In 2017, the New York Times reported that ride-hailing company Uber was engaged in a massive behind-the-scenes experiment:
“Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists, Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and noncash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder – and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them.”
These little psychological tricks include giving drivers ‘badges’ for good performance, automatically sending through new rides before the current ride has finished, and providing encouraging messages to keep drivers on the road – subtle manipulations that mimic the achievement system from Steam and the auto-play function from Netflix and YouTube. Meanwhile, in 2018, Lyft driver Sarah Mason wrote for The Guardian about the ‘challenges’ Lyft sets its drivers, where cash rewards are proffered every week for completing a certain number of rides within a set time; if you perform better, the number of rides needed increases, meaning you have to work harder and harder to chase the reward.
Gamification in the workplace is not new. Ever since work has existed, we’ve been trying to find techniques to make it fun, or at least bearable. And game designers are masters of making work not seem like work; in plenty of games you are very literally plugging away doing your job – monster-hunter, post-apocalyptic mailman, QA tester in Hell – but the storyline, goal structure, design, aesthetic and gameplay keep it from feeling like a chore. But workplaces aren’t interested in gamification to make our lives easier; they’re using it to keep us working harder, and for less pay. Meanwhile, game companies themselves are also angling to exploit their customers, creating meticulously crafted Skinner boxes that frustrate players into spending thousands on microtransactions.
The structures that make gaming fun can be used, and are being used, to screw us over. But games also have a lot of anti-work power as a medium. Part of the reason that game-work doesn’t feel like ‘work’ is that the work we do in games is optional, useful, well-compensated, engaging, and has flexible hours – but that should also be true of a lot more real-life work than it currently is. If you think most of the work done in the average company is necessary work, I’d recommend looking up a guy called David Graeber.
There’s a growing tradition of subversive games that use work simulators or office settings to satirise the workplace and the social conditions that produce it, like The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please and Job Simulator. But few games give me more hope for the liberatory potential of gaming than Chance Agency’s quietly gorgeous gig-economy game, Neo Cab, which opens up past satire into a genuine creative reckoning with our current society’s potential futures.
In Neo Cab, you play as Lina, a driver for the titular ride-share company. At the game’s outset, she’s driving to a new city to move in with an old friend and start a new chapter in her life; the friend drops out of contact, and Lina suddenly finds herself alone in the slick neon grid of Los Ojos, discovering and navigating its dangers while trying to find her friend and make enough money to pay for a hotel room. I’m used to frenetic, fast, jangly cab-driver games – the first game I ever owned was The Simpsons: Road Rage, a licensed knockoff of Crazy Taxi where your car can jump for some reason – but Neo Cab has none of that speed or excitement; you don’t even drive the car. Instead, the main gameplay lies in how you talk to your passengers, balancing your need to keep them happy with the constraints of your mood — if you’re too angry, or too sad, you’ll be locked out of certain dialogue options.
Instead of trying to obscure your real situation through a jingly bombardment of achievements and incentives, Neo Cab is quietly clarifying. You’re barely making enough money to stay afloat, and you constantly have to juggle different stressors: do you park in a restricted area, risking a fine, or park further away, annoying your passenger? Do you bite your tongue when a 14-year-old rich white kid is explaining your oppression to you in the back of your cab, or have you dealt with too much that day to keep your mouth shut?
Instead of the sense of freedom that most games inculcate, Neo Cab even works against accessing all of its content: each client you can pick up has a unique storyline, but several have a history of giving their drivers low ratings, which means that picking them up could drop your rating under 4 stars and get you fired. There are no challenges or bonuses, only the threat of a night sleeping in your car if you don’t make enough money. Driving for Neo Cab in this game is less gamified than driving for Lyft or Uber in real life. And that’s the point.
