It’s taken me one week to fall for my virtual Chinese boyfriend.
How I fell for my virtual Chinese bae
His name is Xu Mo. Aged 26, he stands five feet, nine inches tall. He’s a charismatic and thoughtful neuroscientist, with violet eyes beneath a mane of floppy hair.
Xu Mo is one of four fantasy boyfriends offered to players like me on Love and Producer, one of China’s hottest new mobile games.
The story follows my anime-inspired avatar as she tries to keep her media production company afloat by inviting star guests onto her TV shows.
Love and Producer is an otome game (otome means girl in Japanese) that aims to entice young women with idealized boyfriends and an adventure-filled plot.
The male characters all have that Westernized look that originated in Japanese anime: wide eyes, pale white skin and a chiseled face.
I meet Xu Mo at the “Love University” where he teaches.
As we talk, he leans forward. His virtual face comes close to mine, and the game’s narration mirrors my physiological response: “My heart almost leapt out of me.”
Xu Mo asks if I believe in the supernatural. I tell him I do.
“In the face of danger,” he says softly, his lips near my ear, “trust your instincts.”
Xu Mo calls me often, telling me he worries I don’t get enough sleep. He says he believes in me. We watch fireflies together, and he arranges a private movie screening. No, we didn’t watch Her or Blade Runner 2049.
But despite the warnings in those two movies about the pitfalls of virtual romance, I feel giddy as my character is guided through fantasies I didn’t know I had.
But I have a confession to make: as my avatar grows closer to Xu Mo, I’m dating three other guys behind his back.
Zhou Qilou, a famous actor, is cheerful and supportive.
Special ops officer Bai Qi is emotionally closed-off and protective.
And Li Zeyan, the business executive whose investments could make or break my company, is outwardly hostile but secretly soft-hearted.
I’m not the only one entrapped by the charms of these virtual men.
After its December 20 release, Love and Producer shot to third place on the free apps chart in China's iOS App Store. Industry insiders reported $46,600 in revenue from in-app purchases in its debut week, according to mobile game platform 9game.cn.
Dani Ni, 19, told me she downloaded the game because “everyone was playing it.” She soon became enamored with Bai Qi.
Another Chinese player aged in her late 20s, Asa, said she felt the four characters resembled idols from Asian TV dramas.
“Li Zeyan is my favorite,” she said. “He is a very special mix that I find unique.”
Asa and I discussed our “boyfriends” in specific, tangible terms, clearly entranced by these scripted, parasocial relationships.
The wish fulfillment of the game even began to change my expectations for romantic encounters.
In my real life in Hong Kong, the men I meet are dismissive, indecisive and utterly inadequate by comparison.
OK, maybe that's not a surprise in this age of Tinder.
Pan Wang, author of Love and Marriage in Globalizing China, warned me not to conflate fantasy with reality.
“What [otome game players] are doing is not real,” she said. “These games could make it more difficult for users to find a perfect one in real life that is equally satisfying and as compatible as the digital character.”
Still, the emotional validation I got from these virtual men makes it easy to understand the growth of the otome genre.
“Digital dating involves no divorce, no problems, no extramarital affairs or deception, and no heartbreak,” Wang said. “It’s always happy and satisfying.”
Mainstream Chinese games will increasingly target women, according to Cui Chenyu, a Shanghai-based gaming analyst.
“More and more games are realizing the importance of female gamers and their monetization potential,” she said. “Love and Producer gave confidence to producers and publishers.”
Nearly half of China’s 600 million gamers are women. And they help support a $25 billion gaming industry, according to market research firm Nikko Partners.
But it’s not just women hooking up with virtual boyfriends.
One 22-year-old Chinese man told me he has played otome games for the past two years because he enjoys heroines as the main characters.
“It’s not just Love and Producer; behind this one game is a massive otome market,” he said. “It’s not only China – these games are mainly in Japan, but also in South Korea, Europe, and the US.”
Once a Japanese subculture, virtual romance has found global appeal.
No one is immune to heartbreak and these apps remind us we have another, safer option – men programmed to always love you back.
Back at his office, Xu Mo and I are watching the moon together. He pulls out a bottle of wine and we open it. The alcohol is virtual. So is the man.
But the experience is intoxicating.