Prodigal Frogs Are China’s Latest Gaming Fad

Players divided over whether ‘Traveling Frog’ is a cute diversion, or just plain boring.

Pictures taken during the course of the wandering frog’s trips. From the ‘Traveling Frog’ app

A virtual green frog has hopped its way into the hearts of millions of Chinese mobile users.

“Traveling Frog,” developed by Japanese game maker Hit-Point, is currently the No. 1 most downloaded free app on Apple’s iOS China App Store. On microblog platform Weibo, posts containing the hashtag “Traveling Frog” have been read over 440 million times.

Many of the game’s Chinese fans take to social media to share updates about the lives of their precious pets, which have a tendency to go on long vacations without offering so much as a goodbye. Players can tell their social networks how long their frog has been away, what kinds of souvenirs it brought back from its last trip, and where its last postcard came from.

In many cases, however, the posts ask the same question: When will my frog come home? That’s precisely what concerns Cao Xiaoqian, a Shanghai-based editor who recently began playing “Traveling Frog” in her free time. Inspired by a frog-related Chinese proverb, she named her frog Swan Meat. On Monday morning, Cao found Swan Meat’s home empty: He had left overnight to go on vacation. For the rest of the day, she waited anxiously for him to come back.

“I turned on notifications so I’d know as soon as he returned,” Cao told Sixth Tone.

Equipped with a ready supply of lunch boxes and an overnight bag for longer trips, the frog travels all over Japan — and only Japan. Leaving footprints at prime tourist destinations, such as hot springs, Buddhist temples, big cities, and imperial palaces, the frog usually, but not always, sends postcards and other souvenirs to update the player on where it’s been and who it’s been with.

“Two days ago, Swan Meat made a hamster friend and visited his home,” Cao said. “But yesterday he returned to the same place, and the hamster was gone.”

To some, “Traveling Frog” has the ability to cultivate a deep connection between player and pet. “By looking at these photos, it’s like I’m in the mindset of a mother browsing through her child’s WeChat feed to learn more about their life,” Zhang Ling, a mother of two young boys, told Sixth Tone.

This analogy is especially apt given that the Chinese word wa can mean both “frog” and “child,” depending on how it’s pronounced. And compared with raising her real-life boys, Zhang said, her virtual pet is much less of a hassle.

The game’s surging popularity is due in large part to social media buzz, as users are given the option to share postcards from their frog’s forays to a variety of social media platforms, including Twitter and its Chinese equivalent, Weibo.

“When I hang out with my friend, we talk about what’s going on with our frogs,” Sydney Lian, a 26-year-old culture reporter in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone. Before he was introduced to “Traveling Frog,” Lian was an avid player of “Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector,” another popular game from the same Japanese developer.

But unlike “Neko Atsume,” which is more interactive, Lian described “Traveling Frog” as “dumb.”

“Though you’re supposedly playing a game, in reality you’re not doing much,” Lian said. While waiting for their frogs to come home, players can only collect clovers — the game’s virtual currency — and shop for lunch boxes and other supplies to give their prodigal pet upon its return.

According to Song Jiajun, a game design consultant, the fact that “Traveling Frog” derives so much of its popularity from social media hype means it could be little more than a passing fad.

“This is one of those trends that people like to chase,” Song told Sixth Tone. “Once players lose interest in showing off, the game will lose its sense of engagement.”


–This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone