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.
But the policy also granted girls, once seen as less of a priority than their brothers, unprecedented access to parental resources, particularly in urban areas. As these highly educated and financially independent women have come of age, many don’t want to marry as young as their parents did. Over the past five years, China’s marriage rate has dropped by almost 30 percent. In 2012, the average age of marriage for women in Shanghai was over 30 for the first time. And dating—highly discouraged for young people until they reach college—can feel inaccessible or frightening, even for 20-somethings. According to Joy Chen, the Chinese American author of Do Not Marry Before Age 30, which was a runaway hit among young women in China, the appeal of Love and Producer is the “wish fulfillment” it provides—the thrill of dating “without all the risks, potential humiliation, tragedies, and comedies.”
Still, that’s not the only reason the game draws millions of women. Married women confess to playing Love and Producer—describing it as a sort of guilty pleasure, like reading a trashy romance novel or watching reality TV—while their husbands are sleeping or out.
The most devoted fans take the game to bed with them. One special Valentine’s Day package allowed users to purchase a limited-edition voice recording of the boyfriend of their choice. In his 20-minute recording, Bai Qi, the policeman, asks, “Why are you sleeping so far from me?” Sheets swish. “You’re in a bad mood,” he murmurs. “It’s my fault. Tell me, honestly, is this why you weren’t able to fall asleep?” Long pauses pepper the conversation, presumably for the player to fill. “What kind of woman do I like?” Bai asks, giggling. “I’d say you.” He counts sheep for nearly 10 minutes. “Are you asleep, my little sheep?”
“I don’t even think it’s anything sexual,” Deng says. “I’m just attracted by the voice, and maybe like the illusion that there’s really this police guy, handsome looking, with a sexy voice, talking to me, counting to 100 sheep with me.”
This article appears in the January/February 2019 print edition with the headline “Imaginary Boyfriends.”