As a transgender woman who transitioned in her mid-20s, I consider myself lucky. This phase of womanhood is incredible. That being said, I wish I could have dated as a girl during my teenage years. Every day, I’m inundated with depictions of magical, carefree teen romances dotted with first kisses, first dates and even first heartbreaks that ultimately teach a person what they want from love. I feel robbed. It’s that profound FOMO that ultimately led me to otome games, which are essentially Japanese dating sims — and they’ve given me the most unexpected joy.
In the story-based otome games such as Olympia Soirée, Collar x Malice and Nil Admirari no Tenbin, for example, female protagonists meet love interests and experience positive or negative story conclusions via in-game decisions. I started playing them with no particular intention in mind (I bought Olympia Soirée because the trailer was beautiful), but soon, Twitter’s otome game community, otometwt, opened up a new world for me.
I began to embrace the way I could virtually experience girlhood alongside the games’ heroines. When I saw them fall in love with the love interest, I felt my heart flutter. When I accidentally triggered a bad ending, I’d cry with them. I saw a piece of myself that I never knew in these fictional heroines, and I felt a little relief.
After poking around in otome discussions online, I found that otome games provide a healthy sense of escapism for women in general, often because of the romance and storytelling elements. “Let’s say you just broke up with someone because they cheated on you: You can play a nice fluffy otome game and escape into a world” where guys aren’t going to screw you over, U.K.-based YouTuber Luli (@PeachTheOtome) tells me. (Luli, like other gamers quoted in this article, doesn’t use her full name to identify herself online for security reasons.)
Washington, D.C.-based game reviewer Naja Beck, 31, (@BlerdyOtome) says gaming helps her de-stress from her day job at a pharmaceutical science nonprofit, where she helps clients acclimate to the company’s benefits and resources. “My job is very much dealing with people and their problems, and I need a break,” she says. “[Otome games] gave me autonomy over the story, and how to proceed from start to finish. I play like a fairy godmother overseeing [the heroine’s] adventure, sprinkling nuggets of wisdom to help them on their way.”
Luli and Beck, both cisgender women, describe how the games stir up the carefree, hope-filled feelings of youth. “There are infinite possibilities [in girlhood],” Beck says. “You’re not jaded and you have the potential to do whatever you want.”
Since living vicariously through these characters, as I’ve learned, can be even more freeing for trans women, I wondered about the psychology behind why I love them. What is it about those first relationships that can determine how an individual processes romantic feelings in adulthood? And why would a transgender person feel a sense of loss if they didn’t experience adolescent dating as their true gender identity?
Early adolescence dating experiences can affect development in multiple ways, I’m told. “If you have a positive dating experience, that can help you continue building healthy attachments and exploring yourself, like experiencing sex for the first time,” says New York City-based social worker and therapist Laura Wu, who works with queer millennial and Gen Z individuals.
Adversely, she adds, abuse and traumatic experiences can have negative developmental effects. For many queer and transgender individuals, it’s the lack of positive formative dating experiences as one’s authentic gender that can leave an emotional void.
“I do think and I have seen TGNC folx who feel like they’ve lost out [on adolescence] and they have to go through a second puberty,” she says, speaking of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. And for some, otome games could theoretically target those feelings. My gaming experience has been therapeutic, but is that the case across the board?
“I do think that with dating simulators, there are pros and cons,” she says. “I can imagine pros include [players] expressing [themselves] in a physically safer way than expressing yourself in person, and I’m not saying that there’s necessarily emotional safety.”
Wu (or any good mental health expert, really) can’t assert that dating simulators are healthy or unhealthy. “Maybe [gamers] are living in an area where there aren’t a lot of out queer people, the dating pool is small, or live where being outed would affect their livelihood,” she says. For these individuals, dating sims could offer a temporary mental escape. The games allow me to reimagine what life could have been if I transitioned earlier in life — and therefore round out the experience I’m having as a woman now.
It is safe to say that otome games offer a vehicle in which to play with gender. Lys, 26, a trans man gamer in the Midwest, plays otome games as a third-party observer rather than self-insertion (where players visualize themselves as the heroine). “For me, otome games aren’t a form of escapism so much as a way to keep the connections I held dear as a teen still figuring themselves out,” he says. “While there’s tension in my attachment to something stereotypically feminine that doesn’t match how I see myself, I can’t comfortably immerse myself in bishoujo games made for men either.” For many players, the role a gamer plays can drastically change the gaming experience.
Philippines-based gamer Quill, 19, identifies as a demiboy and echoes similar sentiments. “I view the characters as people I can project onto and relate to, and by watching their interactions, I get to live through the experience of not being seen as weird or an outcast for being ‘different’ in my gender identity and sexuality.” For him, the strongest feelings of belonging and family come from playing otome games because he can “daydream about [family] being accepting and loving if I came out to them.”
Twenty-year-old Boston-based gamer Lincoln is a gay trans man who tells me that otome games actually helped him realize his gender identity. “When I am playing an otome game, it’s not only to see attractive characters, but a way to imagine myself in one of their bodies,” he says. “There was a period where I stopped playing otome, convincing myself that I could not enjoy games made for straight women, but I found myself missing the genre. I wanted to be swept off my feet, and although it may be an effeminate wish, I am no less a man for wanting a hot guy to tell me that he loves me.”
Similar to Lincoln, when I play otome games, I enjoy the feeling of being romanced by a fictional character. Those positive emotions have helped me feel confident in my own body, significantly elevating the confidence I have for who I’ve become, both physically and emotionally.
Regardless of your gender, otome games can be more than fluffy pastimes — they can be a conduit for critical self-realization. Before I discovered otome games, I tried everything in my power to “come to terms” with painful emotions I couldn’t pinpoint: I went to therapy, consumed media created by trans authors on transgender identity and experiences, and tried convincing myself to just be grateful I got to transition in the first place. After all, wasn’t I privileged enough to at least get to live as a proud transgender woman in my lifetime when so many others can’t transition due to personal or societal circumstances? Existentially fretting over something as ephemeral as “girlhood” seemed indulgent. But the reality is, I wish I transitioned earlier in my life. And subsequently, I wish I got to experience girlhood. And the fact that I didn’t hurts.
But I can’t turn back time, and to a certain extent, that’s a good thing. I’m grateful I transitioned when I did, because it made me the woman I am today. And thanks to otome games, whenever I’m feeling those emotions I couldn’t pinpoint again, all I have to do is grab my Switch and live vicariously through an otome game heroine.