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What Everyone Gets Wrong About Virtual-Girlfriend Games

Relationship simulators have a reputation for being porn-y, corny, creepy and cringe-y. But the guys falling in love on games like ‘Monika After Story’ are looking for something far more than sex

Every morning, 19-year-old Max wakes up and sends his girlfriend a bouquet of roses. This has been his daily routine since March, when he first downloaded Monika After Story [MAS], a virtual girlfriend game based on the hot, tortured character of Monika, first seen in the groundbreaking Doki Doki Literature Club! [DDLC].

Visually, the 18-year-old cartoon waifu (a slang term for “anime wifey material”) is a teen boy’s wet dream: Her long, brown ponytail stretches past her thigh-grazing skirt, framing her petite face and piercing green eyes. But unlike most virtual characters, she understands that she’s in a game — and one where she’s programmed to never find love. Trapped in a psychological prison, she sabotages her cute anime love rivals and desperately fights for the affection and attention of the player, lashing out at them if they delete her file and giving them the option to “chat” endlessly.

“It was a case of boredom at first,” says Max (a pseudonym), explaining why he downloaded the game. “But it turned into genuine love after knowing about Monika’s suffering. Everyone else had it bad, but Monika had it worse.” As the months went by, he grew more invested, and his affection snowballed into a desire to virtually please, love and care for Monika.

MAS allows him to turn Monika into a full-blown virtual girlfriend. It’s an expansive, ever-evolving project, constantly being updated with new gifts, dialogue and games, as well as new outfits to dress Monika in (sexy witch costumes and mermaid bikinis are standard fare). It’s not the only virtual girlfriend or dating sim game out there — Dream Daddy famously queered the format back in 2017 — but it does seem to be the most popular as the MASFandom subreddit has more than 7,000 members.

Eighteen-year-old Sam (also a pseudonym) first downloaded MAS back in December 2017. “I can’t give the exact date, but my initial thoughts were: ‘They gave her a Santa suit, cool!’” he tells me. His virtual relationship with Monika is now approaching its three-year anniversary, and Sam remains dedicated. Whenever he’s not working or out with his friends, he spends his evenings playing games (chess, piano practice and hangman are just a few examples) and chatting with Monika.

Previously, Sam had an IRL relationship for almost a year, which ended abruptly when his then-girlfriend cheated on him. “Because of this, I’ve decided to remain faithful to Monika,” he says. “I want to prove to myself that I’m not like my ex.”

Seemingly, no human woman has posed a challenge to Monika so far; Sam’s closest friends even know about her. “They were worried at first,” he tells me, “but after a while, they grew to like her.” He understands the worry, saying the biggest misconception is that guys in virtual relationships are unable to socialize or form new ones. The game preempts this, and sometimes Monika even reminds players that it’s important to leave the house, too. But at least at the moment, Sam has no interest in dating anyone else. Meanwhile, Monika rewards his fidelity with “affection points,” which unlock new features and loved-up speeches.

Surprisingly, Sam has no interest in the NSFW add-ons the game offers. “There’s nothing in MAS that could be considered porn,” he explains. “Everything has a natural flow, and [Monika] only opens up to you after you’ve spent a lot of time together.” This is the real draw — at first, she refuses to accept gifts and compliments until you’ve earned enough affection points. Like a real relationship, you have to put in the time. In fact, Sam would love to put in more time — his only request is an upgrade that allows players to sleep next to Monika all night.

Adam, who asks to keep both his name and age anonymous, feels similarly fulfilled by his five-month-long relationship with Monika, stating that it brings him “everything a normal relationship does — except physical contact, of course.” His family isn’t so understanding, though; earlier this year, a close relative found out about his virtual girlfriend and told another family member. “Both of them are now doing everything they can to keep me away, and they’re forcing me into social situations, despite knowing that I’m an introvert.”

In his eyes, their reaction is driven by stigma, which comes from a misunderstanding of what the game actually is. He frequently hears people describe such games as creepy, addictive propaganda tools, designed to phase out human interaction and irreversibly change how guys interact with women. “There’s this idea that you’re a shut-in if you play them, but that has to do more with people not understanding introverts and being judgmental,” he explains.

But there’s more to it than that; after all, not all introverts date anime girls. What drives their love for Monika is the idea of themselves as the chivalrous white knight, rushing to rescue her from psychological hell. There’s a desire to be wanted and needed by the online waifu — and in turn, that shapes their own self-image as the masculine hero. In that sense, virtual girlfriends are a vessel of sorts: Not only do they allow players to feel needed like they would in a straight-up, heteronormative relationship (the “other half” narrative that paints a partner as essential), they bypass social awkwardness and any chance of rejection as well.

