How Uber steers its drivers

The Uber app logo is seen on a mobile telephone on October 28, 2016.
The Uber app logo is seen on a mobile telephone on October 28, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Uber has experimented with video-game techniques, graphics and non-cash 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.

Psychologists and video-game designers have long known that encouragement towards a concrete goal can motivate people to complete a task.

"It's getting you to internalise the company's goals," said video-game designer Chelsea Howe, who has spoken out against coercive psychological techniques deployed in games. "Internalised motivation is the most powerful kind."

Of course, managers have been borrowing from the logic of games for generations, such as when they set up contests and competition among workers. More overt forms of gamification have proliferated during the past decade.

But Uber can go much further. Because it mediates its drivers' work experience through an app, there are few limits to the elements it can gamify. Uber collects staggering amounts of data that allow it to discard game features that do not work and refine those that do. And because its workers are contractors, the gamification strategies are not hemmed in by employment law.


Mr 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.

"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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2017, with the headline 'How Uber steers its drivers'. Print Edition | Subscribe