Is love just a game?

Written May 12th

I had an interview last Thursday. The interview was with a Japanese mobile gaming company that I will not name. The division I was interviewing for primarily develops romance and dating simulation games, targeting women. This is interesting to me for a number of reasons.

One major reason is because there currently is no market for dating simulation games in the US. This could be taken one of two ways. One, this is an untapped niche market that nearly needs the right approach to be unleashed. Two, culturally the concept is incompatible and there is no interest (or not enough) to be economically viable to develop such games in the US. I’m leaning more towards the second, but I’m not 100% on that. My reasoning is that fan translations and imports of dating simulation games do exist, but they are a very small market and not one that pours a lot of money into their hobby (at least not to my knowledge.) These are primarily members of the otaku community, and primarily men.

The second portion of intrigue is who would be the target demographic. My fiancée is of the belief that given the rise of otaku culture in the US,  the otaku community would be it. While I’m sure there would be some interest there, I’m convinced it’s still far too small to profit from. Those who are more than casually interested in otaku culture in the US are a small percentage, and it’s a small percentage within that group who are interested in dating simulation games. This is a very niche community.

I am of the opinion that targeting fans of Twilight will garner success. Twilight fans are sizable portion of the population. They are mostly female, primarily young teenagers, preteens, and a smattering of housewives. This demographic is very similar to the target audience in Japan. Additionally, these people have expendable income, enjoy romantic fantasies, and tend to enjoy pretty boys. They are social media conscious, but not in a social situation where they can live out their romantic fantasies, and thus seek out escapism. If the books are any indication, they also prefer a more passive role, and making choices about men who seek out them. I say this in contrast to the more active social mingling that relationships are otherwise formed from (meeting people at bars, parties, dances, etc.). Going back to the not being in a social situation to seek out their romantic fantasy (either due to being shy, rather young, married, or the fact dating can be complicated) being sought after may be more appealing to this demographic. I think they would love dating sims.

This brings me to my point of primary interest. Japanese dating culture functions very differently than Western dating culture. I asked about this in my interview, and how the company is accommodating for the cultural differences. I was given an off-hand “localization is handling that” response that leads me to believe that the company isn’t very aware of the differences. Not surprising and very forgivable as even people in cross cultural relationships aren’t always aware of the differences.

Actions aren’t much of an issue as they can be explained away. For example, kokuhaku (the confession of love made when seeking a relationship) can easily be adapted, and it isn’t terribly outside norms for American dating. That’s no problem. It’s more the unspoken rules, which so much Japanese culture rests upon. Applying them in such a game may seem like arbitrary punishment and frustrate the user. For Americans,  maybe you like a person as more than a friend and you want to express that. So you kiss them, as it clearly defines you are interested in them as more than friends. That is normal. If you know your crush is spending time with a friend of the opposite gender, it might make you jealous. So long as they’re just friends, though, it’s okay. You have to have trust.

That isn’t the case with Japanese culture. Japanese  couples don’t kiss until they’ve established the relationship as boyfriend – girlfriend. If you’re interested in someone, you don’t spend time with a different person of the opposite sex (even if you are just friends.) These would be very normal actions for an American man or woman. For Japanese these are the actions of a playboy, or player. Such a person is uncommitted and not to be trusted. How are the users to know about these cultural nuances? Should they be applied or modified for the American market? I believe this will have an impact on how well the games are received.

I, however, am not the target demographic. My perspective is one of an outsider and while I have no interest in such games I am interested in seeing how they are received. I’ll be keeping an eye on this matter, and seeing how it proceeds. I’m wishing all good fortune to the company.


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