At 2 a.m., Ivy Deng’s iPhone pings. Her boyfriend is messaging her again. Bai Qi is a contemplative policeman, Deng’s favorite of the men she’s dated recently. Tomorrow morning, he’ll pick her up on his motorcycle.
Sort of. Bai doesn’t actually have a motorcycle, or even a real body. And he’s just one of Deng’s four boyfriends, all of whom are virtual characters in the Chinese mobile game Love and Producer. Li Zeyan is an egotistical CEO. Xu Mo is a scientist. Zhou Qiluo is a cloying, cutesy pop star.
In the two months after its launch in December 2017, Love and Producer, in which users play a female TV producer, was downloaded more than 10 million times, mostly by women. The app is free, but users can pay to advance the plot through text messages, or phone calls or “dates,” which employ recordings of voice actors. For a while, Love and Producer was the most talked-about game on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Last January, a fan bought a $39,000 LED billboard ad in Shenzhen to wish the character Li a happy birthday.
Why are these women so keen to carry on fake relationships with virtual boyfriends? After all, China’s now-abandoned “one-child policy” created a country where men outnumber women by nearly 34 million—which should make finding mates outside a mobile game easy for heterosexual women.