Generation Z Cupid shoots arrows through cyberspace
When university student Cheng Yuannuan downloaded an application called Bixin to become a training partner for game players, she got more than she bargained for.
Her favorite is Tencent Mobile’s “Game for Peace,” a battle royale game similar to the globally popular “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,” so she put herself forth online to become someone’s training partner in the game.
“For beginners, the app sends you ‘orders’ for your services,” she says. “I checked some out and finally found my first client.”
That’s when her expectations began unraveling.
The client — a man — asked her to send him a voice message, so she read out a poetry passage for him.
“Could you please lower your voice a little?” the man said.
Cheng was confused.
“I thought we are going to play games?” she said.
Games, yes. But not the kind she was contemplating. She canceled the client.
Upon further research, Cheng found out that Bixin went beyond gameplay-trainers. It also provides online Karaoke, cyber dating services and even services where you can just pour your heart out to a sympathetic listener.
Of course, all the services come with different charges for different services, and you earn more if you are popular online with users.
“I realized that one can buy all kinds of companionship on the app,” Cheng says. “You can even maintain a long-distance friendship or relationship where you never meet. And of course, you have to pay to continue the connection. It is kind of a virtual relationship with people.”
Sound fishy? Perhaps. But it appears that virtual relationships have a ready market.
According to Qimai Statistics, which analyzes mobile application platforms, Bixin attracted an average 3 million downloads per month last year. Another popular application of the same ilk, called Lieyou, also had millions of downlands.
Virtual relationships can result in more pain than happiness if they become an addiction.
On Zhihu, a Quora-like question-and-answer platform, many users ask how to rid themselves of obsessions they develop toward paid gaming companions.
A user with the screenname Xinghe said she felt like she was falling love with a companion she had never met or even seen in a photo.
The companion’s service costs 7 yuan (US$1.08) an hour, cheaper than similar services that can cost up to 30 yuan. But Xinghe described her companion as gentle, considerate and lovely.
“When I was feeling down, he would be sympathetic, and his jokes often cheered me up,” she said in her post. “And he told me not to spend too much money on him, offering to provide his services to me for free.”
Friends warned her about a pay-as-go relationship, calling it fragile, to say the least. “On one hand, I can’t help thinking that I should confess my feelings to him and maybe we would end up together,” she said. “On the other hand, I know I’m just fooling myself. This conflict is hard to bear.”
Being head over heels in a virtual relationship isn’t uncommon online. There are so many ways to venture into close relationships. Dating applications have become sort of passé, perhaps because people aren’t very honest about themselves when searching for companionship. Non-traditional sites are becoming more popular.
On Taobao.com, services like morning calls or goodnight message services are available. Customers can book a call from a real person via telephone, voice message or online chat.
Some take a step further by paying for a person to provide moral support for periods of difficult homework or for working out plans to lose some weight.
Sometimes these online relationships don’t involve a human companionship at all. For example, in some financial apps, users can create a virtual person to talk with via artificial intelligence technology. For the imaginative, these make-believe companions have names, families and whole life stories.
“AI is so smart that it can talk like real people,” says Liu Yixiang, a white-collar worker who has been using such an app for two years to keep her spending in check. “Every time you record on the list a sum of money you have spent, the artificial person replies, sometimes with a joke, sometimes with some comforting words.”
Some psychologists conjecture that young people pursue virtual relationships as a way of avoiding traditional liaisons and marriage.
“Most people of this generation are the only child in their family,” says Shi Xiangmei, a therapist. “They have been coddled, even spoiled, since childhood. Deep down, they still think like children and are not ready to start a family of their own. Then too, with the rising costs of child rearing, they might not be confident that the lifestyle their parents enjoy will work for them if they strike out on their own.”
This is not a phenomenon unique to China. Japanese media has reported that many single people in Japan are more willing to “marry” virtual girlfriends or boyfriends than seek a human spouse.
In 2018, a Japanese technology company called Gatebox developed a virtual girl named “GTBX-100” to meet men’s emotional needs. The girl is a holographic image in a glass case. Controlled by Internet of Things, the “girl” can talk with users, remember anniversaries and birthdays, and even prepare surprises.
Who knows! Maybe those sci-fi novels where humans marrying robots are not so far-fetched after all.