[GUEST POST] Governance using gamification: a case study of how gamification is used in the current Chinese political system

Hu Anqi
Guest Writer (TJC)
Disclaimer: Guest posts represent the diversity of opinion within the world of gamification, and the views and opinions expressed in guest articles are those of the author.
Author’s note: Some of the information collected may not be accessible to all users due to China’s firewall.
The term “Government” seems to be the most serious place in a country. Whenever you think of a government, a picture of officials in black suits, sitting around the round table, conferencing on national and international affairs comes to mind. The decisions they make that only appear on TV or radio channels seem to be far away from us. However, in the era of technology, as more and more people are on the internet, governments turn to the digital world to get closer to their citizens. Among the many strategies they use to approach  their people are through channels such as advertisements, social media, and online surveys. One new method, gamification, is becoming a popular choice. China is an example of one country that has adopted gamification into its political system. The system is not the first one that has appeared, but it is definitely a unique one with many successes and failures.

What does gamification do?

By Wikipedia’s definition, gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. It changes the context in which people make decisions in order to influence their behaviors.

How does gamification help with governance?

Through gamification, a government can transform its activities to make them more attractive to citizens, thus increasing the participation rate of the activities. In addition, it can implement moral education in daily life, make citizens feel they are achieving individual value in society, and develop a stronger national identity.
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Encouraging citizens towards good behaviors

Gamification has great potential to encourage residents to partake in good behaviors and help foster a better public environment due to its rewards and punishments system.
A typical example would be the Chinese social credit system. Through recording of people’s behaviors from various social credit platforms, people earn and lose points to get rewards and punishments. The system was expected to be fully operational by 2020 and was aimed to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” The government will integrate the databases of various private pilots run by different credit companies and launch a national pilot in the end. Yet, unfortunately, the system is still a work in progress at the time I wrote this article. Many parts of the system are still in the experimental phase, and we will see if this system can be fully established in 2020.
The infographic on the left is a basic flow chart about the credit system for personal economic actions. Other than this, here are also many different credit systems created by local governments for personal moral behaviors. Bad behaviors such as littering, running a stop light, failing to visit your parents, or being rude to neighbors will make your rating fall.
The infographic on the left is a basic flow chart about the credit system for personal economic actions. Other than this, here are also many different credit systems created by local governments for personal moral behaviors. Bad behaviors such as littering, running a stop light, failing to visit your parents, or being rude to neighbors will make your rating fall.
An increasing number of citizens have changed their bad behaviours to play well in this big game. From the press conference of PRC’s highest courthouse at 7/10/2018, the blacklist is getting shorter. More and more “deadbeats” are willing to do their duties. The press conference stated that there were 7.89 million cases of dishonest actions being issued, involving 4.4 million “deadbeats”. 2.8 million “deadbeats” did their duties due to the pressure from the punishments. Based on the personal experiences from the people around me and myself in China, the society is getting better with more people willing to trust each other. 
Yet, as a brand new system that just appeared a few years ago, there are also many flaws in the system. For example, there are many social credit platforms run by private companies with questionable social credits. The government promises to take over these private pilots, yet these actions have not been done.
There is also a trend of overusing the system for the sake of answering the call of the nation. From the answers of users of Zhihu (a Chinese app similar to Quora) to the questions relating to the social credit system, many of them think the system is getting more and more extreme. Some of them think that actions such as blood donation are not related to one’s social credits, therefore should not be counted in the system. The system shares people’s private information to companies and controls people’s freedom by nailing down every morally correct action they must take.
There are also discussions about whether certain actions should be considered as bad behaviors. For example, the listing of switching jobs “regularly” as a bad behavior in Zhejiang province has caused dissatisfaction among many employees. This policy was supposed to prevent those who change jobs regularly to swindle compensatory payments. However, the reality is many employees are treated badly by companies with many employees regularly working overtime, causing them to quit their jobs. Yet, it is only the company that has the right to determine if employees have a hostile intention of switching jobs regularly. The definition of “good” and “bad” behaviors is still unclear and therefore causing many ethical issues.  
Interested in the system? Read more here!  

