How companies like Uber and Airbnb are gamifying work

Companies with the newer “sharing economy” business models are gamifying work. They are making people work hard in ways that resemble how they play video games.

To better understand this, I compare their models to the components of a game as given by Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal:

  1. Goal: A game has a very specific outcome, a sense of purpose. Where as at work you might wonder what the purpose is, in a game it’s usually very clear what you are trying to do.
  2. Rules: In a game there are clear limitations on how you are supposed to accomplish the goal. These limitations make it really clear where people can experiment encouraging creativity and strategy. At work, the limitations are often not clear. Maybe you can ask for more budget, maybe another department will help you, maybe …
  3. Feedback system: all games have a scoring system or a way of knowing how close you are to the goal. I think this is often the most missing thing at work, especially if you don’t have a clear goal (besides making money).
  4. Voluntary participation: everyone who is playing the game knows and accepts the goal, rules and feedback. This allows people to play together and makes it safe and fun as you always have the freedom to leave.

Companies like Airbnb and Uber have all these components, and people have fun trying to see if they can gain new levels and statuses. I recently talked to an Airbnb host who is obsessed with making “Super Host” status.

Here’s how these new sharing economy models compare to games.

  1. A goal. With the sharing economy businesses, your goal is very clear. With Uber you want lots of rides, or maybe money from rides. With Airbnb you want lots of guests. The goal, what the business and the app are all about, are obvious.
  2. Rules. With the sharing economy businesses, the apps make it very clear what the rules are. They make it clear what you are supposed to do. For example, pick up a client at this address and take them to this address.
  3. Feedback. Both of these systems, and many like them, excel at feedback. Uber has every driver and every rider rate each other before they are allowed to do anything else. Airbnb works hard to get people to rate each other and gives Super Host status to those that maintain high ratings. At Grace Hopper, I went to a talk by an Airbnb data scientist where she talked about the ways they try to make feedback more honest. They’ve made lots of changes (like not letting hosts and guests see each others’ reviews until after they both have left one) to encourage more and more honest reviews.
  4. Voluntary participation. As long as people participating in Airbnb and Uber are doing it as supplemental income or as long as there are alternatives like HomeAway.com and Lyft, people can leave whenever they want. I tried driving Uber one afternoon and decided it wasn’t for me. The “game” is fun because the people playing it got to choose to leave if they didn’t like it.

What do you think? Do you think the new “sharing economy” businesses are gamifying work? Is that making the world a better place? Should traditional businesses try to gamify work as well?