Our world as an arcade

Head in the Cloud

Photo of Bianca Lee

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When it came to choosing between Uber and Lyft on my nights out, the choice was simple. 

I’d collected enough points to earn Uber Gold standing, which meant that I received discounts after about every five rides. So obviously, because the rides were cheaper, Uber was my default ride-hailing option.

Especially as my immigrant parents raised me to always prioritize saving money, I felt automatically tied to Uber because Uber offered point-related discounts and Lyft didn’t. It was simply an easy way to save on rides.

But I found my blind loyalty being called into question when the allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination against Uber surfaced. Suddenly, the satisfaction of earning those extra points and watching my Uber Gold status bar inch forward wasn’t worth the guilt of putting my dollars toward a company whose values I disagreed with. 

At that point, the manipulative mechanics that Uber used on me stopped working. I didn’t want to play the Uber Gold game anymore.

Tech companies employ the psychological levers of notifications, competitions and achievements because at the end of the day, they want to keep us on their apps for as long as possible. And in order to do that, they’ve designed rewards to be a digital pat on the head for a job “well done.”

The pervasiveness of gamification in tech is so much more than reward systems though. Refreshing my news feed on Twitter by pulling down is akin to pulling the lever on slot machines. Earning badges by taking online courses on Khan Academy offers the same satisfaction as unlocking new abilities in video games. 

And the interfaces are intentionally designed to be addictive. So long as there’s a behavior that they want us to perform, tech companies can continue exploiting our cognitive weaknesses to generate revenue. But as I continue to be exposed to endorphin-boosting interactions such as confetti and satisfying buzzes, not only do I start to exhibit behaviors of a reward-seeking lab rat but I have unknowingly become a puppet for tech companies, too.

Terrifyingly enough, when I interned at Facebook last summer, I didn’t see myself as participating in fueling this addictive behavior. Even though I was tracking metrics for how long users were spending on certain pages and incentivizing which buttons were clicked on more, I certainly wasn’t thinking about my role in indelibly shaping human behavior. And day in and day out, a lot of tech employees don’t either –– we just think that we’re making better apps. 

As much as I’m aware of how addictive tech has become, my online interactions have become inextricable from the game mechanics that are laced into apps. I subconsciously succumb to clout-chasing on social media by accruing followers and diligently rack up points and discounts on food by ordering on restaurants’ apps instead of in-store. I egotistically used Tinder as a game of collecting matches rather than actually chatting with people, and was tempted to participate in Robinhood’s rapid trading with the app’s confetti animations and playful interface even though I knew that steady buy-and-hold strategies were better for beginning investors. Designers build our apps to be like games, and at this point, our phones have turned into an arcade.

Gamification has even drilled itself into Amazon fulfillment centers, where warehouse work has been transformed into minigames. To entice employees to work even harder and strain their bodies even more, Amazon rewards employees with digital points that they can use to raise virtual pets and has created a leaderboard system to promote competition among employees. These games work because they decrease the tediousness of the work, but while employees are distracted by meaningless minigames with no real value, Amazon is capitalizing in real life on gamified human resources.

In some ways, I think notifications and digital achievements are helpful –– they’re effective in helping me stay consistent in saving money, eating healthier and developing good habits all around. But most of the time, these psychological tools are employed by tech companies to steer us not toward our best interests but rather the companies’. 

When all of our online interactions are designed to be a game, tech companies tap into our visceral need for purpose and offer an easy sense of fulfillment through badges, points and chimes. And in doing so, it simultaneously threatens to make us lose sight of the real reasons we’re using an app, steering our motivations toward winning instead. In this digital world dictated by incentives, we’re conditioned into an almost primitive state where we’ll scroll, like and tap for any fleeting sense of fulfillment. It cheapens who we are and what drives us.

Our world dangerously converges into a monolith of a game. And with new features to ensnare us into using their apps, tech companies continue to have the upper hand in winning our time and engagement. I’m afraid that soon enough, I’ll forget that I’m playing a game. And at that point, it’ll really be game over.

Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.