Engaging citizens in activities

Another function of gamification is to engage people. By engaging every citizen into the game as players, asking them to report both good and bad behaviours, gamification increases citizens’ feeling of inclusiveness and being able to contribute to society.
This function is exploited by many social credit apps created by local or national governments. Citizens can report both good and bad behaviors they see on the app. They will get points from reporting to redeem prizes such as coupons at supermarkets, and free meals; at the same time, they feel they are contributing to society by reporting bad behaviours and making the world a better place. The gaming system has significantly restricted those “vulgar behaviors”, such as spitting, making much noise in public areas by encouraging heroic deeds. 
A picture of people taking a photo of illegal parking

A picture of people taking a photo of illegal parking

For example, the traffic police in Taizhou, Zhejiang created a wechat public channel that can award coupons to wipe out their deducted scores from their driving licenses, and even offers people a small amount of cash when they take pictures of illegal parking. People feel the sense of achievements after reporting these actions and the phenomenon of illegal parking have been improved. Moreover, this also reduces the workload of the traffic police.
However, the reality is not always ideal. The download rate of these apps varies from different places. In some cities where people know little about the apps, they will consider the a as troublesome and not bother downloading the apps. For example, in cities like Xiamen, only about 5% of the population has bothered to download the local government’s app. (https://medium.com/berkman-klein-center/social-credit-case-study-city-citizen-scores-in-xiamen-and-fuzhou-2a65feb2bbb3) In my hometown Jiujiang, there is no app related to the social credit system.   

Fostering a stronger national identity and patriotism

Icon of the app "Study and strengthen the nation"(xue xi qiang guo)

China has also used serious gaming (using games to educate people in a deeper and more thorough way) in governance. By incorporating the concept into serious gaming into a political system, governments can use serious games to educate citizens on general knowledge, government ideology and achievements of the government.
To meet the nation’s goal of “being the cultural superpower”, the app “Study and strengthen the nation” (xue xi qiang guo) is created to educate people on knowledge about current affairs, history of the communist party, Chinese culture etc. By completing a daily routine of reading articles, watching videos, answering quizzes, users are able to gain points to unlock titles and redeem prizes such as free e-books. There are more than a hundred channels on the app with different contents, ranging from science to literature and even drama. Based on my personal experience, I found out that users generally do have a deeper understanding of the government’s actions and become more patriotic after reading articles. An example of such an article, taken from the app, would be showcasing the achievements and efforts of the Chinese people from different domains.

A screenshot of the home page of the app

From top to bottom: Study report; Your total points; Your title; Your "dian dian tong" points for redeeming the rewards; Your ranking in the country, your ranking in the group, your ranking in the group for the past seven days

Quiz page From top to bottom: Daily quizzes; Weekly quizzes; Professional quizzes; Challenging quizzes

Yet, the game functions on this app are really limited. There are only quizzes which are hard to do (the least number of questions answered correctly in a row for combo points is 5, but based on first-hand experience, most people fail at 4. People find the daily tasks tedious after a tiring day at work. Yet, the points on the app are counted as a part of the criteria for the political assessment of the company each year and companies with better grades on the app have prizes like extra money from the party. Thus, many game strategies for this app pop up online to tell people how to cheat, i.e. how to gain more points without using the app (e.g. turn the video on without looking at it), which defeats its purpose of requiring people to use its content to study.

A list of daily tasks users have to do for app “Study and strengthen the nation”

The various rewards they can get from the app, including e-books, directional data package for the app only

Party members are also forced to download the app. This enforcement of participation loses the element of fun in the game, making the game less attractive to people and misinterpreted by western media as controlling of thoughts, therefore defeating its purpose of encouraging people to study with self motivation.  The app also promotes a substantial amount of political content which is not as attractive and easy to read to the readers, compared to knowledge in other areas. For instance, among 32 channels available on the app, 18 of them are about political affairs.

A screenshot of various cheating strategies online

Among 32 channels available on the app, 18 of them are about political affairs

Conclusion

While gamification can help the government to encourage good behaviours of citizens, the system is still in the primary stage. There are many problems obstructing the road and many actions are required to adjust the rules, rewards and punishments of the system in order to prevent cheating. Only with more experience would the government be able to fill up the holes of the system and achieve an ideal world of transparency, justice and honesty in the future. However, through this  case study of China’s approach to build a social credit system, we can see that governance too has the potential to be implemented as a simple game with the aid of gamification. 

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