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A Cartoon Love Affair
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Is A Nintendo Game That Has Bled Over Into Reality A Lesson For Brand Marketers?

A Japanese resort town has created real-world getaway packages for men and their virtual schoolgirl dates. It’s weird and creepy, for sure, but it also demonstrates the power of virtual experience to be, as Dr. Eldon Tyrell once boasted, "more human than human."

Love Plus+ is a wildly popular videogame on the Nintendo DS platform, which is a handheld device that looks like two iPhones hinged together. Players pick from one of three doe-eyed characters of indiscriminate manga cartoon age (they're busty but wear school uniforms) and then the wooing begins: you earn points by paying attention to your girlfriend and lose them if you aren't regularly signed in or responsive. Your cartoon friend behaves in some strangely real ways, like complimenting you when you express interest, and perhaps debuting a new outfit for your approval, and chiding you by giving you the silent treatment if you've been absent. If you're using a pirated copy of the software she's simply mad at you all the time.

Think Neopets for creeps.

What's really weird is that a town in Japan called Atami is exploiting this phenomenon by providing a bridge to reality...sort of. LovePlus+ vacationers can book rooms for themselves and their dates, then take them out a dinner of special game-themed dishes at tables set for two, followed by shopping for game-themed merchandise. One restaurant on Atami's main drag reports a quarter of its nightly patrons spend their time eating by the weird bluish glow of their game screens, and a fish store sells out its daily allotment of cupcakes with frosting game characters (according to the Wall Street Journal).

I've written about the immersive nature of videogames and online experiences, as how even the simplest of chats (or mobile phone texting) can be utterly compelling. It turns out that what makes virtual experience seem real doesn't come from trying to make it look real as much as it is a result of

  • The substance of the engagement is compelling, and
  • The interactivity supports communication of that substance

So I could be utterly absorbed sending 140-character texts if I believed I was participating in a plan to save the world from imminent destruction, and sit bored out of my mind as a bad story was gloriously rendered on a 3D television. The Love Plus+ resort phenomenon illustrates that "real" is a term that isn't owned by or dependent upon geophysical space and time; it's an outcome of the connections between people and ideas. Technologies like handheld players (or the Internet) redefine reality not by presenting multimedia content, but rather by creating new ways to connect.

This is a hard truth for marketers to accept, primarily because so much of our understanding about brands comes from the world of graphic design. The very idea of "a brand" itself is to make an indelible, readily identifiable mark on something. Brands are experienced by interacting with those marks, now affectionally called "content" so as to include watching a video, reading an ad, or listening to a sponsored song. This has given the world endless logos, inane social media campaigns, and branded Facebook pages that equate clicking with caring.

Connecting in most branding practices is tactical. It's a delivery mechanism. Channels have no inherent meaning beyond the numbers of consumers they deliver.

LovePlus+ suggests that brands can be something much more; they can be stories that are so real that they exist in reality irrespective of what or how real they look. The key is how the engagement is structured; it's the connections that are strategic, no necessarily limited to the look-and-feel. LovePlus+ players can sync their game consoles to an external clock, and their girlfriends will be sleepy, chirpy, or otherwise appropriate for the time of day or night. They remember real holidays and can recall milestones in their virtual relationships. A microphone in the device lets gamers whisper sweet nothings and have their speech recognized and responded to by their spooky manga galpals.

LovePlus+ didn't need Atami to connect its players to reality. They were already there, with their cuddly buxom schoolgirl cartoons in tow. I'm not recommending the stuff, but what they've accomplished in terms of engagement value, commitment, and meaning puts just about every marketing program we otherwise celebrate to complete shame.

More human than human indeed.

Added: 9th September 2010

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