A Japanese mobile game about a traveling frog is teaching its fans a philosophical lesson about letting go

Try not to dwell on the whereabouts of your frog.
Try not to dwell on the whereabouts of your frog.
Image: Screenshot
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The hit Japanese mobile game Travel Frog has conquered mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, touching a chord with many people for whom the idea of “winning” in life seems an impossibility.

Travel Frog, or Tabi Kaeru, has been topping Apple’s App Store across mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan since its release two months ago. It’s been downloaded around 4 million times from China’s App Store since December, according to the BBC. Created by Hit-Point, the Japanese company responsible for the popular Kitty Collector (Neko Atsume) in 2014, play involves helping your frog prepare for its solo journey by providing it with food and money—yet the player has no control over when and where the frog goes, or when it will return. The frog communicates with the player with, ironically for a digital game, postcards from his traveling destinations.

The game is easy to play, and some players have said it helps them think about parenting and relate to their parents’ anxieties about them. But many players also say they find the game appealing because of its philosophical approach, which teaches that one must learn to surrender control in order to move forward.

A player has no control over their “Travel Frog.”
A player has no control over their “Travel Frog.”
Image: Screen cap of the game

Hong Kong blog Refract (link in Chinese) commented that the game was a reflection of the so-called “Buddhist” attitude adopted by young people, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Trapped between an unattainable future and high expectations because of high rent and living costs, they might as well learn to give up their ambitions and live a minimalist life.

“You have to prepare food for the frog, but you have no control over its whereabouts, or how many postcards it will send home. Such kind of uncertainties in interpersonal relationships is very post-modern, and ‘very Wong Kar-wai’,” the blog wrote, in a reference to the Hong Kong filmmaker who meditates on the fluidity and unpredictability of relationships in movies like Chungking Express. “When playing a game where you cannot form strategies to win, you cannot change and escape from that solitude.” 

In Hong Kong, the game’s caught on among professionals in their thirties.

Yan Lam, a PhD student in the social sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, finds the game’s non-competitive nature a needed distraction from her busy life, in which she has to take full responsibility for her schedule and deadlines. She said the focus of the game is not about winning, but about getting on with life with the realization it’s not possible to have control over every aspect of it.

“I don’t think anything is important to everyone at the end of the day. The game is very zen,” says Lam, who’s in her late 30s.

Taiwanese author Lu Chiu-yuan summed up (link in Chinese) the biggest lessons of the game: “Solitude is the nature of life. Be kind to the people around you as they can just walk away any time for no reason. And when the time of separation comes, you have to let go, otherwise, you will suffer from the pain.”