BEIJING — An online game from Japan has become a hopping success in China. Unheard of until recently, Tabikaeru: Travel Frog — developed by the Japanese company Hit-Point — is suddenly all the rage, leapfrogging the competition to become the most popular free online game in China's Apple App Store.
Travel Frog requires little of the player — a good thing, perhaps, since it hasn't even been translated officially into Mandarin. And yet, people can't seem to get enough of it. As the name suggests, the game features a virtual frog, who either stays at home and reads the whole day, or goes off on an adventure. Players have no way of knowing when the frog will return, although if they're lucky, they'll get a postcard from some scenic site, or a souvenir when the adventurous amphibian finally comes home.
The player's job is to name the pet froggy at the start of the game, collect clover in the garden that can be used as currency, and use this currency to purchase things for the frog, like food or amulets. What the animal does, though, is his or her business. Players can't predict its moves, or interfere in any way.
Mostly, the player gets to observe the virtual pet's life and gain the experience of "raising" the creature. In that sense, the game mirrors the relationship between parents and their offspring, and that, most people agree, is its appeal. Recently, in the southeastern city of Hangzhou, one gamer even went so far as to post a message on an enormous outdoor LED advertising board that reads: "Frog Search Notice: Our frog baby didn't come home last tonight. Dad and I are waiting for you to come home."
Low desire society
Crazy, right? But maybe there's a message in the madness. For a number of reasons — astronomical housing prices, high-intensity workloads, huge medical and educational costs brought about by the upside-down pyramid family structure —, a growing number of China's young adults are choosing not to get married or have children. Should we really be surprised, then, that people are so eager to embrace an electronic substitute? Keep in mind that phonetically, the words for "frog" and "baby" sound almost exactly the same in Mandarin.
There has been much talk in recent years about a pervading sense of "detachment" among single Chinese adults, who are increasingly alienated within society and, interestingly enough, prime targets for Japanese pop culture, which has quietly spread all over China. It's not just that people are single; it's that they don't even make the effort to look for partners. In the blind-date market, it's often the anxious parents of adult children, rather than the children themselves, who are taking the initiative.
Should we really be surprised, then, that people are so eager to embrace an electronic substitute?
For those born after 1980, when China's one-child policy went into effect, raising children is no longer a mandatory option, especially for urban residents with high-pressure jobs. The family planning policy fostered a long-term cultural shift that has fundamentally destroyed the traditional procreation and aggregation system of families.
As the only children in their respective families, this self-centered generation grew up in a fast-developing economy, and their wish to pursue freedom and independence is far greater than their wish to take responsibility for another person's life. In Japan, the famous management theorist Kenichi Ohmae dubbed this kind of demographic decline a "low desire society," in which young people lack the drive to get married, have children or buy a house. Today, this situation has gradually appeared in Chinese society.
Last month, the National Bureau of Statistics published the country's 2017 fertility numbers, which were supposed to have gone up given the changes introduced two years ago to the one-child policy. Instead, the number of babies born last year fell, from 17.9 million in 2016 to 17.2 million. That's especially true in the country's megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Instead, people are putting their energy into work and business. But of course, they still need ways to vent. For that, like everything else, they look to the market, which offers ready made outlets such as ... Travel Frog.
Travel frog icon — Source: App Store
A virtual frog is an independent companion who won't impinge on one's private needs. One can enjoy the pleasure of raising an animated amphibian without the burden of bringing up a real, flesh-and-blood baby. Simply put, Travel Frog provides psychological comfort to its players — young single adults — and is wildly popular because of it.
That's also why other, similar games are inevitably on the way. Like Travel Frog, they too will be commercial successes, though compared to the next generation of real people — the one that will never exist — they may prove a poor substitute.