Chinese gamers face direct ‘social penalties’, such as lack of access to Visa schemes and dating sites, as part of an upcoming surveillance program which rates citizens based on their economic and social behaviour. The Black Mirror (opens in new tab) style trial scheme discourages certain types of behaviour and can even penalise people for buying video games.
The idea of ‘Social Credit’ isn’t a new concept, but the Chinese government plans to formalise it with technology, where private companies can raise or diminish a user’s social standing by monitoring and reviewing all aspects of their lifestyle, thus further blurring the line between parody and reality.
The Black Mirror season 3 premiere, Nosedive (opens in new tab), was a hard, honest look at our obsession with social media, and how our online presence increasingly has bearing on our social standing in the real world.
But while it certainly had bite, it still felt like a relatively abstract and unrealistic future at the time; where customers could mark down baristas for not being cheerful enough and social media influencers were the new ruling class. Surely, we’d never accept a world where everyone rates each other all time, the results of which dictate where we can go, who we can see, and what we can buy?
Well, not yet, but this in-the-works surveillance programme in China suggests it might not be so far fetched. Known as Sesame Credit (opens in new tab), it’s a privately owned algorithm programme that could well become the linchpin in the Chinese government’s vision to implement a national system of social credit by 2020 (opens in new tab).
Think of the way in which financial credit scores are awarded to people based on their economic activity through programmes like Experian. Sesame Credit presents that same basic idea, but its remit spans further than anything we’ve seen before.
The algorithm awards its users a score between 350 and 950, and the higher score someone possesses, the more opportunities open up for them in society, such as being able to fast-track Visa applications, rent cars without a deposit, or sign up for exclusive online dating services. Sesame Credits determines its scores using a number of trackers based on a user’s consumer habits and “interpersonal relationships”, which is to say the factors aren’t just economic but social, and wholly normative in their presumptions.
Buying video games, for example, can lower your social credit score under Sesame Credit’s system. This comes across as discriminatory against China’s burgeoning community of video game players, but it’s not too surprising given the state’s love-hate relationship with video games.
Wired magazine spoke to Sesame Credit (opens in new tab) creators Alibaba in late 2017: "Alibaba admits it judges people by the types of products they buy. "Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person," says Li Yingyun, Sesame's Technology Director."
Despite being a leading nation in eSports (opens in new tab) and boasting one of the largest PC gaming industries in existence (the country has often been described as the gaming capital of the world (opens in new tab)), the state has banned multiple games from releasing within its borders (Grand Theft Auto, Battlefield, Football Manager etc.) with home consoles in general being completely banned between 2000 and 2015.
Even now, developers often have to modify their titles to see a Chinese release; Tencent has stated that the Chinese version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (opens in new tab) will be redesigned to align with the nation’s “socialist core values”, for instance.
For China to penalise its own populace for buying video games – yet happily receiving the tax attributed to such a large industry – is a punitive (and arguably hypocritical) gesture akin to western views on smoking, and it’s unclear whether this particular condition would be viable for 2020’s social credit programme.
Even so, the very idea that purchasing a video game could set back your social standing and limit your opportunities in life sounds bizarre and prejudicial against a particular subset of hobbyists, implicitly propagating a negative correlation between a person’s interest in games and their value to society.
If you wanted any more proof about the dangers of an algorithm-dominated future – and books like Weapons of Math Destruction (opens in new tab), or the Guardian's investigation into the propagation of conspiracy videos via YouTube (opens in new tab) weren't sufficient cause for pause – you need look no further than the implications of Sesame Credit in China.