1. Attracted to AI? Turns out, you’re not alone

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Attracted to AI? Turns out, you’re not alone

Watching and listening_2-2

“So you too have a sweet spot for awkward ex-Templars?”

It’s my sister asking me about the rather cute non-player character (NPC) in the computer game Dragon Age Inquisition – a digital and fictional character I am trying to start a romance with. “What?” you say.

OK, I can hear your jaws dropping. I will explain myself. Yes, the game was released end of 2014, and yes, I am playing it now, long after everyone else. My excuse is that you just don’t have as much time these days to play games when you work fulltime and have a family with small kids. I really like playing computer games (yes, on the PC), and have since my mother bought me my first gaming device (a C64). These days, I mostly play on console with the kids, but every once in a while a title comes along that I completely immerse myself in. It just has to wait until I find the time.

BioWare’s games Mass Effect and Dragon Age are two of these titles. And one thing BioWare includes in their storytelling – apart from saving the world, killing demons or aliens, and fixing what is wrong in society – is that you also have the option to deepen relationships with the characters in the game. By allowing your protagonist to interact with them, you get to hear their history, help them solve problems and even start romances with some of them. It is optional. But it adds an extra layer to the game.  Your hero’s personal story develops alongside the main story of the game.

So now I am wooing an “awkward ex-Templar” as my sister puts it. And apparently I’m not the first. If I google “Dragon Age romance” I can see that there are many forum discussions and fan-made media on the topic. This goes for all romanceable characters in the game, male and female. Clearly, digital relationships engage a lot of people.

And I am not surprised. In our consumer research, when looking at more advanced technology, we have covered topics like robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). As part of this, we have asked whether consumers see themselves as being able to have some kind of companionship with technology (did I say that I love my job?). In the trends for 2015, we asked smartphone users about domestic robots. One of the questions we surveyed was whether they would like to have “a robot that could keep them company while at home”. Approximately 36 percent said they would. For this year’s trends, as a bit of a follow up, we asked if they would be interested in having an AI “as a companion, to talk to when in need of company,” and 36% thought it would be a good idea. So having an open mind, I would say that the possibility for building closer relationships with technology is pretty good.

In my opinion, a person who gets engaged in a character in a game is not any different from people who get engaged in other romantic stories, like Pride and Prejudice or the Twilight Saga, or people who get attached to fictional characters in movies or literature.

The only difference is how involved a person can be. Today it is a romance in a computer game, with a pre-written dialogue and a few cut scenes. It is pretty simplistic, but it offers the gamer a chance to participate in the story, rather than observe it as it unfolds. With tomorrow’s technology, there might be possibilities for interacting with characters even beyond that. Perhaps these characters can learn from us and develop over time. Or perhaps you will be able to continue the relationships even after the game or movie has ended. And maybe these relationships will take on an even deeper role in a person’s life than a mere fling in a short fictional story. And what would happen if that character could develop feelings for you?

Is this a good development? It can probably be debated. Will it improve the gaming experience? For the people already engaged in digital relations, I am sure. For my personal experience? I don’t know if I need these stories to be more engaging, but it will be an interesting development to follow. So I guess I need to clear my calendar in the future just to find out.

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Written by Rebecka Cedering Ångström

Rebecka is a Senior Advisor at Ericsson ConsumerLab responsible for conducting international consumer research with a focus on ICT. She has deep interest in technology trends, especially within privacy and security and how emerging consumer behaviors influence societies.

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