While many Chinese gamers have been ringing in the new year with endless games of “Jump Jump” — a mini-game hosted by messaging app WeChat in which players leap from platform to platform — another mobile game, “Evol LoveR,” has proven wildly popular, too — especially among women. By Jan. 15, “Evol LoveR” had been downloaded more than 10 million times; it boasted more than 4 million daily active users and generated a monthly revenue of over 200 million yuan ($32 million), according to GameLook, a Shanghai-based media outlet focusing on the gaming industry.
Like its hit predecessor “Miracle Nikki,” a simulation game that allows a female character to collect and dress up in various costumes, “Evol LoveR” is simple yet addictive. Gamers play as a 22-year-old single woman and develop virtual romances with four mysterious and charming young men.
The huge success of “Evol LoveR” not only reveals the growing number of Chinese gamers — the country counted 583 million of them last year — but also the narrowing gender gap among mobile game players. Popular subgenres like simulation games and “casual” games — the latter referring to simple, easy-to-play games that target a mass audience — now attract more women than men, according to a 2017 industry report. Unsurprisingly, more games aimed at female players has contributed to this trend.
“Evol LoveR” is not particularly broad in scope and does not require the player to master complex skills. Instead, players simply have to read short passages of narrative text and answer a series questions to influence the direction the story takes. Similar approaches have worked well for other game developers targeting women: “Honor of Kings,” for example, accumulated more than 100 million female users — accounting for 54 percent of its total players — by May of last year.
“Evol LoveR” also owes much of its popularity to the ongoing craze for South Korean pop culture in China. Many of China’s most beloved Korean TV dramas have somewhat mawkish romantic storylines in which a fragile female protagonist is supported by two or more rich, tall, and handsome male characters. The men, who are generally either sensitive, considerate “sunshine boys” or assertive, high-flying businessmen, move heaven and earth to win the woman’s heart.
A further Korean cultural import into China is that of the fan economy, whereby fans donate money to the celebrities they idolize in return for a say in the content of their performances. Bands like TFBoys have helped to transform this subculture into a mainstream business model in China’s entertainment industry, garnering the obsessive devotion of millions of female fans in the process. In essence, the concept works by encouraging fans to embrace internet platforms as conduits for expressing intimacy.
“Evol LoveR” and other dating simulations operate under precisely the same principle: They make female players feel genuine intimacy toward the male characters in the game and cultivate dual identities as both players of the game and fans of its male characters. More insidiously, they condone and reinforce gender stereotypes.
Images of women in Chinese gaming culture fall into one of three categories, all of which have been imported from Japan. Most commonly, women are depicted as attractive, coquettish sex objects who exist to satisfy male desire: This is an especially popular trope in the so-called gal games that take after Japan’s bishojo culture and encourage straight male players to interact with female characters in return for visual titillation.
Another Japanese import — yaoi, or “boy love” games — often resembles the style of graphic novels and is popular among China’s funü, sometimes disparagingly translated as “rotten women.” These people invent romantic liaisons between two or more straight male celebrities, idols, or fictional characters. In these games, players adopt male characters and are tasked with developing romance with other men. Female characters, meanwhile, play secondary or facilitating roles — if they appear at all. Hardly any male gamers in China play boy love games, and so game designers uphold the status quo by presenting female players with even more male-dominated games, even though the characters they control challenge longstanding notions of sexuality and masculinity.
However, “Evol LoveR” depicts women as miserable and unfulfilled until they are “saved” by the generous love of an elite male, even though the game’s storylines are shown from an ostensibly female perspective. This style, too, has a precedent in Japan, where it is known as otome, or “maiden” culture. “Evol LoveR” peddles the rhetoric that as long as women dedicate enough money, time, and effort, any of us can find our very own Prince Charming and relieve ourselves of life’s myriad unconscious anxieties.
Chinese games that target women do little to challenge existing gender biases; they only reinvent them in subtle ways to cater to popular culture. By getting women to pursue romances with a parade of conventionally attractive virtual men, and by offering a variety of in-game purchases to encourage frivolous consumption, games like “Evol LoveR” have ensured that developers will continue to profit from male-centric games. Women, meanwhile, will continue to immerse themselves in the same unrealistic portrayals of love that they see on television, and thereby continue to tolerate gender bias.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A promotional image for the mobile dating game ‘Evol LoveR.’ From the game’s Weibo account)