A new Japanese study has found that an increasing number of men are adopting female avatars in the virtual world.

The findings, released at the Desired Identities virtual conference, examined the phenomenon of ‘Bishojo’ – a genre of dating app that involves varying levels of sexually explicit anime – and noticed that male users found themselves increasingly likely to experiment with their virtual identity.

The research paper, a joint venture from the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences and a group of Tokyo University alumni is entitled “The Babiniku Phenomenon in Japan: when Men Metamorphose into Bishojo Characters“.

Babiniku translates as ‘virtual girl incarnation’ which can mean simply choosing a female character, or adopting an entirely new persona. Some users even use voice-changers to feminize their voices on voice-chat.

It’s all a bit far removed from the days of meeting up with random people on PS Home for the Playstation 3.

This gender fluidity has been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which, the authors say, has further blurred the lines between ‘real’ and ‘online’ identities, as we all retreat online for our interactions.

In other words, although the pandemic has isolated us, the authors believe that it has also given men (particularly) time and space to explore themselves, morphing Babiniku games from exercises in dating, to voyages of self-discovery.

Bishojo games are not designed to allow you to meet IRL people – rather they are dating simulations – so catfishing isn’t the issue. It’s a good thing too, as most Bishojo girls are portrayed as young, a fact at the heart of the genre, but which raises a lot of questions for Western audiences.

That said, with the likes of VR Paradise offering similarly pansexual content such as its Utopia 2097 virtual strip club – the opportunity for digital fluidity is coming to the mainstream here, too.

The paper goes on to look at the ways which humans can hide behind their adopted digital persona when talking about intimate issues which frees them from inhibition, allowing them to explore themselves.

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the premise of The Masked Singer too.

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