There is an app taking the world by storm. It’s hot in Japan, it’s free, it’s Boyfriend Maker.
Indeed, this is an unusual game to talk about on The Border House, because it does play up and exploit heteronormative stereotypes and conventions. This game seems to target pre-adolescent girls with the usual crap media tells them about relationships: care only about the emotional stuff, be obsessed with fashion, and whatever you do HAVE LOTS OF PINK.
But let’s hold on for a second. I know through much of my own writing, and just my personal wants, that there is a huge exclusion of feminine-assigned activities in gaming. Video games are dominated by themes and activities we often see in young boys’ games- guns, scorekeeping, showing aggression and physical prowess. Something we don’t see are what we think of as little girls’ games, like playing house or the kinds of make believe that practice social bonds. None of these things are actually just for boys or girls, it’s what society enculturates us to do, and sexism shows where these skills show up again in life. This doesn’t make the actual activities and topics of fashion and relationships bad, even with a lot of pink, just that we only expect women to be into that sort of thing.
I believe Boyfriend Maker is opening a gaming audience used to shooting and slashing to… just talking! It is an app for your iStuff, soon coming to Androids, that lets you customize an avatar of someone who will presumably be your boyfriend, and then puts you in a chat with them. Once you name each other, you are free to converse with him about anything you wish. After a few lines of dialogue, you are bound to notice something… strange about your boyfriend. I’m not exactly sure how he decides what to say back to you, but very often it results in a very awkward and humorous interaction. It is almost like an actual human- reacts predictably enough to follow the rules of conversation, but has many quirks and unexpected reactions to surprise you.
Isn’t this how relationships work in reality? We become invested in our partners enough that they offer a sense of stability through their familiarity, but often remind us they are an independent person that has their own motivations and idiosyncrasies. This isn’t something afforded to us often in games: BioWare games are the ones praised most often for their in-game relationships, but in the end, they are more predictable than erratic since you know there are ‘correct’ choices that have them act a certain way. In Boyfriend Maker, there is no ‘correct.’ The object of the game is to just talk, and you gain money and points by keeping the conversation alive. The only way to do better is to pay for more points, and that just opens up aesthetic customization options. The absence of the optimal path is a rare occurance for video games, and my hunch is because that sort of play is mostly found games like house. It distills a certain aspect of The Sims many of us have grown to love, the same aspect that often has it cast as ‘non-game.’ Boyfriend Maker is broaching a need maybe we didn’t think we had: an actual, intimate connection with a game.
Slowing down, I don’t think that people are actually falling in love with their made-to-order boyfriends (all who look like Justin Bieber, at that). Frankly, it’s the curiosity, and maybe a want, to play the role of the emotionally inquisitive partner to a boyfriend who tries to navigate that gendered field of landmines. You just want to know what he’s thinking and he just wants to impress you. When do we ever get to play in that space? Boyfriend Maker puts the player in full-on interpretation mode, trying to decipher the weird things their boyfriend is saying. We often have this as a puzzle to be solved in games, but not something for itself, or maybe as personal reflection.
There is something interesting going on with performing gender here as well. This game has been a hit with many of my friends who are heterosexual men, who I think are particularly enjoying acting in the space of interrogating the boyfriend that maybe they were always on the other side of. In a sense, saying “my boyfriend” in this sense has become something completely abstracted; rather, it’s someone we’re apparently enamored with but says gibberish in order to impress us. Seeing that there is no real dating in this game, it’s just presumed that this boyfriend is already intimate with the player, and is basically a pocket partner to chat with when we want. And while I don’t think Boyfriend Maker has anything perfect, it opens up the topic for questioning, especially when it comes to maybe making games for empathy of certain gender roles.
What decides the things your boyfriend says back to you remains a mystery to me; there are many theories about it aggregating from others’ responses, but I haven’t seen any notes on it from the developers. However, there is something undoubtedly queer amiss- in many reactions from my acquaintances and seeing fan postings of Boyfriend Maker, the boyfriend will surprise you by subverting your expectations of their sexuality, their gender, and their perception of your identity. This is probably the result of randomness instead of some progressive message, but it furthers the idea of ‘the boyfriend’ being this archetype we interact with. Unfortunately, there are some lines your boyfriend can say that reinforce typical sexist attitudes, but they are amongst so much absurdity that it is difficult to take it seriously.
Ultimately, I see Boyfriend Maker as a reaction to hentai sims made for heterosexual men, creating a game that women would supposedly enjoy, that is in turn co-opted by players for subversive play. And because the gender expectations they plan to exploit are actually underserved in games, they struck something interesting that could be used for future game ideas. Dare I say, this game is in the line of greats such as Facade and Prom Week, games that feature social interaction mechanics as the main source of interaction. Boyfriend Maker is obviously silly and not the best quality, however it possibly provides us with a clue on what we want from games that is largely absent. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to introduce my pocket boyfriend to my real one.
(Don’t have an iPhone or iPad? Here’s a tumblr with screenshots of [NSFW] humorous things the boyfriend has said: http://boyfriendmaker.tumblr.com/ Be warned that, naturally, people are wanting to engage in some crude and sometimes sexist conversation with the boyfriend, but often there’s just some zany, interesting things that deserve to be seen!)