At the end of 2015, Sesame Credit got itself talked about. And in a pretty scary context. What was seemingly just a credit app in China was allegedly about to turn into a country-scale Big Brother to monitor the citizens and give points, rewards or disadvantages in real life. To sum-up, China may have just invented the gamification of totalitarianism. Much has been said and written about it, as yet mostly speculations. Worrisome speculations.
Sesame Credit as it exists in USA, for instance, just aims at giving you a solvency score to evaluate if you can get a loan and at what rate.
It draws your profile by analysing your current loans and proposes a personalized one. Nothing to get worried about so far.
In China, this system was developed by Ant Financial Services Group, a company affiliated to Alibaba, the equivalent of Amazon (hence, the name Sesame – clever, right?).
It is a credit and online payment platform.
When you’re checking your online purchases on Alibaba, the Sesame Credit application gives you a score. According to one user, this score rewards him with real life benefits. Here, with 588 points, he gets a 5-day SVIP membership to a dating app. With 162 more points, he could have a travel visa to Luxembourg.
“Congratulations! With your 588 points, you have access to a dating app!
– I… Ok. Thanks but… what about my loan?”
In more detail, your Sesame Credit score is based on 5 criteria:
- Your purchases via Alipay (the payment system of Alibaba): it’s not about what you buy, but about the frequency and the amounts.
- Your job: what you do won’t impact your score. It’s just to make your profile more accurate.
- The time you take to pay your bills, still via Alipay: obviously, the later you are, the lower your score will be.
- The friends you invite to join this service: their profiles won’t have any impact on your score. Only the number matters.
So… the heart must be the number of friends. The clock… the time you take to pay your bills… The crown is… well… Wait, what? A mini bottle of whisky?
A score, a colourful interface, rewards that increase with each new threshold reached… It’s a basic gamification system we’re dealing with.
A social credit system
But this story echoes a recent announcement of the Chinese administration about plans to introduce a “social credit system”.
What is said about it (and that should be treated with caution), is that the government would search and use your online data (fiscal and administrative information) to establish a citizenship score. It has been suggested that Sesame Credit could be one of the tools used for that purpose. A fact that is yet to be confirmed.
However, just consider the rather frightening implications and possibilities:
Broadly speaking, if you publish on the Internet a report that claims the Chinese economy is growing, you will be rewarded. If you buy local products, same thing.
On the contrary, if you import Japanese mangas, your score will decrease. So no SVIP access for you – whatever this acronym means – nor a visa to Luxembourg.
And you can play this “social credit game” with your friends! It’s a MMORPG on a country-wide scale in which you play your own character.
Your friends’ score will impact your own. It’s collaborative and incites people to behave better, as a group, since you want your friends to have a good score. So you’ll help them… or not.
How can we be sure that the best technique won’t be to ostracize the bad elements?
Someone who writes “Free Tibet!” in a social network can pack his bags right away to the white peaks of Himalaya since it’s pretty sure that noone will be eager to talk to that person anymore, in order to keep a good score.
The next paragraph is pretty worrisome. So here is a koala family doing the conga.
Big Brother in 2020?
In a few years, social credit will become reality. It is planned to be established – and obligatory to every citizen – in 2020.
According to a document of China’s elite State Council (cited by the BBC), social credit will “forge a public opinion environment that trust-keeping is glorious” and also that the “new system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust”.
Isn’t it plain denunciation? Combined with words like “glorious” and “forge a public opinion”, this doesn’t really inspire confidence.
So far, all this is not really clear, and the Chinese government is hardly likely to publish a press release any time soon that explains the ins and outs of this system, its algorithm, or the potential penalties for bad behaviour. But granting loans based on people’s social habits is just one step away.
According to Roger Creemer, researcher in Chinese law and media at the University of Oxford, “the government wants to build a platform that leverages things like big data, mobile internet, and cloud computing to measure and evaluate different levels of people’s lives in order to create a gamified nudging for people to behave better”.
Even though it’s still not an orwellian dystopia, it gives an inkling of the extreme possibilities of abusive gamification.
Transforming an annoying task into a fun activity is one thing. But pushing people to act in accordance with ‘good morals’ is quite another.
And the use of game mechanics makes it even more insidious. It’s an upshot that every game-enthusiast should fear to see happening, as explained in this video by Extra Credits: