Dude, have you seen Japan’s girlfriend? She’s totally hot for an imaginary chick.

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An iPhone APP lets gamers put their virtual girlfriends in real photos as they travel to the Japanese resort town of Atami.

The resort town of Atami, Japan hit upon a remarkable way to help its ailing economy: cater to men with virtual girlfriends. The popular Nintendo DS game Love Plus+ is a dating simulator that allows players to court and then maintain a relationship with a virtual high school girl. In the game, the player (who plays a high school boy) and the girl go to Atami for a romantic weekend. Now, Love Plus+ fans can travel to Atami and re-enact their virtual romance in the real world. Hotels in the area go along with the charade and provide dual habitation quarters, restaurants offer special Love Plus+ fare, and the city is decorated to welcome the young lovers. There’s even an iPhone App that allows you to take a photo and place your virtual girlfriend into the picture. The Love Plus+/Atami crossover event attracted more than 1500 single men in July. Watch the video below to meet some of them. These virtual girlfriends are rather simple characters, who knows how this trend may grow as they become more sophisticated.

The US is starting to embrace its geek culture, but Japan’s got it down to a fine art. Otaku (the Japanese equivalent of ‘geeks’) are catered to and encouraged in their various interests by cartoon, comic book, and video game companies that rely on them for revenue. As far as Otaku are concerned, going on a real vacation with your virtual girlfriend isn’t really that extreme. Oh, sure, people would recognize it as weird, maybe even unseemly in some circles, but it’s not ‘throw this guy in the psych ward’ material. In fact, an otaku married his Love Plus girlfriend last year. The men in the video below are treated very well as they spend their money and help revitalize the resort town.

Watching men form relationships with two dimensional characters in a video game is both fascinating, sad, and suggestive. Where might we be with this phenomenon in 10 years? 1500 men isn’t really that many. Could we see tens or hundreds of thousands follow the same trend if the virtual girlfriends were more realistic, more customized to each player? Virtual characters capable of chatting in real time and with improvised scripts are becoming better. Once you start being able to have a seemingly meaningful conversation with a virtual person would they become more appealing than the real thing?

After all, you can’t dictate the terms of a relationship with another human being (well, you can…) but virtual persons are easy to control. Turn them off when you want to be alone, and trust that they’re designed to always want to be with you later. Or, they may be designed to pout and whine if you leave them alone, and for some that will be even more enticing. Either way, the program caters to your ideals. Eventually, interest in virtual relationships may lead to us having fully romantic and sexual experiences with computers.

Right now, watching men visit a beach town with their virtual girlfriends is a little weird, but we do live in a society that is increasingly interacting with each other through virtual portals. How many friends do you have on Facebook? (If it’s less than 300 then ask your children the same question and get ready to be beaten.) We generally do not see all of these people on a regular basis in the real world. What happens when virtual characters become sophisticated enough to provide the same interactions as you would have with these Facebook ‘internet friends’? Already we have augmented reality iPhone Apps to put these characters into our physical world. Give it a few years and such programs will only become more adaptive and life like while we simultaneously spend more time with humans through indirect contact. As we put more of ourselves into the digital world, choosing to have a digital companion may seem less and less weird.

[image credits: Wall Street Journal]

[source: WSJ, Konami]