escapist romance, but they don't seem to me like a specific response to changing 21st century attitudes about sex and relationships.

I don't know too much about dating sims and virtual boyfriends, but I was pretty fascinated by an article over at Vogue called “Why Women Are Choosing Virtual Boyfriends Over Real Ones” written by Pip Usher. In the article, Usher interviews several women who play dating sims or are users of My Virtual Boyfriend alongside interviews with developers of these types of games and apps.

Usher seems to be making the case that cultural changes, such as the fact that there are now more single adults in the United States than married ones and that a large percentage of Japanese millenials claim to be “not interested in relationships” are related to the popularity of these kinds of games in Asia and their increasing popularity globally ("Why Women Are Choosing Virtual Boyfriends Over Real Ones", Vogue, 5 March 2016). Additionally, she suggests by the end of the article that maybe these games and apps are useful “practice” for real life relationships.

I found myself less convinced by these implications of 21st century cultural transformation, however, because of some of the comments made by the software developers that Usher quotes in her piece, especially as they discussed the most common choices made in character design for this kind of software. A software engineer at Cheritz, Marcos Daniel Arroyo explains that in these simulations: “[Women] dream of a guy who is handsome, controlling, and unreasonably in love with [them]”. Usher follows these observations from Arroyo with ones made by Kentaro Kitajima, vice president of Voltage, publisher of the dating sim Star-Crossed Myth:

Kitajima agrees, citing a “sadistic but charismatic” archetype popular among women worldwide. In real life, Kitajima says, there may be an incentive to avoid this type as a boyfriend or husband, but in the gaming world, the characters provide an outlet for women to tap into their romantic imagination. Fantasies can be explored without consequence.

In other words, at least in my mind, the type of man that these companies are describing as popular to their audience is Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, the character that I am most likely to think of when hearing the description “sadistic but charismatic” in the context of the traditions of the romance novel. The character that is being described here is the same one that is common to popular romance novels as well. This is the male protagonist of the Harlequin romance novel.

It's difficult to track down demographics on how sales break down in the fiction market by genre, though it is relatively clear when perusing some of the data that some of the most common purchases in popular fiction include mysteries, science fiction novels, and romance novels. Also, there is a lot of data to suggest that women read more than men in general, read more fiction than men, and comprise a much higher percentage of the readership of romance novels than men (between 82-84% of readers of the genre, according to The Romance Writers of America, for instance). Jane Friedman, a professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, recently tweeted that “Romance started off as best performing genre in ebook format & still is. Now at 24% of entire ebook market.”

In “Studying the Romance Novel”, Leigh Michaels, describes the basic template of the modern romance novel:

Rather than presenting women as weak and helpless, romance novels show women as holding the ultimate power. The heroine tames the hero, civilizes him, and helps him to embrace his softer and more vulnerable side. As romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz wrote in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, her study of romance novels, “the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees.” (”Studying the Romance Novel”, Writer's Digest, 9 July 2008)

Michaels description of the goal of the heroine of the romance novel, the taming of the hero, and Krentz's description of that hero as essentially representing “the most dangerous creature on earth” very much align with what other romance novelists have said about the tropes of the romance novel. Doreen Owens Malek, author of 14 different romance series published by Silhouette, says that the central fantasy enjoyed by readers of romance novels is in seeing “a strong, dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman” (“Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Challenge of the Hero”, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, Ed. Jayne Anne Krentz, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992, p. 74). She then goes on to describe this character type in more detail and the value of the challenge that he represents:

The hero may swear and stomp and deny and resist and fight like hell and give the heroine a terrible time (my favorite type of story, in fact), but in the end he capitulates because he simply must have her.

This is exactly why the tough hero, the subject of so much debate, is absolutely fundamental in such a romance, the tougher the better. Winning against a wimp is no triumph [...] We may want a caring, sensitive, modern man in our lives, but we want a swaggering, rough-hewn, mythic man in our books. He provides the best foil; the more obdurate the hero, the sweeter the triumph when the heroine brings him to his knees. (p. 75)

Robyn Donald, author of 32 romance novels published by Harlequin, makes similar observations about the most common type of hero in the romance novel as well, saying, “in most cases he is a mean, moody, magnificent creature with a curling lip and mocking eyes and an arrogant air of self-assurance -- until he meets the heroine” (“Mean, Moody, and Magnificent: The Hero in Romance Literature”, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, Ed. Jayne Anne Krentz, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992, p. 81). Once again, Donald goes on to further describes this figure, one that I can't help but relate to the “sadistic but charismatic” archetype that Kitajima describes as a globally popular character type in dating sims:

Heroes are men who admit to being difficult to live with, who demand extremely high standards in every aspect of their lives, who are natural, effortless leaders, strong men, men with prestige and intelligence, whose faults are likely to be manifestations of strength and power. He is the master of his life; he is in control. (p. 82)

Despite this controlling nature, Donald describes the ultimate relationship between the heroine and the hero in a manner quite similar to the way that Owens does: “in a romance the heroine is never mastered; she conquers the hero”.

In the aforementioned Vogue article, Usher describes the thoughts of Mook, a player of Star-Crossed Myth, whose favorite male hero in the game is Scorpio: “Mook, a 24-year-old living in Bangkok likes 'fierce, tough-looking' men, and she is struck by a softness in Scorpio that only she gets to see.” Krentz makes the case that dangerous men are tamed “with courage, intelligence, and gentleness”, just as Mook explains how she comes to view her own relationship to the male characters of Star-Crossed Myth and presumably how she comes to resolve their issues: “When I read their stories, I feel like they are real,” Mook says of her digital suitors. 'It’s like I understand them.'” Understanding or "making right", the hero in a romance seems very much the goal of Star-Crossed Myth, which is described on the Voltage Wiki as being a game in which "you are the reincarnation of a goddess and you fall in love with a god who you must help absolve his sin, but he commits another sin by falling in love with you".

Rather than seeing 21st century women as “choosing virtual boyfriends over real ones”, I see a congruence of thought between the developers of dating sims and apps and the authors of more traditional fictional romances. This type of hero isn't new, nor is the idea that the resolution of the romance is to civilize a challenging man. What has changed is the audience's ability to become the heroine that, as Krentz describes, “civilizes him”. Before readers witnessed a woman other than themselves doing this, living the fantasy vicariously. Now they take on the challenge themselves through a medium well suited to challenge, games.

Dating sims and apps may bring a new level of interactivity, or even intimacy, to escapist romance, but they don't seem so much to me like a response to changing attitudes about sex and relationships. Instead, they seem like a reflection of a much older and quite common fictional tradition of framing relationships as challenging and dangerous activities to participate in. Therein, I think lies the appeal of and excitement produced by these virtual romances, as games and not merely as voyeuristic experiences.

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