How Uber Uses Video Game Tricks To Manipulate Drivers

Photo: Courtesy of Uber
Uber and Lyft are emblematic of the biggest problem that faces the American economy today. Namely, that the technology underpinning the means of production has far outstripped the ability of government or labor to regulate it. If someone can create an app that makes them billions of dollars by using cheap, voluntary labor, there's no incentive structure for taking care of your workers.
Let's back up. The role of a business owner is to extract as much labor from her employees in exchange for as little possible money as she can give to them. The role of employees is to extract as much money from their employer in exchange for as little possible labor as they can give. It's wonderful if you can be friends with your boss, or only do business sustainably, or donate to social causes, or take your employees to coffee, but those are all ultimately marketing strategies. Unions were created, essentially, to give employees a fighting chance by allowing them to bargain collectively. Unions are now, also, dying at a rate more alarming than bees.
Now Lyft and Uber have found a backdoor, through which their profit drivers are not even employees. They're independent contractors, which nominally puts them in charge of their own employment, but in fact deprives them of benefits like health insurance, unemployment insurance, and matching deposits in retirement accounts. But, of course, the drivers can just walk and do so in large numbers if their compensation doesn't match their labor. (By the way, Uber at least is hyperfocused on developing self-driving cars, which will eliminate this problem for them.) Uber and Lyft want to control their workforce without, you know, giving them more money. So both companies use videogame techniques to keep people on the road at the times the company wants them to be on the road.
One of the techniques they use are driver earning targets to send messages to keep them from exiting the app.
"The beauty of the messages that Uber sent Mr. Streeter and his fellow drivers is that the drivers need not have even had a specific income goal in mind in order for the messages to work," the New York Times writes. "Some of the most addictive games ever made, like the 1980s and ’90s hit Tetris, rely on a feeling of progress toward a goal that is always just beyond the player’s grasp. As the psychologist Adam Alter writes in his book Irresistible, video game designers even have a name for this mental state: the 'ludic loop.' (The term was coined by the anthropologist and slot machine expert Natasha Schüll.)"
Pretty creepy, but also within their rights and responsibilities to their investors. That's what capitalism demands: pursuit of profit. It works pretty well, generally speaking. Gamification isn't all bad, by the way. People ought to be in a good mood while they're working, it's good to enjoy your job, and ideally we'd all be fully satisfied and give full effort. But there's an obvious potential for things to go badly quickly.
"Kevin Werbach, a business professor who has written extensively on the subject, said that while gamification could be a force for good in the gig economy — for example, by creating bonds among workers who do not share a physical space — there was a danger of abuse," the Times writes. "'If what you’re doing is basically saying, 'We’ve found a cheap way to get you to do work without paying you for it, we’ll pay you in badges that don’t cost anything,’ that’s a manipulative way to go about it,' he said."
The rest of the article is fascinating. You should read it here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to attribute the concept of the ludic loop to Natasha Schüll, who coined the concept Alter wrote about.