I still remember my first Singles’ Day shopping experience in 2014—it was simple and quick. After refreshing my shopping cart page at 12 a.m. the day of the sale, all the prices went down. I quickly checked out and closed Taobao. There were no coupons, no games, and no presales requiring buyers to put down deposits in order to secure discounted prices.

Taobao festival shopping is now much more complicated. Shops don’t directly list discounted prices for most products. Any steeply discounted products sell out within minutes—if a discount is released at 12:01 a.m., you might have until 12:05 a.m. to get it.


Shi Jiayi is a visual journalist at TechNode.

Some coupons are only available if you spend weeks playing mini-games before the event. Moreover, the check-out process has been likened on social media (in Chinese) to a mathematics exam where shoppers need to track different promotions which apply to certain shops and check out in several transactions to take full advantage of discounts. 

Gaming for discounts

I always love shopping seasons, but until this year, I never tried playing games for coupons. Last Singles Day (held on Nov. 11), a week before the promo was set to start, I thought about playing a game where you build skyscrapers by scrolling through lists of products, but I was already weeks behind in the Taobao mini-game race. My editor Carolyn Surh had already spent weeks on the virtual job site, accumulating enough gold coins to build a 43-story virtual tower. She even made an excel sheet, trying to take full advantage of all the coupons she got. I was intimidated, but I joined immediately and tried to catch up.

It was too late. This game was not just about earning the coins by yourself, but also about competing with other teams. After forming a team of three and adding up all their levels, the team comes out ahead wins, and is rewarded with more coins. I thought this was too much and refused to drag my friends into this war. So I ended up reaching only level 10 the day before Nov. 11.

Carolyn and I were in Shenzhen for an event, and lived in the same hotel room on Nov 11. After 12 a.m., just as I was about to click the check-out button on my poor, non-optimized shopping basket, I heard an angry scream.

Even though she was on level 43, Taobao rewarded Carolyn with a disappointing selection of coupons.

Getting hooked with Taobao games

After being left out of the Singles Day games, I had to try the real Taobao gaming experience. So I was ready early on for the 618 shopping festival on June 18. My expectations were low—I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of coupons from the game, but somehow I still managed to get pretty addicted. 

This year, the Taobao game was not about competing with others to add levels to a skyscraper; instead, it was about upgrading trains. From level one all the way to level 58, players needed to collect coins to purchase and upgrade their trains. The missions were all easy but time-consuming: sign up, scan an assigned store for 15 seconds, or share the game with friends, and you earn a certain amount of coins, up to a daily limit. Every day the coin collecting limit would reset, so achieving a high score meant logging in daily. 

I spent hours every day visiting different stores on Taobao and waiting for the required 15 seconds in each store for my virtual coins. Taobao also rewards social activity between users: share game links to three people, and you get a few more coins. Some people create WeChat groups to share links between group members to earn more coins or gain access to discounts. 

I don’t like to bother my friends or colleagues, but my trains were progressing painfully slow. I finally relented and persuaded my colleague Eliza Gkritsi to join the game. We both became pretty obsessed with collecting coins—in the end, I spent two weeks playing to reach level 35. 

The grand prize: $1.55

Then the big day came. I opened Taobao on the eve of the promo, June 17, to check how much of a discount I got for my level 35 train. The amount was shocking—only RMB 11 (around $1.55) for all that effort. Eliza got a measly RMB 9 with level 30. I felt cheated and couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t expect too much, but I certainly expected more than RMB 11, which only covered the delivery fee of my order.

After staring at the RMB 11 coupon for a minute, I started to think about the meaning of playing these mini-games every year. This is where shopping festivals are going. They are less and less about discounts—and more and more about engaging users with mindless mini-games and competitions.

Six years ago, I could get a 50% discount on some of my festival orders. This year, I spent almost RMB 1,000 during 618, and after adding all the coupons and discounts, only got a total of around RMB 180 off. An 18% discount is not a big discount, or at least not what I expect from a major annual shopping promotion.

Why play Taobao games?

This isn’t the first year that Taobao has used mini-games to build awareness and buzz around the shopping festival. Some people hate it, but lots of users still play it every year. But it makes me wonder, if people get such minimal returns for playing, are they going to keep showing up for the shopping festivals? 

After some thought, I say yes. Besides saving money, Taobao mini-games have become more about competition between friends. In the end, upgrading trains is not only about getting more coupons and a bigger discount, but about winning or losing the game. 

But will I play them this coming Single’s Day? Probably not. I did get a momentary pleasure, but compared with the time and effort I spent, it’s not worth it.

Shi Jiayi is the Shanghai-based visual reporter helping provide multimedia elements about China’s fast-changing technology and culture. She holds a B.A. in Convergence Journalism from the University...