Fewer than ten years have passed since the science fiction movie ‘Her’ depicted the seemingly far-fetched concept of human-chatbot relationships, yet new research suggests that virtual love may now be in the air. Introducing the concept of “romantic anthropomorphism”, the study authors reveal how players of romantic video games (RVGs) attribute human qualities to “digital agents” and enter into virtual relationships that feel authentic.
“The need to love and to be loved is an enduring, universal aspect of human psychology,” write the researchers. “For most of our history, fulfilling this need required another person – someone to love and to love back. Today, a virtual agent can potentially fulfil this need.”
Referencing popular digital agents such as Alexa, Cortana and Siri, the study authors explain how chatbots “play an increasingly central role in our modern world.” And, while no one is likely to fall in love with a customer service bot, some of the more complex virtual agents may now be capable of entering the dating arena.
For instance, the researchers say that a male-oriented RVG called LovePlus “proved so successful that numerous men reported falling in love with their virtual girlfriends, even to the point of preferring them to real women.” Highlighting the rising popularity of these love-based games, the authors go on to state that there are now 50 million RVG players worldwide.
To understand more about romantic anthropomorphism, researchers from Hiroshima University and the University of Edinburgh conducted three lab-based experiments. In the first of these, 61 heterosexual women played an RVG called Castaway, before completing a series of questionnaires that were designed to assess the extent to which they imbued chatbots with human-like qualities, and how authentic their virtual relationship felt.
Results indicated that “greater romantic anthropomorphism was linked to greater feelings of relationship authenticity with the virtual agent, which then predicted more desire for a relationship with the virtual agent in the real world.”
The second experiment followed the exact same protocol but included a larger cohort of 104 women, who this time played an RVG called Choices: Stories You Play. The results of this exercise “fully replicated” those of the first experiment.
“This finding suggests that it is not anthropomorphism per se – there is no reliable direct link between anthropomorphism and outcomes – but rather how anthropomorphism feeds through relationship authenticity that predicts a desire for a real-world relationship with a virtual agent and positive mood,” explained study author Mayu Koike in a statement. “Putting it simply, anthropomorphism creates the feeling of authenticity in relationships. In turn, relationship authenticity is meaningful to build a strong bond with agents.”
Finally, the whole procedure was repeated by a third group of 78 single heterosexual women, although this time the study authors sought to determine how digital love affects people’s real-life courting behaviors. To investigate, they observed participants as they interacted with “an attractive male confederate” for five minutes after playing an RVG.
However, no changes in flirtatiousness were spotted, suggesting that virtual love may not influence real-world romance.
Previous research has indicated that lonely people are more likely to anthropomorphize non-human entities – like Tom Hanks and his buddy Wilson in the film Castaway. However, based on these new observations, the study authors conclude that “it is unlikely that simply believing that an entity is human-like will make a person feel less lonely.”
“Rather, it is more likely that the relationship afforded by this perceived human-like entity is what reduces loneliness.”
The study has been published in The British Journal of Social Psychology.