Uber is bad for drivers, and Uber’s design conceals this exploitation.

Uber is good for consumers. Cheaper than taxis, the ride-hailing service has made for a competitive alternative to public transportation. For drivers, though, despite promises of schedule flexibility, Uber is a bad deal. Uber exports its risks onto drivers with muddled rules, debt traps and by refusing to regard drivers as employees. Further, the platform’s design obscures this risk-reversal by adopting design techniques used in games. This gamification is a slick, new form of exploitation.

Groundwork of Digital Exploitation

Uber refuses to classify its workers as employees. Instead, they are regarded as independent contractors. For luxury car drivers driving for Uber Black, this is in keeping with industry practice. These luxury car drivers have commercial driving licenses and can find work elsewhere, through other services, if they find Uber’s rates unsatisfactory.

For UberX drivers, though, many of whom are un-licensed, being classified as an independent contractor is detrimental. They do not have access to benefits or sick leave and, unlike their licensed peers, do not have other, better alternatives to turn to for similar employment. Other ride-hailing platforms, like Lyft, offer only a false choice; the independent contractor label persists.  

This particular labor injustice of Uber’s has been already widely hailed. But the precise mechanics of Uber’s worker manipulation are more extensive and insidious. A recent report from the Georgetown University Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor interviewed 40 Uber drivers in the DC area, Uber’s fifth largest market. Due to “the debt trap and slippery wage,” the report states, “the Uber workplace resembles a casino where drivers must pay-to-play the game of work.”

Debt trap, here, refers to the costs drivers take on in order to be granted the chance to drive for Uber. A car, repairs on a car, removing undergrad-lightweight-throw-up from a car are among these but even excepting these exceptional, one-time expenses there exists a pile-up of daily tolls, tickets, and dead miles that present a challenge to drivers’ marginal profits.

‘Slippery wages’ refer Uber’s inability to state transparently its algorithm for slicing up a fare—what percent goes to drivers and what to Uber. 100%, every one of the small set of drivers interviewed for the report struggled to figure out their actual compensation.

So, drivers don’t know what they make, and they spend a lot trying to make it. What this encourages, the report continues, are “elements of gamification,” with which “the Uber workplace is thick” (emphasis mine). Gamification is a behavior management system using gamic strategies to induce productivity. By appearing video-game-like, Uber tricks its drivers into working more. The debt trap and the slippery wage enable this practice and progressive incentives and inter-driver competition encourage it.

Incentivization Systems and Driver Competition

Uber offers two progressive incentivization systems. Surge Pricing offers a fare multiplier to drivers during distinct times in distinct areas. Drivers, by planning their schedule around surge cycles, can double, triple or quadruple their earnings. This is an enticing offer, but it obliterates the scheduling flexibility Uber’s marketing makes so much of. Many drivers must choose between working desirable hours and making money.

Surge pricing has evolved recently to include Boosts, a tiered system of automatic surges. All drivers begin Bronze tier but, by completing a weekly ride quota, can advance to Silver, Gold and then Platinum tier. To improve their fares, Drivers are encouraged to “chase Platinum.” Only one of the Drivers interviewed in the Kalmanovitz report, however, had ever caught it, as of April 15th. It is an effectively unattainable goal.

Inter-driver competition is another major gamification strategy of Uber’s. The platform’s design encourages drivers to view themselves as exceptional, to believe they have figured out how to succeed in a rigged system. The system’s rigging then, becomes a perverse incentive itself. Instead of solidarity, the position of some drivers towards others—the position encouraged by Uber—is one of superiority and pity. The directive is: beat the other drivers and the system; win the game.

Differences Between Uber and Games

Individual exceptionalism is a common perspective among drivers. One driver interviewed remarks: “I think I can do better than the average driver, because I consider myself smarter and more efficient with my time.” This assertion’s veracity is doubtful, however; 45% of other interviewed drivers asserted the same. Assuming superiority keeps drivers competing—but the research indicates Uber’s Übermensches have been hoodwinked. No driver, regardless how smart or efficient, is significantly “doing better” against the system.

The delusion of superiority is induced by the lack of communication between drivers. This is a major difference between Uber and a game. Many video games have built-in communication with other gamers. Games are a social experience. Uber is anti-social. Only 5% of the interviewed drivers knew more than one other person with Uber experience. There is no Discord for Uber drivers.

This isolating effect encourages the individualistic strategies and perspectives described above, and it presents a significant challenge to organizing Uber workers. It is difficult to build power amongst people who are unaware of each other’s existence.

Breaking the Game

Still, cooperation between drivers happens. On May 8th, there was a nationwide strike of Uber workers. As independent contractors, however, there is little chance they will be able to form a union or, indeed, accomplish any successful collective bargaining action in the near term. So far, post-strike, none of the workers’ demands for higher pay and benefits have been met.

The strike came two days before Uber’s I.P.O. and a month after the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB’s) affirmation of Uber’s business practices and of its workers’ place as independent contractors. The strike did not alter the effects of either of these—I.P.O. or NLRB memorandum—both of which bode poorly for drivers. In order to become profitable, Uber will have to cut down on driver benefits, which, so long as drivers remain legally independent contractors, they can do.

Still, the organizing that took place on May 8th still represents a profound success. The hope inherent in the Uber strike is in, simply, the ability of Uber drivers to overcome a platform working against their connection, to connect, nevertheless. The game of Uber can be broken.

The language of gamification

Gamification is infantilizing. It makes serious issues sound less serious. Discussing Uber drivers’ challenges in chasing Platinum tier when the exact same language describes the struggles of many a League of Legends competitor, makes conversations about labor rights harder to take at face value. The language of gamification is designed to underplay the real-life stakes of exploitation. Uber has taken full advantage of the darker angles of gamification technology. By framing work itself as a privilege, as a pay-to-play game, a multi-billion dollar company is offloading the majority of its risk onto workers at the bottom of its corporate hierarchy. Uber drivers, enactors of a transportation revolution, deserve better.

Jonathan Compo

Jonathan is a Generation Z voice at the Pavlovic Today. He is studying Theatre and Biology at Georgetown University. His interests include healthcare, arts, culture and the environment.