Digital Lessons from China: Gamification as a UX Game-Changer

Digital Lessons from China: Gamification as a UX Game-Changer

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Gamification transforms a mundane task into an action consumers can’t wait to perform again.

The following article is part of our ‘Digital Lessons from China’ series, where we outline best practices and takeaways from China’s advanced digital ecosystem.

Contrast the average user experience on Chinese and western platforms and one thing will become clear: the Chinese Internet is fun. It is full of playful language, bright colors, animal mascots and whimsical interactions like shaking your phone to connect with people around you. 

Western UX is typically assumed to be the golden standard, with Chinese UX often derided as cheap and distinctly user-unfriendly. We at MADJOR believe that while there is much to learn from the West in terms of UX design, there is just as much to learn from China – especially in the realm of UX gamification, where China can truly be called an innovator.

And just to be clear: we refer to gamification as a user experience tactic that uses online-based micro games to simplify complicated processes, attach positive emotion to the user experience to create stickiness as well as habit formation, and build brand differentiation. Let’s take a peek into how certain Chinese brands use gamification online, so that you can be inspired to find more innovative ways to engage with your consumer base.


What it is: 6 months after the launch of its WeChat Pay mobile payment platform and right before the Chinese New Year, WeChat launched the red envelope application as an attempt to create stickiness for WeChat Pay. The red envelope application is a digitization of the Chinese New Year tradition of – you guessed it – giving money to individuals in red envelopes, called 红包 [hongbao]. But WeChat didn’t just create a digital hongbao and leave it at that. WeChat Pay features another type of red envelope where you first set a lump sum amount, with WeChat then distributing random amounts to people inside a selected group chat. A tradition that has usually been one dimensional now features an element of novelty, and the growth of red envelope usage has been exponential – during CNY 2015, 1 billion red envelopes were sent which then grew to an astonishing 8 billion red envelopes sent during CNY 2016.

Why this works: The randomized red envelope feature appeals to the cultural affinity the Chinese have for games of chance. A user experiences elation when getting a large amount, thus associating the usage of WeChat red envelope with a positive emotion; when a user doesn’t receive quite what he/she expected, the “game” is easy enough – and the amounts sent are insignificant enough – for the user to want to try again, and again. 


What it is: Tmall – Alibaba’s B2C marketplace brand that has a characteristically playful Chinese name meaning “sky cat” – launched its recent “领钱了” (or “get money”) promotion with a series of app-based gambling games. The user first plays either a roulette or digitized coin pusher game to win some credit, which they can then use to play digitized versions of bingo, poker, slots, wheel roulette, and soccer wagering. Winning in these games allows the user to win a second form of credit – in the form of “gold coins” – which they can then use within a specific section of the Tmall marketplace. With these games, Tmall appeals directly to the cultural affinity the Chinese have for games of chance. Tmall is also able to reduce the risk associated with such games by keeping the flow of “money” within the game ecosystem – the only way to get credits and gold coins is by playing games.

Why this works: Users are first drawn in by the app-based gambling games, with the closed nature of the game and points ecosystem encouraging stickiness as there is no alternative to gain the credit needed to play games with and no likelihood of a tangible financial loss. In terms of reward, there is also an excellent selection of products that users can spend their gold coins on.

Ant Financial/Alipay/Alibaba

What it is: In late 2015, Ant Financial – an Alibaba-run company that also runs Alipay, Alibaba’s payment platform that boasts over 350 million users – created Sesame Credit, a credit rating system that evaluates a user’s Alipay purchasing and spending habits, rate of on-time bill and credit card payments among other parameters to judge a user’s creditworthiness. Sesame Credit functions as a subtle, gamified loyalty program for Alipay – keeping in mind that scores tend to be higher with increased usage of Alipay, users at a certain score threshold are entitled to privileges like renting a car without putting a deposit, discounts when booking hotel rooms, and hard-to-get visas. Surprisingly, the gamification of something sensitive like a credit score did not arouse user suspicion. When Sesame Credit first came out, there was a rush of people proudly sharing their scores on WeChat and Weibo.

