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Love in the time of Mystic Messenger

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.

Genetics and technology could help you find the love of your life

Two trends have been leading the headlines of 2018 and will most likely roll well into 2019 too: people’s obsession with their genetic information and the ever-expanding world of online dating. So it does not come as a surprise that the recently published report on the Future of Dating has Romance and Genetics at the top of its future trends list.

The fifth report of its kind made by the online dating site eharmony in collaboration with the Imperial College London reveals the most innovative trends that lie at the intersection of love and technology. While some of the topics listed have been largely discussed throughout 2018, among which is the trending love and sex with robots, some topics have stayed largely underground. For example, full-sensory virtual dating, where users can hold someone’s hand and even smell their fragrance through features in an app. And also, the fad of trying to find the perfect partner by gene matching through the growing use of gene home-testing kits.

That the chemistry between two people could be predicted from body language and character traits has been the subject of endless in-depth research. But in comparison to the premise of gene-matching potential partners, our current insights now seem but a drop in the ocean of what the future of relationships could hold. Personally, I found that the premise of this gene-matching technology doesn’t sit so well with me. Can genetics really justify all of our failed relationships, and in that same breath, successful ones too? What about chance, and compromise and all the other things that come into play when relationships are at stake.

What the report highlights is that with the help of technology, genetics could be used by dating apps to create a genetically perfect match. But it fails to ask the inevitable question—at least for me—which is, do we really want this power? “Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, which regulate our immune systems – and relate to taste and smell – are thought to unconsciously influence mate choice. Evolutionarily speaking, it is ideal to pair up with a partner who possesses different immune genes, to give greater protection to any offspring.” Reads the report. So in theory, the analysis of MHC gene codes can be used by online dating platforms to predict whether users’ online attraction is likely to continue when the couple meets in real life.

Now if this sounds appealing to you, don’t get too excited yet. This type of gene-matching technology is set to take up to five years until it’s fully usable, but the data and the model needed to begin the development of a system of this type are already available. According to the report, by 2025, many matches could be created in laboratories.

So far, algorithms and data have been helping us narrow down the options of possible partners by matching users to people with similar values and interests (and location and hight and favourite songs). Yet what gene matching could do, is to eliminate even further any chances of a wrong match by predicting compatibility at a physical level, and that to me sounds as exciting as it does depressing.

We have been taught, maybe naively, that love is a game of luck, chemistry, and if I’m freely expressing my cynicism, simply being at the right time in the right place. Moreover, I think that there is something emotionally arousing in the feeling of uncertainty that a newborn relationship makes us feel—it keeps us on our toes. I am sure many habitual singles who have been passively jumping from one failing date to another would be more than happy to match with the right one once and for all. But personally, I would still like to give it a risky try, even if it means enduring yet another wrong match and a painful breakup.