What’s It Like to be Romanced at the Tokyo Game Show?

Friend of the site and my podcasting partner Janelle did some pretty rad, let's call it "science" at the Tokyo Game Show. In her own words:

When you're at the Tokyo Game Show, it doesn't take very long to spot a booth babe. Though the concept of women hired to look decorative and sell video games has been decreasing in the west recently, the practice is still alive and well at TGS. Speaking informally to attendees, I found that developers and members of the public both feel that booths at TGS, large and small, are competing for the attention of a male audience.

Several eye-catching booths were visibly trying to buck this trend, like mobile developer Galboa's whimsical booth dedicated to Oyaji-Girly. But Voltage Inc.'s booth in the Romance Games Area was one of the few that aggressively, unabashedly courted female attendees with booth…dudes? Booth bros? Booth hunks? Attractive male models.

Voltage's booth used its large, fairy-tale sets staffed with fantasy boyfriends to pull in foot traffic. Each section was dedicated to a different romance experience, where attendees (women or men) could briefly be hit on by male staff dressed as idols, politicians, or princes.

The setups were very elaborate, but the "Princess" experience was the most fantastical: women would enter a hall of mirrors, and pick a door to meet a prince in a fancy-looking room and receive what the Japanese language calls a kabe-don: an aggressive invasion of personal space where a man slams his arm against a wall to box a woman in.

Kabe-dons are seen frequently in Japanese media, usually romanticized, but aren't common in real life–probably because trying that on somebody creates the real risk of getting a knee to the groin. That doesn't stop movies and comic books from using it as a romantic trope. There is apparently some real appeal to getting kabe-don'd: last year, the food company Morinaga set up a kabe-don-ing robot in a Harajuku branch of the dessert buffet Sweets Paradise in an effort to promote its new line of caramel pudding.

So of course, I had to get in line and try it out. For science.

It felt weird.

The staff directed me through a decorated archway into a short hallway filled with curtains of light, gauzy fabric, and when I reached the end, I was instructed to pick one of two mirrored doors, each of which would lead to a different prince in a Rococo-styled room. I knew which one was which because I watched tens of people get kabe-don'd while waiting in line–red-coat prince was lounging in a fancy chair and would lean over the chair at you, so I went with green-coat prince for an authentic kabe-don experience.

The whole thing was very transactional. I put my bags down, and he directed me to stand against the wall. When I did, he planted his forearm on the wall and leaned in reaaaaaal close. Super close. Just way too close. If how my eyes are bugging out in the picture isn't a clue, I must not be the target audience for kabe-dons. He leaned over and whispered how cute I was in my ear, lingered for a few seconds, and that was it. After being bowed out through the door, I was directed out through the other side of the booth, where tablets featuring Voltage's catalog of games were waiting for the curious.

I can sort of see the appeal of a kabe-don fantasy: it offers the same kind of safe-but-not-safe thrill of a haunted house or roller coaster, except with an attractive human being instead of skeletons or centripetal force. But since some of the excitement over kabe-dons might be cultural, I decided to informally poll attendees after they left the booth to get an idea of who exactly was partaking. In quick 1-minute show floor interviews, I asked some attendees (11 female, 1 male) what they thought about the kabe-don experience, what kinds of games they played, and where they were headed next.

Overwhelmingly, when asked the reason for coming to the booth, the answers boiled down to "Well, why not?" Most pointed out that the booth was eye-catching and the concept was novel, and that the idea of trying out something so unrealistic was appealing. Three people explained their presence by saying "My friend dragged me here," and there were definitely a lot of people attending the booth in pairs. Two complimented Voltage Inc. on their marketing strategy, saying it was good for attracting both fans of the genre and for people who have never been introduced to romance games before.

What did they think of being kabe-don'd?

"He was cool!"

"My heart was really pounding."

"I was super nervous, ahahaha!"

"He smelled nice."

"The men here are really attractive. I think I prefer these guys."

"It was brief, but fun!"

So the reaction was net positive, but how many of these people were into that sort of fantasy in their gaming? Only one person said they regularly play modern romance games, and a few said that they dabbled. Three said that they used to play romance games on consoles but haven't recently: "Hochikare" mentioned that she played Angelique (1994, Super Famicom) and Harukanaru Toki no Naka de (2000, PSX) when they first came out, and "Jon" mentioned the PSP series Uta no ☆Prince-sama♪ by name.

As for their regular gaming habits, the most commonly name-dropped game was… Call of Duty.

The genres mentioned were across the entire board: social and puzzle games like Disney's TsumTsum got a mention, as well as the rhythm game Love Live!, based on a popular anime, but FPS and action were just as common.

"Emi" said "I'm a big RPG fan myself, and my friend plays lots of casual games," while "Haruka" point out that she and her friends play "Almost nothing like these romance games" and said her gaming habits were "Most action, FPS, and some RPGs too."

Where were they going after this? Two groups mentioned wanting to see PlayStation VR, and three talked about going to the other hall to see the Indie booths. "Jon" immediately answered that she wanted to see the Star Wars Battlefront booth. One said the crowds were too big and she was going home.

Judging from my informal polling and the energy of the crowd, it seems like Voltage's booth design was paying off. What a shocker: attractive people attract people; news at 11. Both current players of romance games and new potential customers were approaching the booth, and all were going home with an interesting story to tell, including me. That's all there really is to say about that, right?

Not quite. I also sat down with Mayuko Sugihara of Voltage Inc. about the changing games market, romance games in the west, and where exactly the concept for this booth came from. Audio file, transcribing and translating, blah blah, posting ASAP.

Thanks for reading!