Japanese women enamored of love game phone apps

New love-oriented smartphone applications are taking the place of real romance for too-busy Japanese working women.

TOKYO   After being saved from kidnapping, you discover you're the daughter of the prime minister and your life is in imminent danger. You are introduced to a handful of handsome bodyguards, and must decide who will protect you 24 hours a day.

That's the scenario for one of several role-playing "love games" currently popular in Japan, which allow women to safely spend time with their choice of Mr. Right without actually dealing with a live person even as marriage rates in Japan fall.

"In the game, you're the lone woman, and the attention of all the guys is on you," said "han-kura," a 37-year-old office worker who uses that alias on a blog dedicated to these games.

The role-playing games are based on characters typical of Japanese manga comics, with all the men slender and elegant. The player becomes the heroine and chooses an ideal mate from several "knight in shining armor" characters, developing a relationship through the choices made while playing.

The games, which can be played on smart phones, are especially popular with working single women in their 30s who feel they don't have the time or energy for a real relationship due to their demanding work schedules, said Kana Shimada, a novelist who writes about modern women and relationships.

"It may be virtual, but if it's ‘a boyfriend from a game,' then you can enjoy it whenever you want," said Shimada. "The games that make you feel the ups and downs of a real relationship have all the elements to get women hooked."

The video game industry has always had a strong male following, but it seems to have found a way to finally capitalize on female users. The sector based on such love simulation games grew by 30.4 percent with 14.6 billion yen ($177.3 million) in sales in 2011, according to Yano Research Institute.

The games come in several episodes, each costing around 500 yen ($5.98).

The growth of smart phones has had a hand in this popularity, thanks to their portability and privacy, said Nozomi Wada, an editor at AppBank, a website that reviews apps.

"The biggest reason for its popularity is that users like myself can play it secretly in the palm of our hands without other people noticing it," said "han-kura."

About 10 makers continuously roll out new versions of their popular titles with additional characters and storylines. The difference between a hit and a bust is how deeply the player can immerse into the game, said Wada.

"If it's a fantasy theme, then it has to be downright illusionary," added Wada. "You wouldn't want your imagination to be shattered in the middle of the game."

Some app makers such as the company known as Voltage have released localized versions in China and the United States by tweaking the male characters to match the tastes of local women. Downloads in the United States, still in the first year of their efforts, are currently around one-tenth of those in Japan, said Voltage CEO Yuji Tsutani.

And how do the games differ?

Tsutani said that in the U.S. version of "Pirates in Love," the men have facial features with more depth and realism and the heroine is more assertive.

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