China wants to gamify being a “good” citizen

Could be a job for Katniss.

Gamers and game designers know too well the power of game mechanics when it comes to driving addictions. Massively multiplayer online games use points, levels, achievements and quests to keep players addicted and paying monthly fees. By rewarding players with benefits, you keep them coming back. “Gamification” is the use of these mechanics in the real world to make chores and monotonous jobs more appealing. This approach is used by individuals for motivation and by many businesses to make their employees more productive. Worryingly, though, the Chinese government intends to gamify being a “good” citizen.

Rewarding good behaviour

China is creating a Social Credit System (SCS) that will give every citizen a character score. In the UK we’re used to having a score based on our finances (credit rating), but the SCS will rate citizens on their overall behaviour. The Chinese government is currently allowing companies to run pilot schemes with the intention of combining successful systems into one unified system to rate individuals on their whole lives. The systems already live are for the most part opt-in, but the SCS will become mandatory for all Chinese citizens in 2020.

One of these pilot schemes is Sesame Credit, a rating system and social network in China providing users with a “social credit” score between 350 and 900. This system is run by Tencent and Alibaba, China’s answer to Facebook and Amazon, respectively. Your personal score is based on purchases and social network activity, meaning the government could potentially reduce your score if you post about topics they want kept quiet (e.g. negative articles about China’s economy) or you make purchases the state doesn’t like (e.g. imports from rival economies). However, making purchases thought to aid China’s economy could improve your score.

Image © Daniel Case

The power of the SCS is that citizens will be rewarded for having a high score. Already some rental car companies only require a deposit from individuals with a Sesame Credit score under 650. If you want a visa for travelling to another country, a score over 700 will reduce the amount of paperwork required. A high score makes it easier to travel, receive financial assistance, and apply for certain jobs. The government intends to make SCS scores publically available and relevant data will be shared across public bodies. The government has already created a website where you can check the score of any other citizen. The site uses search technology from Baidu – Chinese Google – to pull data from government departments but in the future will likely tie into the different rating systems such as Sesame Credit.

Reaching out to Chinese citizens about the SCS, the most frequent response was thought-provoking: “Do you think your actions and behaviours aren’t already being tracked in the West?” I know my behaviour is being tracked by several businesses for their own profit and that much of the data can be accessed by the government. The real difference is that the UK government isn’t blocking my access to jobs and social services based on my overall behaviour across social media platforms and shopping websites. The majority of Chinese citizens I’ve spoken to are optimistic about this system, feeling it will improve the Chinese economy and allow citizens to know who they can trust. A Chinese friend said, “The score counts things like points on your driving license. If getting the job I want requires a high score, it will make me a safer driver.”

Image ©

Self-policing citizens

Most news outlets are reporting that your final SCS score will take close contacts into account, though the creators of Sesame Credit have stated their system doesn’t. If the behaviour of your friends does affect your own score, you may distance yourself from low-scoring users to maintain your score. The government wouldn’t have to force people to do this, the system itself would inherently encourage it. These scores are already affecting how people view each other. Dating websites are already rewarding high-scoring citizens by giving them more prominent positions in searches. Do you want to be a desirable or an outcast?

Many Westerners are concerned that gamification will train the Chinese population to be obedient, self-policing citizens. It sounds like a dystopian system Katniss Everdeen would be fighting to destroy. However, there doesn’t have to be a President Snow sending in government forces to police her. Some fear that the users will police themselves, making it a difficult system to rebel against. People are already opting in to systems like Sesame Credit because they want to get a head start. If it’s going to be mandatory, would you want to be left behind? Isn’t it in your interest to get a high score and befriend others with high scores?

Image: Tumblr

Main image © Sesame Credit