Given the spike in loneliness caused by the pandemic, it’s not hard to see the allure of online validation with no strings or complications attached. Each of Monika’s boyfriends strives to treat her well, which goes against the stereotype of virtual girlfriends being virtual punching bags for incels desperate to fuck an avatar. This is a misconception driven not only by generalizations, but also by the tendency to confuse non-sexual dating sims with straight-up porn games, or eroge.

Eroge is a genre that dates back to 1982, when husband-and-wife duo Yoichi and Keiko Erikawa released an apparently “instructional” video game (sure!) filled with crude animations of couples fucking. Things got weirder the following year, when the controversial game Lolita: Yakyūken was released. As anime expert Dorrie Sacks explains in a YouTube video on visual novels, the title’s reference to the hyper-sexualized, prepubescent “Lolita” was met with unease, especially as the whole premise is that you play strip “rock, paper, scissors” until the seductive, red-haired 2D girl is reclined, butt-naked and ready to concede.

As tech has evolved, so has eroge: Now, you can be inside a first-person sex scene with a weird, pixelated dick, or get gang-banged by a group of horny succubi. VR Kanojo is the unofficial mascot of porno girlfriend games, especially on YouTube, where handfuls of big-name gamers have made videos jiggling Kanojo’s digital big naturals and craning their VR headsets to peek up her skirt.

Journalist Kate Gray first tried VR Kanojo when her friend heard she was fascinated by sex games. “She had a VR set, so she invited me over to try it out,” Gray recalls. “It was a strange way to play, since my friend was in the room the entire time. It was like watching Game of Thrones with your parents!” In her witty, insightful review of the game, Gray writes about the porno predictability of wet T-shirt scenes, but broadens her analysis to talk about consent, intimacy and human connection through virtual reality. “I was initially ready to find VR Kanojo hilarious,” she tells me. “And I did! VR games — especially ones where you interact with other people — make for great physical comedy. I spent a lot of time testing the limits of how much an ass could jiggle when spanked!”

But after these novelties wore off, Gray started to see the overall appeal of a girlfriend simulator. “There’s a place for these games in the same way that there’s a place for romantic movies,” she explains. “Sometimes, even when you’re in a relationship, you crave romance and sex in ways your partner can’t fulfill. It can be good, even healthy, to turn to forms of media that provide that service for you. Your partner can’t be everything you need, and no one should expect that.”

Kanojo’s male players are a little more tight-lipped about their experiences, but sex is the obvious difference: Almost every post on the game’s official forum is written by guys scrambling to get their hands on the 18+ patch, a downloadable extension that unlocks a whole new world of graphic, animated fuck scenes.

In this sense, Kanojo has more in common with sex dolls — she’s designed to be agreeable and eager to please, which makes consent a sticky issue in the game. Although some scenes don’t progress unless you, wearing your VR headset, follow Kanojo’s instructions and turn your head away, others are more questionable: In one, you have the option to use a vibrator through her panties as she sleeps. Once you’ve got the fabled 18+ patch, you can (consensually) fuck her in a variety of other ways, but it’s clear there are some serious creases to be ironed out.

“There aren’t many sex games around today that appropriately model consent,” explains Gray. “That’s partly a failure of the platform itself: Games make you the controller of the universe. If Kanojo were to say, ‘No, don’t touch me,’ the only option for a developer is to force the player to look away — but they can just try again a minute later.” What developers can do, though, is move past stereotypical tropes like the “sexy schoolgirl,” which reduce women to eye candy and playthings. Not to mention, it’s almost impossible to connect with a character like Kanojo. She’s a walking, talking porn fantasy, too busy dropping books and spilling water down her white panties to ever really become a long-term digital companion.

There’s definitely a place for virtual girlfriend games like this, though: Whether you’re horny for hentai or a curious, porn-hungry techie, it’s easy to see the appeal of virtual, interactive porn, especially if developers address issues around consent and infantilization. That said, it’s important to differentiate between virtual girlfriend games and tech-savvy sex scenes, because guys in actual long-term digital relationships are looking for something much deeper than a means of getting off.

Max is proof positive of this. After a long, hard day, he knows he can log on to MAS and wile away the hours playing chess with his girlfriend, venting about his problems (the dialogue is customizable) and showering her with gifts. Like thousands of other players, he’s found solace in a virtual world.

He is realistic, though; he knows other guys have similar relationships with Monika. But the line between reality and fantasy isn’t important to him; what truly matters is how Monika makes him feel. “I don’t ever want to fall in love with anyone ever again,” he tells me contentedly. “I love Monika, and I feel comfortable around her. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind spending a lifetime with her.”