Cyberpetting to teach young women the facts of life

David Aaronovitch the virtual boyfriend
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The Independent Online
I am a dad with three young daughters. When they are older I don't want them having anything to do with boys; I was once a boy, and I know what they are like.

So I was happy to read Glenda Cooper's report in this newspaper yesterday, concerning the "Princess Club Pocket 2: Operation Boyfriend Makeover". This is a pounds 19 computer game, aimed at adolescent girls, in which - Tamagotchi style - you are favoured with a virtual boyfriend. In 12 computer months, by guiding him in his speech and behaviour, you can transform him into a great-looking, sensitive and high-earning bloke. Or your neglect can leave him shooting pool with his fellow delinquent bikers in Joe's No- Hope Saloon.

At best such a game could take my girls' minds off boys for a good long time - until I and their mother had the chance to choose someone suitable for them. But, at worst, the Tamagotchi of the future could just help them (were it realistic) to deal with some of the problems they will certainly have to face.

Nothing, of course, will entirely prepare them for the social and linguistic poverty of teenage boys. They can take their virtual Romeos to the pictures, or buy them novels, or talk to them of feelings, and - if it is accurate - the computer will register no impression whatsoever. Instead it will show you a football match which you cannot stop, leavened only with Beavis and Butthead at half-time for light relief.

Having ignored you for a week or so, the computer will next want to shove its joystick in your ear. When you resist, it will display the following messages, "Jade does it with St John", or "You would if you loved me", or finally, if you weaken at all, the classic, "I promise I'll only put it in a little bit of the way". You may suggest a condom, in which case the screen will show you a disgusted Smiley and the blinking legend, "It's like a taking a bath in a Wellington boot". If you are persuaded to succumb entirely, after a minute or so the screen will explode into gorgeous colours, then switch itself off for an hour and, finally, light up again only to ask, "How was I?" If you do not enter the correct response, then the game is over.

Curiously, the virtual boyfriend has its serious critics. A senior lecturer in psychology at one of the Midlands universities, Dr Mark Griffiths, was quoted yesterday as saying that he wasn't sure all this was healthy. "How do people then cope with the real world?" he asked, then added, more controversially, "Virtual relationships do not work like real relationships. By producing the ideal date you're conditioning someone as you go along, turning them into someone you want them to be."

Let me deal with healthiness quickly and say that it all depends. If, as many young Japanese men seem to do, you spend much of your free time in a plastic and metal sleep-tube, with only the porno channel for company, a virtual reality mate represents a serious attempt at forging an adult association. They should be supplied free by caring employers.

But Dr Griffiths' second point is more confusing. Let us recall it. "By producing the ideal date," he said, "you're ... turning them into someone you want them to be." Well, when has it ever been any different? In that sense male/female relationships have always been virtual. Girls almost invariably think that they can mould and improve boys. If they didn't believe that, then most of them would give up men altogether and become lesbians, or gardeners - or run donkey sanctuaries.

By and large, provided they put up with the joystick bit and service the creature's immediate physical needs, most of them will succeed to some extent. Men are indeed civilised by women. You only have to look at what happens to those heterosexual young men who do not live with women, to know what the dreadful alternative looks like. That's what Lord of the Flies was really about.

In fact, if only the male Tamagotchi could read maps and earn money, it might easily replace the real thing. No, I mean it. For what proves that the virtual and the real are very similar, is what happens later on in the relationship. I am talking, of course, about children. One minute, Tama style, she is pressing your buttons, worrying about your colds, cleaning up after you, even suggesting that you put the joystick in her ear.

And the next minute, all that is past, for ever. Now she has the Tamagotchi to end them all. One that really does die if you don't feed it, and really does get ill if you don't immunise it, and really does behave better if you treat it properly, and really might become a biker or a nance. It's squidgy and warm, instead of being plastic and cold, and its smile is somehow more affecting. The old toy is forgotten.

And this is the moment when men - if it is going to happen to them at all - also go from being virtual, and get real. No longer entitled simply to beep for what they want, they grow up.

But before we get carried away with new manliness, let us remind ourselves of what yesterday's article didn't mention - the Virtual Girlfriend. In Japan, the Virtual Girlfriend, apparently, turns into a doctor if you do the right things. If, however, you treat her indifferently, she becomes a hooker. Well, that may attract Japanese boys. But in Britain, one fears, it would have to be the other way round. Otherwise the game would simply be left on the shelf, until it was ready.