Love in the time of Mystic Messenger

By Sofia Gallarate

Published Oct 8, 2018 at 02:02 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

When I was a young teenager, I remember having not so secret crushes on several animation characters in the PlayStation games I was binge playing at the time. I cannot deny the fact that I was daydreaming of romantic love stories, and I feel positive when I say that I was not the only teen fantasising about Tekken’s overly muscular characters. Fifteen years later, in a time when game developers are offering us increasingly immersive experiences and are implementing AI within games, having a love story with an animation character no longer needs to belong to a dream world. It has become the reality.

For the last few decades, dating sims (also known as relationship simulation role-playing games, RS and RPG), a gaming subgenre that focuses on developing virtual romances, has become more and more popular. Often anime inspired, the main purpose of these games is to nurture romantic relationships with non-player characters through gaming interaction. One of the most successful dating sims is Mystic Messenger, a South Korean mobile app game that was released two years ago by Cheritz Co and downloaded by millions of people since. Mystic Messenger is a single-player game for female users (also known as otome games), which requires the player to choose a female avatar who, throughout the game, will chat via a messenger app and meet in ‘person’ six attractive men (as written in the official description of the game on Google Play), from which she will select one lucky fictional character to begin a romantic relationship with. And yes, virtual sex is included.

The real catch with Mystic Messenger is that it takes place in real time, meaning that it synchronises with the player’s mobile phone time zone, with the characters regularly sending the player emails, texts and at times even phone calls, which are pre-recorded by human beings, making Mystic Messenger an extremely realistic and time-consuming game. And despite criticism of the lack of complexity in the characters’ personalities (which I find hard to believe considering the elaborated stories that lie behind each of the six characters)—the conversations provided by the characters seem engaging enough to sustain the attention of millions of people and even more so, has sparked a very real phenomenon of players developing romantic emotions towards the characters. Players have developed an addiction to the personalised intimacy provided by the game; an intimacy that caters directly to the player’s needs, which is nothing like IRL relationships in today’s hyper-individualistic society. As Zygmunt Bauman writes in his book Liquid Love, “Partnerships are increasingly seen through the prism of promises and expectations, and as a kind of product for consumers: satisfaction on the spot, and if not fully satisfied, return the product to the shop or replace it with a new and improved one”. Mystic Messenger allows us to have relationships that directly fit our self-centred consumer culture.

From the tech industry to academia, the last two years have been all about questioning what it means to develop pseudo-love with and sexual attraction to AI and robots, and in that regard, Mystic Messenger is just adding to the spectrum of possibilities. And while many sceptics might argue that having feelings for Jumin Han (one of Mystic Messenger’s characters) is merely a mild psychopathology disguised as love, an increasing number of people are experiencing new forms of attraction that were once only attributed to socially alienated gamers.

Whether falling in love with robots and AI avatars is seen as a form of estrangement in today’s society, or whether it is the result of a chronic disillusion with IRL human relationships does not really matter anymore. What matters is that emotional attachment to our technology, games and AI helpers is well on the way to becoming a part of our future.

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