I have often wondered what the future of VR socialisation is. Is it a tool for single-player gratification and fantasy, or for multiplayer friendship-building? Maybe it's too soon to answer that question, but last week, I played VR Kanojo, and it gave me a good idea of what's happening in VR now.
VR Kanojo, which went on sale last year for Oculus and Vive, gives you a VR girlfriend and several girlfriend-ish scenarios in which to spend time with her. One scenario, "Studying", is really just a thinly-veiled excuse to watch your girlfriend lounge around in whatever outfit you chose for her: Regular clothes, maid outfits, or nothing but underwear and stockings. At the beginning, my girlfriend - a doe-eyed young Japanese girl whose response to pretty much anything is to squeak - saw a cockroach and climbed up on a chair, squeaking. When she had calmed down, she declared that she was bored of studying and went to lie on the bed. Once she did so, she started glowing, and it turned out that the glowing was an invitation to touch her anywhere I liked, whether PG- or R-rated, and watch her squirm and squeak in that coy sort of way that means she was actually enjoying it.
Most scenarios are like this, and the main reason for that is simple: Because the game is played through a VR headset, with no movement except your hands, you can't really do anything except touching. In that instance, your "girlfriend" really needs to be constantly in your face, and she often is, for contrived reasons such as "Oops, I spilled water on my T-shirt" or more openly sexual ones such as "Can you wash my hair?"
And yet, VR Kanojo is actually not all that seedy for a game that's pretty much about touching up a woman with an ample bosom. Yes, there are explicit sexual scenarios that almost run the full gamut from handjobs to blowjobs to different sexual positions that are only made slightly weird by the fact that the genitalia, for Japanese censorship reasons, are pink pixelated blobs. But there are also a lot of moments of shyness that you might expect from a young, albeit sexually active, girl.
At one point, my girlfriend, after spilling water on herself, asked me to turn around while she got changed. Note that, because of the aforementioned outfit-choosing, she was wearing only panties. But whatever - she had a request, and I was going to fulfil it. I turned my VR-headset-face away from her, and only then did the scenario continue.
But when I then attempted to renege on my promise and turn my head to watch her change anyway, I expected the game to give me what I wanted. After all, this was a game, and in games, the player almost always gets their way. It seemed as though this choice was placed there to titillate those who want to be voyeurs. But VR girlfriend still insisted that I turn away, and looked at me with this mixture of shyness, irritation and pleading. And she kept looking. I had no choice; I had to turn away. This wasn't a player decision, this was her decision, and that's what sold me on VR Kanojo.
Sure, VR Kanojo is a little pervy. Most games that deal with the player's sexual gratification, especially those in VR, are basically fantasies where the player always gets what they want. And VR Kanojo gives you what you want: Full-blown sex, slightly pixelated but still realistic. But it gives you more than that: It gives you a feeling of intimacy.
I played VR Kanojo as part of my research for a piece I was writing about finding love in VR. I asked a bunch of people for their experiences, and I received a lot of replies about friendship, but none about love. Love is complex, and based on physicality and/or attraction most of the time, and it's tough to replicate someone else's visual appearance through the VR tools we currently have. VR Kanojo showed me that there might be a different side to all that. Perhaps it's possible to virtually replicate intimacy and love. When I'm lying in a virtual bed with a virtual girlfriend, maybe I can believe that.