You Want To Make a Boyfriend – You Just Don’t Know it Yet

A chat window talking to a teen boy with shades on at a cafe.

A chat window talking to a teen boy with shades on at a cafe. He answers a question about passing the Turing Test.

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.

Asking my boyfriend for an interview for this article at The Border House.

Asking my boyfriend for an interview for this article at The Border House.

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.

My boyfriend's stance on feminism.

My boyfriend’s stance on feminism.

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: 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!)

About Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.
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19 Responses to You Want To Make a Boyfriend – You Just Don’t Know it Yet

  1. Canisa says:

    When I first saw this game I was like “What the hell?”, but having read the tumblr and this article I have a strange, almost inexplicable desire to play this thing.

  2. Steve Munro says:

    I actually interpret this differently. Boyfriend maker is a demonstration of why we can’t have games based on social bonding: the technology doesn’t exist yet. A game of guns and scores needs things like a pathfinding AI, animations for death and victorious grunting, and computational methods to model shooting and being shot. A game about building a relationship with someone needs to model a human mind to a much higher fidelity, and it needs to animate facial expressions with the subtle nuances we pick up from the corner of an eye or the turn of a lip. Most importantly, it needs not scores but a completely different motivator based on a qualitative evaluation of factors that, when it comes to the real thing, we spend hours puzzling over and never really nailing down.

    When it comes to action figures and dolls there is sexism, but the market for ‘girl’ things isn’t ignored by choice. I think if there had been a way to make video games that satisfy the need to play ‘house’, they would have been made and sold with the same kind of fervour that Barbie gets.

    It’s the single player they can’t nail, of course. The multiplayer versions are IRC, dating sites and and Facebook.

    • KA101 says:

      Dunno how close it gets to playing “house”, but the Sims franchise has “dolls” nailed. Respectfully suggest that’s been pretty thoroughly exploited.

      As for relationship-building: depends. I wouldn’t necessarily read the same nonverbals as you or Mattie or anyone else here. Guessing that’s why the boyfriend has those asinine mirrorshades though, as getting CG eyes right was an expensive undertaking last I knew.

      • Alex says:

        Imagine if there were as many high quality Sims-style games the way there are so many high budget military shooters. The industry would look much different.

        Steve, I don’t think a game about social interaction or human relationships necessarily has to pass the Turing test. There are other ways to play with social interaction than merely emulating it. I think part of Mattie’s point is that it’s something that has barely even been tried. There are entire genres waiting to be invented here.

        • Shannon says:

          Ugh. I wish there were some great alternatives to playing the sims. I don’t particularly dig giving EA money, and yet sometimes my god-complex calls me, yanno?

    • Doug S. says:

      “A game about building a relationship with someone needs to model a human mind to a much higher fidelity, and it needs to animate facial expressions with the subtle nuances we pick up from the corner of an eye or the turn of a lip.”

      The technology to do this kind of modeling actually does exist; it’s called a writer. You just have to restrict the player’s input options enough that your human writers can actually write out all the relevant responses. BioWare and Obsidian are pretty good at this, even if their games do tend to have battle systems that aren’t even as good as the Dragon Quest series.

  3. sorry for pointless post says:

    Oh, I haven’t heard of that one! No surprise it’s big in Japan, because there’s quite a market for such games there. The mentioned above hentai dating sims, have it’s equivalent for females: otome games. Main heroine, some-or none-or lots of plot and a bunch of pretty guys to choose from. Many of those games are actually all-ages, and feature no sexual material, although the explict ones exists too.
    Of course, most of those games are utter crap, but then it could be said about most of the visual novels and dating sims in general. They also way too often hold too many of the sterotypes shoujo manga, that can on itself be problematic.

    • marco says:

      I’m noticing some interesting stuff about otome lately. I thought for a while there that most otome did uphold a lot of the nasty things rising (frighteningly so) in modern shoujo manga (the stereotypes, abusive relationships, etc). However, since there have been more indie games, and also more balanced otome games, I notice healthier messages (and imagery) coming in more often (also somewhat occurring in shoujo manga itself, again).

      But, I do admit to only following some companies and whatever else happens to pop up, and that I don’t keep up with every otome (or shoujo) title – so I may be looking at a small pool to the data.

      I’m really hoping that the VN industry does some good growing (material/cpntent-wise).

  4. Looking through the tumblr, it looks like the responses are all semi-randomly pulled from Twitter (there’s hashtags, ad spam, etc.). So it’s basically a Horse_ebooks you can date.

    I find myself cursing the delayed Android release.

  5. EsoTara says:

    A question about the tumblr-link:
    Are the comments the boyfriends say there real? They talk about deep penetration and stuff like that? Is this really a game for young girls?

    • Nina says:

      I have a funny feeling that the app comes up with its responses the same way Jabberwacky and Cleverbot do. Bots like this keep tabs of how people respond to different “inputs”, and then when the bot receives similar input, it can return a similar response. When a bot gets input it doesn’t know how to deal with, it’ll poop out a lame response (generic/change-the-subject) but it’ll make a note to give that input to another user so they can learn how to respond. So one of the posts is the player asking over and over again whether the bot has a tumblr account, and the boyfriend keeps spitting out different tumblr URLS. Those are probably the tumblrs of real users. This would also explain why so many of the boyfriend-bots appear to be gay (since they are primarily chatting with people who are attracted to men).

      Mostly this means that (a) nobody programmed the bot specifically to talk about things like that, and (b) it’s unlikely that the bot will say a seriously “dirty” thing unless the user typed something dirty first.

  6. Norah says:

    Looking at the screenshots, this reminds me more of our old IRC bot than anything else.

    I can’t play the game (no smartphone), so I don’t know if it’s ever anything but this weird.

  7. Ike says:

    OMG, you actually went and wrote this article. XD

  8. meerkat says:

    Big in Japan? What’s the Japanese title? (I couldn’t find it by searching “boyfriend maker” in English of “boyfriend” in katakana, but I did find out my iPhone thinks “boyfriend denim” is a word but not just “boyfriend”.)

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