Why this works: The ability for users to actually build up their credit scores through consistent engagement with Alipay is much like how one builds or levels up a character in a role playing game. Sesame Credit’s genius is that it appeals to both users who want just simply want to show off their score and those motivated by tangible reward, as the rewards are not insignificant.


What it is: Didi’s victory over global rival Uber is often attributed to factors like its local connections and larger cash stash. We firmly believe, however, that Didi’s significantly gamified user experience played a big role in winning consumer loyalty. Uber’s promotional strategy was and is not quite as attuned to the expectations of Chinese consumers: promotions are difficult to access and redeem, and are generic – promotions are not contextualized around factors like user behavior, location, and the time of day. Meanwhile, Didi’s promotional strategy features lotteries, randomized cash prizes, a flexible points system that can be redeemed for cash or various goods within the Didi app, flash sales, cash prizes that can be sent to friends via social media, and the overlaying of promotions over editorial content. Didi’s promotional strategy may be just one of several critical factors in its victory against Uber, but one thing is certain: gamified promotions and discounts have become something Chinese consumers expect to see online.

Why this works: Didi brings a level of uncertainty to how users receive promotions – again, appealing to the cultural affinity the Chinese have for games of chance. Moreover, there is the opportunity for users to build themselves up and gain Didi points through continuous usage. Substantive, tangible reward can be gained through using the accumulated Didi points in the in-app marketplace.



Why should Western brands find inspiration in Chinese gamification innovation?

Appeal to less tech-savvy consumers

Gamification makes online interactions that are usually perceived as complicated – such as payments or money transfer – more easily achievable by less tech savvy audiences. This presents an opportunity for brands to engage with older segments, which in the West tend to be less tech-savvy and increasing in size.

Creation of increased stickiness

Gamification augments functional dimensions with an entertainment dimension, encouraging the association of functional usage with positive emotion. Thus, users may feel more compelled to go through that same interaction again, especially if a cash or social status reward accompanies it. Furthermore, the introduction of an entertainment dimension on what is ostensibly a functional task allows for more types of usage occasions, occasions that allow consumers to associate typical online interactions like payment and hailing a taxi as more than a day-to-day utility.

Cut through the messaging clutter

Gamification presents an opportunity for Western brands to engage with consumers through not just words but also actions. Consumers in today’s world are bombarded with messages from brands on social media and other online channels; gamified elements can accelerate a brand’s differentiation, cutting through the clutter and more effectively capturing lasting consumer attention.

Gamification is nascent in some consumer-facing Western industries

Gamification has significantly developed in some Western industries – for example, dating in the West has been significantly gamified with the rise of apps like Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel. The Western world has pioneered the use of gamification in employee engagement with companies like Bluewolf using games to bolster internal communication and collaboration. However, in finance, social media, and certain service industries, Chinese brands are further ahead in their gamification innovation. In the West, Facebook, Instagram, Uber, PayPal and Postmates focus on achieving simplicity and ease of use in their user experiences, instead of encouraging the creation of user experiences that incorporate the human element of design. 

The Lesson

There is more to online consumer engagement and inspiring consumer loyalty than just delivering a technically excellent and seamless user experience. Innovative brands in China have discovered that gamification – backed by cultural and consumer understanding – can be a powerful tool in not only sparking consumer engagement, but also cementing the formation of new behaviors. For example, WeChat Pay made mobile payments easy and fun through the gamification of the red envelope, but once the fun was over, user growth continued to skyrocket.

We recommend that Western brands, again, look east and start experimenting with “fun” as well. Western brands should definitely go ahead and perfect technically excellent and seamless experiences, but should also understand the where there is potential within the user experience for the brand to be experienced not only as a trusted utility, but also as a consistent source of positive reinforcement able to encourage the user to come back time and time again.