Is Gamification Ethical?

Image Source: CIO

Gamification, simply put, is the use of game elements in non-game contexts. Leaderboards on at-home spin bikes like Peloton bikes that show you what place you are in relative to other riders are a form of gamification. This leaderboard pushes you to work harder during your ride so that you can beat your fellow riders. Gamification can involve game methods like points, levels, competitions, rewards, ratings, or any measurable proof of achievement. Gamification targets our inherent thirst to be the best, delivering instant satisfaction and gratification once a reward is achieved. In a work setting, gamification can be used to incentivize employees to work harder and achieve more to maximize company efficacy.

Gamification is a form of nudging. A nudge influences people’s behavior in a certain way without hindering their freedom of choice. An example of a nudge is designing a supermarket with the healthiest food options at eye-level so that they are easier to reach, nudging people to buy the healthier food choices. One thing to note is that, in this situation, people still have autonomy. They still can choose the unhealthier options if they want, and no food options are withheld from them, but the designers of the supermarket are subtly pushing people towards the healthiest options by making them the most easily accessible. Gamification nudges people to stay involved in what they are doing by prompting them with rewards they can achieve.

One particular work context where gamification is utilized is in ride-share apps. Uber and lyft drivers are independent contractors, and not company employees, so they can decide when they work and for how long. In order to get the most work out of their drivers that they can, Uber and Lyft use game elements such as achievement badges (“cleanest car” badge, “best driver” badge, etc), star ratings, and algorithmically generated challenges. One example of a challenge employed by these companies would require its drivers to complete a certain number of rides within 24 hours to get a specified amount of bonus money.

So from first glance gamification sounds awesome, right? Drivers get to participate in fun, game-like activities to achieve and succeed in their jobs, and in turn companies get harder working and more motivated drivers! It’s a win win!

However, gamification has its downsides. Gamification uses much of the same design elements employed by gambiling firms to encourage and promote addictive behavior in slot-machine users. Thus, gamification can keep people addicted to “the game” and achieving higher rewards in the same way that a slot machine in Las Vegas would keep the attention of a gambling addict.

The reason this is morally reprehensible is because it distracts Uber and Lyft drivers from their higher goals. Drivers of these companies generally make below minimum wage, a gig that cannot reliably support individuals and families in today’s economy. While being a driver at these companies should be a side job, or a temporary job while you look for a better paying one, keeping drivers addicted to the game will keep them locked in this low paying job by manipulating their vulnerable mental faculties. Some drivers reported entering a hypnotic-like state while driving, demonstrating how the game has stripped them of their ability to make fully informed and rational decisions about their lives and the hours they work.

Furthermore, gamification fails to respect the autonomy of the individuals it preys upon. It treats people as players in a game rather than autonomous beings able to make free choices within the context of their job. Any outcome that may result in the game is more a result of the set up of the game than their own merit or performance, because people are only motivated to achieve as much as the game prompts them too.

Gamification from the perspective of Libertarian Paternalism

Libertarian paternalism is an idea coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein that states that a nudge should respect the freedom of choice of individuals as well as promoting their best interests. It requires nudges to be “cheap and easy to avoid,” as well as being transparent. Essentially, nudges must not be hidden so that we cannot see our alternative options, and alternative options must not be made impossible to achieve. This idea incorporates the inherent paradox between libertarianism (which promotes people’s liberty and autonomy) and paternalism (in which people interfere with other people’s actions based on what they think is best for those people), noting that a nudge can promote both welfare and autonomy.

Gamification is not compatible with the idea of Libertarian Paternalism. Opponents of this claim may argue gamification is fair or just because employees can just opt out of the game at any time, thus preserving their autonomy and freedom of choice. However, the argument that “if you don’t like it you can just quit” overlooks many other factors at play with gamification. Because drivers become addicted to the game, being able to “just quit” is much harder. The game is drawing them in and manipulating them into working longer to achieve higher rewards, and the drivers’ ability to make judgements about whether or not they truly want to be in this job is clouded. Similarly, being an Uber or Lyft driver is someone’s job, and many people can’t afford to “just quit” their jobs. Gamification of ride-share apps does not fully respect the freedom of choice of individuals, and it promotes the company’s best interest rather than that of the drivers.

Gamification is a highly disputed and controversial topic. Some believe that it is an effective way for companies to increase employee productivity, and it technically maintains freedom of choice despite addictive tendencies. But gamification is manipulative. It targets and exploits humans’ desire to be good and to be liked. It exacerbates capitalist culture, exhibiting a disregard for the mental state of employees and placing the profit of the company above their mental health.

References:

Mason, Sarah. “High Score, Low Pay: Why the Gig Economy Loves Gamification.” The Guardian, 20 Nov. 2018, www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/20/high-score-low-pay-gamification-lyft-uber-drivers-ride-hailing-gig-economy. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Special thanks to the Harvard Secondary School for introducing this issue to me!

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Rachel Hendrix

Rachel Hendrix

follow my philosophy journey!

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