clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The problem with turning urban challenges into games

New, 2 comments

Tech companies like gamifying civic problems—but they often reward the wrong things

Shutterstock

I would bet that most of Waze’s 100 million users probably don’t know that it originally started as a game.

If you were one of the Wazers who first got your hands on the navigation app in 2009, in addition to a map of your route, you’d find yourself confronted with a trail of pellets in your path, which your car would “chomp” as you drove over them.

“There’s one rule: you have to be the first Waze user to drive down that road since the first driver gets the pellets,” wrote one AOL reviewer. “Apparently some cretin had already road munched half the pellets on the way to my son’s school. Just for the extra pellets, I actually drove on the side roads on the way back.”

The pellets, of course, were placed on streets to gather data, so Waze’s engineers could compare what they thought they knew about users’ neighborhood with real-time driving information. Framing it as a game was one of the reasons that Waze grew so quickly and became so essential for drivers. And it’s the same reason app developers apply game-like features to everything from physical activity to losing weight to getting pregnant.

Maybe Waze was fun in 2009, when it was more like a Pac-Man chomping pellets. But now I feel like it’s a game that incentivizes the wrong behavior.

When I type in a destination, I feel as if Waze presents me not as much with an itinerary, but with a time to beat. As the “estimated arrival” inevitably ticks up on a clogged freeway, Waze’s interface makes me start to feel like being two or three minutes late might, indeed, be the end of the world. If I don’t choose the optimal minute-saving path—which might require making a potentially dangerous left-hand detour I would never make of my own accord—I will surely lose.

I’d argue that Waze’s idea of turning commuting into a game has become dangerous—not just because of the bizarre turns, or the distractions of using an app behind the wheel, but also by perpetuating this idea that we all might be able to “beat” traffic... by driving.

Waze, for its part, seems to know this, and has launched a carpool function and is now sharing its data in real-time as part of its Connected Citizens Program, which is helpful for cities to manage congestion. But wouldn’t the best possible Waze function be to show you how many emissions you could avoid generating by not making the trip, calculate how much you might save in gas by traveling at a different time, or better yet, recommend a biking or public transit route instead?

Gamification is a big deal in the “urban tech” field, described by Richard Florida as apps or services which thrive on the connections made in dense communities. If you look at Florida’s list of the urban tech companies which have received the most venture capital money, a majority of the financing is for transportation solutions—61 percent, not to mention an additional 8.3 percent just for bikes and scooters.

Right now, we have a remarkable opportunity to make transportation apps, the most popular apps out there, serve a much greater purpose than just getting somewhere fast. And gamification is the perfect way to do it.

When Uber and Lyft both begin offering a wide range of multimodal options on their apps this month, there’s no longer a single algorithmically selected path to a destination. Users will now have a chance to compare options, weighing decisions about the impact of their journeys across time and space to achieve a logistical, yes, but also an environmental and societal goal.

As both companies are working to offset carbon emissions and electrify their fleets, Uber and Lyft could pass the challenge along to users, presenting you with your own emissions allotment goals for the week. To save emissions, the app could ping you to take bike share or public transit instead of using a ride-hailing vehicle, or remind you to share trips with friends in your social networks. At the end of the week, if you’ve stayed below your emissions target, you could be “rewarded” with credits that could be applied to future travel.

It’s not even that radical of an idea when it comes to urban tech. A new study in the journal Public Good Games looked at the effectiveness of gamified environmental apps, particularly those which tracked energy and water use. The app Ohm Connect pays its utility customers to conserve energy during events like heat waves, and has successfully reduced usage when grids are overloaded. Many water companies in California created gamification apps to reward conservation during the drought, which were credited with helping to achieve the state’s water-use goals.

Games do a great job of making us feel like we’re part of something bigger—giving us a cooperative sense that small behavioral changes could benefit the greater good. As apps make urban transit feel like a game, let’s design a game where everyone wins.