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You Make Me Feel … Like a Virtual Woman

I remember Tamagotchi well. A few years ago I had to baby-sit one and ended up getting in trouble for letting it stay up late watching violent videos. For those who don’t remember the fad, Tamagotchi were electronic pets, demanding to be fed, walked, nursed and put to bed like any ordinary pet, while in return offering all the cutesy companionship of a digital watch. Eventually, parents discovered that with a sledgehammer, battery removal is made easy, and there now exists not a single Tamagotchi in captivity anywhere in the world.

But this week The Guardian reported that the company which created Tamagotchi, Japan’s Bandai Corporation, has moved away from the children’s market to focus on another demographic entirely – namely, sad thirty-something men who don’t get much email. Yes, Bandai has created virtual girlfriends, a perfect opportunity for men in a rough patch to work through their problems via an email relationship with a woman who doesn’t exist.

There are seven coquettish, cyber beauties for customers to choose from, each with a different occupation. (All the ones you’d expect, the lacy nurse, the leggy abattoir worker). The customer makes his selection, and then, using an internet capable mobile phone, sends up to three messages a day to try to woo her. If the questions are flattering or clever, virtual girl will flirt outrageously and share personal secrets. If the questions are smutty or dull, replies will be curt and the relationship cut short. It’s not good news for the truly awkward Japanese male. In a single month he can be dumped by his girlfriend, pay $4.50 a month to subscribe to an internet chat service, send a few boring WAP messages and be dumped by his virtual girlfriend too.

A relationship can last up to three months, and a suitor’s success is measured according to the percentage of his partner’s 52 ‘secrets’ he uncovers. To give an idea of the sort of secrets on offer, here is a sample message from virtual cabin attendant Katsuko Shinjo

“I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, but I was in the bath. You should see my tub. It’s enormous and there’s a big window in front of it. Message me soon. “

Obviously a good question to ask here is whether Katsuko is committed in the long term to using the word ‘message’ as a verb. Another tack would be to ask her just exactly how big the window is. If either question prompted Katsuko to reveal a secret, the player would be deemed to have ‘scored’. It probably won’t replace more traditional notions of ‘scoring’, but a few laughs, a decent total out of 52 and things might not seem to bad.

Thirty thousand Japanese men have so far subscribed to Love by Email. Interestingly, when a similar version was made available for women – My Prince Charming – it attracted just 1,000 customers, empirical evidence perhaps that men have thirty times less dignity than women. Other disappointing news is that some men have so enjoyed their virtual dalliances that they have contacted Bandai chasing their cyber partner’s phone number. It’s not that far away from trying to hook up with that animated seductress who used to star on the Autobahn ad.

Some might argue that all this is a sign that as the communications industry develops, people are becoming less talented at communicating. That an expanding internet results in old-fashioned modes of interaction (like talking or going out or winking sleazily across a bar) being shunned in favor of virtual alternatives. After all, machines are taking over many of the roles once fulfilled by people in the communications industry. Maybe virtual girlfriends are a logical extension when you consider how well we all get on with the Bpay voice? ‘If you’d like to ask me out to dinner, press 9.’

More likely though, human beings will continue to communicate with each other as they always have. Machines may threaten jobs; machines may cause frustration to consumers who used to enjoy dealing with people. But socially, people will always resort to people for a chat. That 30,000 men appear to be running around Japan with seven make-believe women can be explained by the combination of fad and fantasy escapism. People aren’t substituting their relationships for high tech alternatives, they’re substituting their methods of fantasy escapism. Katsuko Shinjo is just a new millenium version of Cassandra, a former playmate of the year who I could have sworn was looking at me through part of 1987.

From memory, Cassandra liked taking baths too.