Female game companions on esports apps are constantly objectified, harassed and exploited. | Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images
A 23-year-old Shanghai native nicknamed Sake has been playing competitive games since a young age. During her senior year in college, Sake learned that she could make extra cash from her hobby by serving as a virtual companion (陪玩, pronounced peiwan) for online gamers. Her customers were mostly men willing to pay for a partner to play with them, help improve their skills or sometimes just chat with them during downtime.
Sake usually waited for gamers to find her on Bixin, China's leading online marketplace for gamers. Proactive peiwan can find clients by grabbing orders that are already priced. Other times, companions enter an order distribution hall (派单厅) where they line up in front of a customer and a host to show off their voices. Because audio chat is a major component of gaming, a gamer will often pick the companion who he thinks sounds the best.
In the game companion world, women like Sake refer to their male clients as "boss" (老板). And the "boss," often men, call the women "missie" (小姐姐), an affectionate moniker for attractive young women in China.
After graduating last summer, Sake has had difficulty landing a job amid China's COVID-affected labor market, so she's continued working as a part-time peiwan to scrape by while looking for full-time work. She charges the equivalent of $3 per hour for her services, which primarily involve playing Overwatch with clients she's matched with on Bixin.
Sake's rates are set low because the game she's most skilled at playing, Overwatch, a team-based multiplayer game published by Blizzard Entertainment, is far less popular than hits like League of Legends. Then again, Sake told Protocol, most male clients hire female game companions not to improve their skills, but for the company.
"It's a little sexist," Sake said. The gamers "are not here to level up; what they want is entertainment." For that, they usually hire a male trainer.
"Only men are considered serious, skilled gamers," Mengyang Zhao, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies China's video game service industry, told Protocol. "However skilled a female gamer is, people generally don't take her seriously, so women tend to hit a low wage ceiling."
Sake is one of 6 million registered game companions on Bixin, an app developed by Shanghai Yitan Network Technology Company. Yitan was founded in 2014 and is backed by IDG Capital. Esports has exploded in China over the past several years — particularly during the pandemic, when more idle labor joined the game-service sector. China is now the world's largest esports market, registering $21 billion in sales in 2020. National and local governments have announced policies to attract professional esports talent. Last year, the China Communications Industry Association's esports branch, a trade organization, designated game companions as a profession. But most peiwan on platforms like Bixin are casual gamers like Sake not certified by the association.
As with other thriving tech sectors like ecommerce and ed tech, esports has penetrated deep into lower-tier markets (下沉市场) beyond first- and second-tier cities. During the first half of 2020, Bixin attracted over 950,000 new game companions from rural China, accounting for almost half of the platform's new users. State media has praised platforms like Bixin for helping revitalize China's post-COVID economy by offering freelance gigs.
But game companions exist in a corner of the digital gig economy that's given far less public attention than delivery workers, car-hailing drivers and livestream hosts. It's a job virtually unique to China, according to Zhao, the Penn researcher, who said she has interviewed more than 60 Chinese peiwan over the past two years. In 2021, the game companions for hire on marketplaces like Bixin were overwhelmingly female and were generally looked down upon by professional esports players and game developers. Most of them live in China's economic backwaters: rust belts, far-flung regions and small towns. They tend to not have college degrees, which leaves them fewer employment options. And on apps like Bixin, they are constantly objectified, harassed and exploited.
Being a peiwan can be excruciating work. In one extreme case, Zhao came across a peiwan in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi'an who slept only seven hours every three days so she could work enough to take home $1,544 a month. In order to get a higher hourly rate, many game companions will take overnight orders. The influx of game companions in the past two years has lowered the average hourly rates to about $3 from the equivalent of $7.70. "But for many game companions, this is still an easier job than working as a supermarket cashier, hotel receptionist, restaurant waiter or factory worker," Zhao said. "They can work from home."
Bixin has had issues with users exploiting its social features and using the app to solicit sex. There are multiple reports of "bosses" reportedly sexually harassing female game companions on the Bixin app. Last year, regulators in Shanghai summoned Bixin executives for talks and ordered it to pause one social feature that was "harmful to the physical and mental health of minors" and told it to improve its content moderation mechanism.
Much of the flirting, negotiation and transaction now happens not on Bixin, but during games and on WeChat. Bixin matches "bosses" with "missies" through a combination of AI and manual selection processes. Many of the profile photos — good-looking young women — are fake. The key determining factor for a boss to pick the companion he prefers is her voice. Many prefer a "girly-girl voice," Zhao told Protocol. And because female companions are more popular than their male counterparts, it's common for male game companions to use a voice changer to make themselves sound like a woman.
Not only do the majority of the female game companions earn low wages, but they often have to play therapist to clients. "Sometimes, I have to listen to [client] gripes, and talk them through things while playing with them," Sake told Protocol. "Counseling is expensive. I feel like [clients] are taking advantage of me."
Bixin doesn't allow users to trade contact info through its own messaging channel, but savvy users know to bypass the monitoring of the platform by exchanging WeChat handles during games. Once they are connected outside of Bixin, the client and the companions can negotiate new terms and prices there. Game companions like it this way because they can take 100% of the revenue, instead of giving Bixin a 20% cut. But this also means they are out in the Wild West on their own, without protections when problems arise at work. To maintain customer relationships, companions have to constantly keep in touch with "bosses" on WeChat, even when games aren't in session, sending their effective hourly wages even lower.
Sake eventually became friends with a handful of regulars. But when she and her female friends play games for fun, they always seek other female partners because of their world experiences with "greasy" men, a slang term signaling poor boundaries. "There are generally two types of bosses," Sake told Protocol. "They either suck up to women or they are misogynists." Some gamers are embarrassed when their friends find out Sake is a paid peiwan. "It's like I'm the waitress pouring drinks for the men."