A silent, Zen-looking frog has been dominating Chinese social media and young people’s phone screens for over a week now. This is the main character of an app called 旅かえる(Traveling Frog), which has been downloaded at least 8 million times since its release in December 2017, and is still the most downloaded free app in Apple’s App Store today, despite the fact that it’s only available in its original, Japanese version. The hashtag #旅行青蛙# (“Traveling Frog” in Chinese) has been used over 1.45 billion times; at this writing, new posts containing the hashtag keep popping up with every 10-second refresh.

According to Zhiwei Data, a professional data analysis platform, the peak of Traveling Frog-related searches, Weibo and WeChat posts occurred on January 25, when many newspapers, KOLs (key opinion leaders, or “influencers” in Instagram parlance) and ordinary players were talking about the somewhat dumb “placing game,” and sharing photos of their “frog sons’” travels all over the Chinese internet.

A placing game means that players need to place virtual objects at certain spots, then the system gives a result based on the game algorithm, which is designed for caring people who have time to spend but don’t want to bother with raising a real pet. In Traveling Frog, there is also an option to play by doing even less  only collecting cloves in a virtual yard and putting them in your frog’s backpack so that he can buy food and equipment on his travels. Then all you do is wait for your frog’s postcards, for his friends to visit, and for him to come back home.

However, when you enjoy the moment of your frog’s “wa” (the Chinese onomatopoeia for a frog sound, which can also mean “kid” or “son” depending on the tone used when spoken) as he stays at home, reads and eats silently, he will go on another trip afterwards before you realize it. The player is more like an object placed in the game than an active participant.

You may ask the same questions I did: What is the point of this game? Why are Chinese people so crazy about the frog? Here are some answers from Chinese players that might put it in context:

It’s a simple way to kill time:

Amy (Editor, 28): “I think this is a really boring game, but I love playing it. I want a life like this.”

Yang Bo (HR, 30): “I saw a bunch of pictures of the game, so I downloaded it. It’s so simple to play that you barely need to think, while it seizes people’s need to kill time.”

Bruce (Education, 30): “In the information era, people’s attention is distracted and swiped by the internet, so they want to be alone for a moment and want something simple.”

 

It creates connections between friends/couples:

Celine (PE Investment Manager, 30): “My friends and I often talk about it and send screenshots to each other. I might be a bit envious when my friends’ frogs go home earlier or bring more gifts, but I just feel happy when mine is home.”

Yang agreed: “There’s interaction among people. On WeChat or at work, friends and coworkers talk about it every day, like ‘Where did my frog go’, or how to ‘raise’ it better.”

Li Xueman (Editor, 30): “The most important reason why I play it is to share my feelings with my husband. When I complained about my ‘wa’  traveling outside too long — like three days — my husband just showed me his frog and told me where his ‘son’ had been, and how many postcards he had sent back. ‘He is such a good boy.’”

Frog parents worry about their sons

It simulates being a parent/pet owner:

Li: “I keep checking if he’s home, or where he’s been. It feels like I’m raising a son before I become a real mom. My husband and his coworkers even built a group for ‘Frog Parents’, in which there are more than 300 people.”

Penny (Designer, 28): “I feel connected with him, and I’m so worried that he might die during one of his trips. He is like a real pet of mine.”

Xiao Xin (Website editor, 29): “At first it feels like having a son — you’re upset when he’s home and want him to go out; but after he goes out you worry about when he’ll be back. Now I’m used to it, so I’m more like a housekeeper. But my coworker’s husband found his frog was gone within ten minutes of him downloading the game — he just deleted it immediately and hugged his puppy, who always shows up whenever he calls him.”

Postcards from Traveling Frog

 

It’s a Buddhist-like exercise in self-reflection:

Valerie (Social Marketer, 29): “I deleted the game a few days ago, when my first frog had been gone so long that I couldn’t bear it. Then I reflected and thought that this game actually exposes the fact that I’m a control freak, so I reinstalled the game and took it as practice. After four days, I feel a lot better. You can also find that the nature of life is loneliness, no matter how many friends you make during trips. It doesn’t change being alone in the end.”

Celine: “Even if you offer the best equipment to your frog, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get more postcards or better souvenirs from him. If you cannot even control a frog in a game, how can you expect to control a person? This is what I feel the most from this game.”

Alan (Screenwriter, 30): “The game is nothing like other games that have come before — you cannot control it at all. And you can see that Japanese people really care about details, as well as the descriptions in their novels. You can feel that they are observant and really know humanity. There must be something that resonates with your experience. Additionally, since Buddhist culture is trendy now, the game might have embodied that philosophy.”

Traveling Frog souvenirs

 

It’s a rebellion against the culture of filial piety:

Miao (MBA Student, 29): “I don’t know the original idea of the game’s developers, but it made me think about what it means to be a parent. Because I’m a daughter, I can understand why the frog doesn’t want to be manipulated. As a person living in a modern time, we chase independence of spirit. In the mean time, I was inspired from a parent’s perspective. No matter how important and close a person is in your life, he is an individual who does not belong to anyone. We used to bring up sons to support parents in their old age, but now I just hope my ‘son’ goes out and sees the world. The game shows you the process and the reality in advance.”

The Japanese development team behind the game — Hit-Point, a company that developed another hit game called Neko Atsume (Kitty Collector) back in 2014 — expressed shock when they learned of the surge in Chinese users after their New Year vacation. “There are four people on our development team around the age of 25 or so,” said team leader Makiko Uemura in a recent interview with story-telling WeChat account People人物 (link in Chinese). “We are the quietest team in our company. All of us are so shy that we don’t really talk when we’re working together.”

“’归来’ [かえる, return] sounds like ‘frog’ in Japanese, which is why it is a frog in the game,” the developer explained. “I love traveling, but as a modern young person, I’m too busy to do whatever I want. The point of a game like this is to make the impossible possible, to let the frog to do what we cannot do.”

“The point of a game like this is to make the impossible possible, to let the frog to do what we cannot do” — Traveling Frog developer Makiko Uemura

“Our target users are females from 10 to 30 years old, but of course we want people of all ages to enjoy playing the game, including those who don’t usually play games,” the team leader said of their original intention in creating the game. ”We don’t have any standard of success, and we never want to compete with anyone.” On the topic of trying to keep users active in the game, the Traveling Frog team thought that their users might have so many other games to play that they didn’t want to “bother” them too much.

“You will get tired of a game eventually, but what we hope to do is to make a game that, even when you are tired of it one day, there is still some love left for it at the bottom of your heart.”

Cover image: iTunes Store (Japan)