Do psychologists have a duty to help and protect the public, or are they free to take advantage of a free market and use their talents to do whatever they would like to make money?
There is a trend in the video game industry, specifically the mobile game industry, where gaming studios are hiring psychologists to help them make their games addicting to create an ecosystem of not only gamers who enjoy the game but people who are addicted to the game. Less than 1% of all gamers bring in over 50% of revenue in mobile gaming, so getting a couple addicted people who are willing to pay is key to the success of a mobile game in an extremely saturated market. Therefore, you see less games like a normal console game where one can beat the story in a handful of hours, but you play never ending games that force one to spend a lot of time and eventually money to continue to succeed.
A good addicting game releases dopamine when rewarded with achievements creating a feeling not all that different from taking drugs (Though presumably less dangerous). Nonetheless, there seems to be something wrong about games, often targeted for young kids, with the purpose of getting them addicted enough to the point where they spend money. In addition, this is not like a normal console game where the consumer pays $50 and is finished, but instead it is never ending meaning a consumer could keep paying for that feeling of satisfactory. However, they are all sucked in under the notion that the game is “free.”
Chris Ko came to visit my class New Media Industries, and he owns his own mobile game studio and does not use psychologists to help make his games addicting. However, he did tell a story about a truck driver who spent over $100K a year on a mobile game he worked on, which is crazy on all levels. Fortunately, that guy was not just a truck driver and had access to millions of dollars so he was not bankrupting himself, but I still had a tough time grasping someone addicted to a game to the point that they would spend that kind of money. In my mind, that’s pretty much at drug addiction level in terms of potential damage to life.
So…what does all of this have to do with Uber? Well, this is to show that people can be addicted to unlocking meaningless achievements in meaningless games because the dopamine released is a rush, and with the help of psychologists, games have been able to tap into this. Uber, the morally challenged company of the year, has been tapping into this same type of psychology to get Uber drivers to continue driving long after they want to be done. There is a fascinating NYTimes article about it that digs deeper, but essentially Uber was running into a problem with demand where riders were waiting too long for drivers and certain areas did not have enough drivers. Uber does not hire any of the drivers, instead they are contractors to the company essentially in charge of their individual business so Uber could not schedule drivers to certain areas and times. Instead, they tapped into some familiar psychological tricks streaming services and mobile gaming have been using to retain customers.
The first trick comes from the Netflix binge model. We have all been watching our favorite Netflix shows where once our current episode ends, the next episode starts immediately to try and keep us all on the couch watching many episodes as a time. They make it so easy! Uber is doing the same thing to drivers though it is not as exciting. Before one trip is complete, they add the new trip keeping Uber drivers more active because instead of having the down time to turn the app off and call it quits, they are constantly receiving requests. Psychologically, they have that same affect as us sitting on the couch, “I guess I can do one more…what’s one more.”
The second trick comes from the mobile game industry mentioned earlier in the post where Uber taps into this psychological phenomenon of giving people meaningless rewards that brings satisfaction. They are giving rewards like “20 rides in a day,” and unlocking meaningless achievements with no real reward, not too different from committing endless hours, days, and months to these stupid video games.
My critique of Uber is not that they aren’t allowed to do that because clearly it is working and creatively solving a business issue. They are not breaking any laws, and ultimately they are being honest to their drivers. However, Uber is continuing to devalue their drivers instead of making them actual employees, and they are fixing problems through psychological games instead of creating a way to solve these issues that truly benefit the drivers. Again, Uber is technically doing nothing unlawful or wrong, but they are still being jerks.