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How Chinese tech companies are taking gamification to the extreme

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How Chinese tech companies are taking gamification to the extreme

If you ask a child in China what the most exciting thing about Chinese New Year is, they’ll probably answer: the red packets. During the holidays, people distribute these packages to young family members in the form of red envelopes containing money. You can reliably receive cash gifts every year until you finish school and start working full-time.

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This festive tradition, which has existed for centuries, must now face the digital age: the red envelopes have not only evolved from a physical activity to a digital one. They also enable Chinese technology companies to make a ton of money every year and gain new users. In return, however, they have to follow increasingly complicated rules in order to get a little money.

The digitization of red envelope gift-giving began in the early 2010s, when super apps like Alipay and WeChat made it possible to send and receive money via smartphones. In keeping with this, they introduced mechanisms that breathed new life into the red packet tradition, such as a random allocation system where people put a giant red packet in a group chat and whoever opens it gets a random share of the total. The promise of variable rewards increases the feeling of excitement when receiving a large share.

In 2015, WeChat decided to distribute over $80 million worth of red packets during the Spring Festival Gala, an annual tradition in China that many families watch on television. To get a share of WeChat’s red “gifts,” people had to shake their phone at a certain time of the show. According to WeChat, people shook their phones 11 billion times throughout the Lunar New Year period. At its peak, people shook their phones 800 million times in just one minute.

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This massive success inspired pretty much every other tech company in China to get in on the game and throw out millions of dollars. Today, every major app offers a version of this promotion in the new year. However, participation has become much more complicated.

For example, to participate in one of this year’s red packages on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, users must complete a series of tasks: log in every day, invite new users to the platform, upload an avatar, follow specific accounts, one Set up group chat, post a gif in group chat, make a video call, upload a video, watch videos for a minimum time and download other apps. The more time you are willing to spend on these tasks, the more the app rewards you.

In the 2010s, China’s mobile Internet sector experienced immense growth, and one of the lasting results is that apps have developed very sophisticated gimmicks to attract users and visitors – keyword gamification. The New Year’s red packet promotion is basically the culmination of these advertising ploys.

Many people no longer have the time to play every single mini-game. Especially since the payout is always miserable compared to the effort: Am I willing to send a message to five of my school friends who I haven’t spoken to in years to receive the equivalent of five euros? Rather not.

Other people, however, are taking the matter seriously: As Chinese publications have reported, some people, especially the less wealthy, are carefully studying the rules of these red packet games in the hope of making a fortune. Because the games reward social interactions, some people even pay others with their own money to play. New apps have even emerged that connect people trying to game the system.

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Outsiders have mostly not seen this side of the Chinese tech industry. That is slowly changing. With Temu, the Chinese app for ultra-fast e-commerce that just spent millions of dollars on Super Bowl advertising and is also used in Germany, users outside of China can also get an impression of the marketing shenanigans.

The spinning wheel with vouchers, the never-ending invitation to invite new friends, and mini-games designed to keep you engaged – these are just a few of the tactics used by Temu and Co. that Chinese users are all too familiar with.

The more successful the Chinese platforms become internationally, the more likely it is that we might soon be sending virtual red packages (or envelopes) in Europe and the USA – or shaking our smartphones in the hope of winnings.

(jl)

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