The rising trend of the in-game virtual relationship is being driven by the popularity of otome games and Bates’ Adinda Mauradiva explains that some ways brands can leverage these two-dimensional relationships are through collaborations and community building.

“I really love my boyfriend. We’ve been together for two years but we never met in real life… because he’s two-dimensional.”

It’s common to hear stories about long-distance, situationship and other types of relationships. A romantic relationship formed by a real person with a two-dimensional partner, however, is another matter entirely – and it can increasingly be found in the rise of gaming.

There’s a surge in gaming in Indonesia. It is the third largest mobile game market in the world, according to data.ai’s latest report (hybrid.co.id, 2023). One of the biggest games is the otome game, a story-based dating simulation directed towards women and originating from Japan.

Although it’s made by a Korean developer, the most well-known otome game is “Mystic Messenger” (Cheritz; 2016), a pioneer in introducing real-time call and chat features with two-dimensional boyfriends. After that comes other titles, also on mobile: “Obey Me!” (NTT Solmare; 2019), “Tears of Themis” (miHoYo; 2020), etc.

The popularity of the otome game is driving the trend of the in-game virtual relationship. For brands that want to leverage gaming and tap into this community, here are four key traits to consider.

1. Techno-intimacy

Otome gamers develop what anthropologist Anne Allison calls “techno-intimacy”. Humans have an attachment to a presence which feels lifelike, including in-game rendered spirits. This is a similar feeling that people might have to caring for and feeding a Tamagotchi, a virtual pet that was popular in the ‘90s. The game also has similar features where players can show their care for their two-dimensional boyfriend through the screen.

2. Fictophilic paradox

Gamers who are in love with fictional characters are bound to realise that it’s a paradox because their partner is in the fictive realm – they can’t meet face-to-face, interact with each other or have conversations that aren’t engineered.

Think of it as a parasocial relationship – a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media but a virtual being is at the receiving instead. It’s a one-sided relationship where the player extorts emotional labour, such as learning what their partner likes and giving the right responses during dialogues, in order to increase the intimacy parameter. 

3. Alter ego

To make the relationship feel more “real”, most of the players create a two-dimensional alter ego for them to live in the two-dimensional world, with different names, looks, lore and scenarios that they would fully flesh out in the form of fan works on social media.

These fan works can either be fan fiction or fan art. The players either draw themselves or make up stories with their two-dimensional boyfriends as a “labour of love”, as it is non-profit to be enjoyed by the fandom community only.

4. Escapism

Most otome game players are not in real-life relationships and that’s the main reason why they play. A two-dimensional boyfriend is not a real person that’s complicated, multifaceted and has their own autonomy.

In a sense, it works better for players to control the guy and the relationship according to what they want in-game, rather than experiencing the horror of trial and error of the modern dating scene.

So how can brands leverage these trends in virtual relationships?

5. Emotional branding

The target market for otome games is very niche. It is composed of young girls and women who read love scenarios because they find solace in having the relationship in the way they want it to be.

If well-known brands decide to tap into otome games, the players would feel as if they’re seen for who they are because there’s a lot of social prejudice surrounding them, just like how otaku and weeaboo are still being negatively viewed today.

6. Community building

There are single-game players but mostly, gamers are made up of the people inside a community, including otome games.

When people play games, they seldom play it once. The more they play it, the more they’re attached to the world within. They would then seek people with the same interests to discuss it.

One of the places to do so would be social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, where monthly community events can be found, for example, uploading selfies alongside photos of two-dimensional boyfriends.

7. Brand collaboration

Some brands are already collaborating with anime characters, such as Uniqlo with Jujutsu Kaisen or Seiko with Naruto.

Otome games shouldn’t be exempt from it. Rather than just showing products through in-game advertising, they can be used by the characters inside the game instead, like what Mobile Legends does with the options of skins.

Furthermore, brands can collaborate with otome game developers to sell merchandise that would be bought by its loyal fans, such as dakimakura (body pillow), towel, keychains, etc.

There are a lot of different types of relationships already. This is just another one that’s revolutionised because of technology. Today, otome games. Tomorrow, who knows?