A game that breaks all rules of gaming reflects the emerging ethos of Chinese society.
Online virtual pets are not new to a swathe of Internet Users. Numerous nearly identical products that peddle virtual pets are available in SmartPhone application stores. And yet, in less than a month, a Japanese app named Tabi Kaeru, also known as “Travel Frog”, has created a seismic shift in this segment. In spite of not having a Chinese version, Tabi Kaeru is now the most trending application on the Chinese iTunes store.
(A peek in the game, which shows the frog taking a picture while traveling)
This is an incredible achievement considering that Tabi Kaeru breaks every golden rule followed by the gaming industry. Here’s how:
It has no fancy features, no complexity
So far, the game has just two scenes embedded with few basic functions. There are no complicated maneuvers, nor are there any battles or rankings among social media friends. Of course, complexity is never the only measure of success for a game. Yet, it’s tough to think of a game as simple as the Travel Frog.
Simply put, players watch their frog go on occasional travel tours. And when the frog returns, it may bring along some surprises. On the surface, this sounds as exciting as watching fingernails grow or waiting for paint to dry.
(The app is now the top on the list of Free games, despite not having a Chinese name)
It is bereft of excitement
Games usually challenge players. Players feel motivated to attain the next level. They are, therefore, excited. But Tabi Kaeru seems to be boring by design!
“I think it [the frog] is cute,” says Wang Yugang. “I like it that the frog loves to go out traveling. More so because I don’t have such an opportunity myself.”
Wang also emphasized the positive.
“It is also fun to collect pictures of the traveling frog. It’s like having a virtual pet.”
Another player Zhang Yue says, “I think I am going to spend at least another two weeks on this game. I would like to get all the pictures.”
An online virtual pet has two distinct advantages over a traditional real-world pet – it imposes no burden of caretaking and it costs nothing. If players watch advertisements recommended by the app, they don’t have to pay for the game’s gears.
However, it is possible to feel just as connected with a virtual pet as a real-world pet.
Games are usually designed to hook the player, forcing them to spend enormous amounts of time conquering challenges and making progress. Not Tabi Kaeru.
“The game requires little commitment. I get to play it whenever I want,” says Yao Yuan, a player who recently joined the game. Contrary to the workplace or the family, this game expects nothing from them and requires them to do almost nothing. It acts like a safe haven for them – a place free from struggles and commitments.
Surprisingly, most players see the game as a way to cure boredom – a statement that players would usually make about games designed to be exciting.
The only caveat for Tabi Kaeru players is that if you don’t use the app for a long time, the frog may never come back.
Games are designed to offer players a chance to gain control of a holistic ecosystem. Oftentimes, people who don’t have much control of their own life paths find solace in a game. Achievements in a game can even compensate for the lack of achievements in real life.
In contrast, Tabi Kaeru offers the player no leverage over the frog.
(One of the postcards that your frog may send you in the game)
“It creates surprises at no risks,” says Zhao Xinnuo, a game media specialist sharing his observations of the game. “It is a free frog that you cannot really control. Seen in that light, it’s just like parenting. You can only do a small portion of things for your kid. Such as packing for him and feeding him.”
No socializing, no teamwork
Most popular games encourage players to play together, build up a social network, andseek friendships and bonds.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Pokemon Go, a game that made players explore the real world, walk through neighborhoods and talk to other players in the real world to achieve more goals.
Tabi Kaeru went the exact opposite way. The game does not rank players. It is a self-fulfilling game that is played inside a bubble – a bubble occupied by one player and his travel frog.
So what’s the game about?
So far, we’ve understood that the game offers:
- A simple, unsophisticated world
- A place that values peace and rejects excitement
- A space without struggles and commitments
- A space that disallows control and encourages surrender
- A world that’s more inner than outer - where no-one else exists
Doesn’t that remind one of the Buddhist way of life? Perhaps the player is entering a monk’s state of mind. This will definitely resonate with the idea of becoming a Buddhist youth and embracing a laissez-faire approach to life. Many Chinese youngsters believe that such a chilled-out attitude enhances the quality of life.
It’s also important to see the success of Tabi Kaeru in the backdrop of the Chinese family structure. Most players of the game are single children coping with great expectations of family members from a very tender age. A great many of these youth have entered their professional lives feeling disillusioned. They see little hope for career prospects or feel unmotivated to work.
Re-defining the Internet: It is Developing Spaces to Stay Alone
Finally, let’s also acknowledge the role played by the internet in the life of an average urban Chinese person. Be it ordering takeout, making medical appointments or arranging one’s wedding, one can complete all these tasks all online. Even these virtual spaces are filled with noise, companions and/or observers. Users find themselves without a place where they can be alone with their thoughts. Ironic as it sounds, the new generation wants a virtual space that is entirely their own. So that, for once, they can stop acting a part for the benefit of others and just BE. Perhaps that’s a deeply enduring lesson we can draw from the success of Tabi Kaeru. The Travel Frog game is merely the reflection of a society that wants to surrender to a simpler life of simpler pleasures.