When Work Is Like A Video Game

Uber gamifies work.

The New York Times published a neat little infographic exploration into the psychological tactics Uber’s interface uses to encourage their drivers to work better, faster, stronger. The secret? Making work seem like a game.

The gig economy promises freedom and appeals to the assumed entrepreneurial spirit that lies within all of us. As a driver for Uber or Lyft or any other ride sharing company, you ostensibly work for yourself. You’re in charge of your own hours, you set your own goals, and meet them as you see fit. But, as the Times report points out, giving this kind of perceived “freedom” to workers flies directly in the face of their bottom line.

In order to solve for the problem of their employees being human beings and not automatons, “Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and noncash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder — and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them.”

Using social scientists and data scientists, Uber tried different tricks and tactics to convince their employees to keep working.

Uber exists in a kind of legal and ethical purgatory, however. Because its drivers are independent contractors, they lack most of the protections associated with employment. By mastering their workers’ mental circuitry, Uber and the like may be taking the economy back toward a pre-New Deal era when businesses had enormous power over workers and few checks on their ability to exploit it.

There’s a lot in here that is fascinating and worrisome but one of the most nefarious tricks is how Uber’s interface would encourage the driver’s to keep going.

As he tried to log off at 7:13 a.m. on New Year’s Day last year, Josh Streeter, then an Uber driver in the Tampa, Fla., area, received a message on the company’s driver app with the headline “Make it to $330.” The text then explained: “You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?” Below were two prompts: “Go offline” and “Keep driving.” The latter was already highlighted.

The app encourages overwork by nudging the driver towards working for juuuust a little bit longer in order to hit a goal. A Fitbit dangles 10,000 steps in front of your face, urging you to walk a little more or take another step in order to hit that mark. Mint and other personal finance apps ask you to save — just a teensy bit more, really, it won’t matter, just try it.

We respond to goals because they seem simple — if you’ve made $320, what’s $10 more to bump you up to an (arbitrary) $330? It’s just a little more. Work a little faster. Do a tiny bit more. Keep moving.

Another tactic Uber uses is an algorithm called a “forward dispatch” that alerts a driver of another ride waiting before they’ve finished the ride they’re currently on. It’s an automatic queuing system similar to that of Netflix’s auto-play, which finds you deep in your couch cushions watching an entire season of The Great British Baking Show while the sun sets behind you. That’s fine for leisure activity, but less fine for work. Is this the future? Is this what we’re moving towards?

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