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"I would say that a relationship with a Love Plus character is a real relationship," says anthropologist and author Patrick Galbraith, who specializes in Japanese popular culture."People are really intimately involved."Tkaczevski doesn't tend to Rinko out of some competitive urge to advance a level or score points, but rather out of a "feeling of duty," he says.
He is careful to clarify: "IRL," he types -- for "In Real Life" -- he remains single.
The hit film "Her" -- now in theaters in the United States, and among the Oscar nominees for Best Picture -- sparked debate over the potential for human-machine romance with its depiction of a lonely divorcé who falls head-over-heels for an operating system.
Yet a version of this vision has already come to pass.
People have turned to the Love Plus ladies as a form of practice in picking up girls, as a reprieve from the awkwardness of face-to-face encounters, and as a refuge in the unwavering support of a woman who can never, ever leave them.
He was heading home on a crowded commuter train in Osaka two years ago when his girlfriend, Rinko, began chastising him for abruptly ending their conversation the night before.
She demanded a clear indication of his devotion: He had to profess his love to her, right there, in the middle of the throng."I love you, I love you, I love you," Tkaczevski dutifully whispered in Japanese, trying to keep his head down so other passengers wouldn't stare.
Shortly after making amends, he stuffed Rinko into his pocket.Rinko is the first girl to whom Tkaczevski has ever said such words.Rinko is also a video game: She's one of three virtual girlfriends that players can choose from in Love Plus, a Japanese dating simulator for the pocket-sized Nintendo DS game player.Though Love Plus is sold exclusively in Japan and in Japanese, thousands of men and women around the world -- from high-schoolers to the middle-aged scattered from Johannesburg to Jacksonville -- have become hooked on the companionship its digital girlfriends provide.(An unofficial version of the game is also available with some text translated to English.)Some play to better prepare themselves for real-life dating, others as consolation for the pains of romance gone awry.And even as Love Plus players acknowledge that their lovers are virtual, many say the support and affection they receive feels real -- the latest sign that virtual reality has so insinuated itself into everyday life that it is leaving the imprint of the genuine article.