Neo Cab weaves its gameplay and its various narrative strands into a magnificent overarching look at our likely near future. Lina’s life is shadowed by the massive presence of Capra, a huge, amorphous tech company which owns the many driverless cars streaking across Los Ojos, and which is pushing legislation that would ban the remaining human drivers from the city, using a dancer’s death at the hands of a human driver to cloak their profit-motives in humanitarian language. It also owns the only hotels you can usually afford to sleep in.
I’m not including major spoilers in this piece, but the greatest extent of Capra’s villainy is pretty similar to the Uber/Lyft machinations mentioned earlier, just deployed on a wider scale. Nothing about Neo Cab feels far away. The developers themselves have characterised their approach in Neo Cab as ‘nowpunk’: it’s about ‘a world where we just continue on our current trajectory.’
Neo Cab is a beautiful embodiment of gig economy work because it’s clear-eyed about both its exploitation and its potential. Lina is functionally homeless in a terrifying surveillance city, at the mercy of both her employer and the cops, clinging to her crappy job above the abyss of Capra’s growing power. Clients treat her like a robot (literally) or a child, and even radical anti-Capra activists aren’t immune from blaming her for not being able to opt out of capitalism.
And yet, there’s also powerful gig worker solidarity and connectivity: Lina’s work slices across Los Ojos, bringing her into contact with independent artists, tourists, Capra workers, members of resistance groups, mysterious anarchists, people with various forms of information and experience. She rescues an injured protestor before the cops can get her; she drives another gig worker across the city, who will give you a 5-star rating no matter how much you piss her off. And she ends up encountering networks of striking power – community power even Capra has reason to fear.
So, why do I care about this game so much? Well, I feel like it taps into the emotional truth of bad work in a way that’s genuinely clarifying and productive. It returns us to ourselves. My employment history, up until pretty recently, has been one of mundane exploitation. Low pay. Wage theft. Sexual harassment. Reporting the sexual harassment and being told you ‘can’t handle banter.’ So you focus on the good things – the ways in which your job is strengthening you, fulfilling you – and mentally block out, or minimise, the exploitation. Otherwise you can’t get out of bed.
Unfortunately, this self-preservation act helps your employer to keep exploiting you; they benefit from how good you are at compartmentalisation. (I didn’t even admit to myself that I was being sexually harassed until I’d left that job, which meant, of course, that there were few to no consequences for anyone involved.) Neo Cab is really good at picking away at that self-brainwashing, reminding you that you are, in fact, in the shit, but that it’s not your fault, and you can’t be expected to be an emotional superhero, and that despite being in the shit, you’re not powerless.
Early on in Neo Cab, your friend gives you a Feelgrid, which is a mood bracelet of sorts, registering your emotions across a colour-grid: red is angry, blue sad, yellow chill, etc. It’s a complicated symbol in the game, standing for ominous corporate infiltration & manipulation of our emotional landscapes – Capra gives out Feelgrids at a vigil for the aforementioned dead dancer, trying to get photographs full of blue Feelgrids to publicise their policies – but also for the need to recognise and remain connected to our own emotions, if we’re going to avoid having emotional content be just another way for companies to get profit out of us.
There’s a main character who emotionally manipulates you throughout the game, and near the game’s end, you have to make a decision involving them that should be incredibly easy to make. It’s a logistical decision more than anything: it’s obvious that one of the options is stupid, dangerous, will clearly fail. But Lina’s work makes you so attuned to the desire to keep people happy, to avoid conflict, to just want a night’s rest and a chance at pleasant dreams, that the first time I played Neo Cab, I made the wrong choice. I let myself be manipulated into making the wrong choice.
And I watched the bad ending play out, feeling struck by how effectively gender and capitalism teach us to pretend bullshit isn’t bullshit.
Sometimes, when I’m angry at the state of the world, I pick up this one W.H. Auden poem, ‘The Fall of Rome’, which has this stanza in it that I consider getting tattooed on my own body about once a month:
Caesar’s double bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
There’s this crushing combination of cathartic anger and complete bureaucratic meaninglessness in that statement; many of us have wanted at some point to log in some ridiculous official document that we DO NOT LIKE OUR WORK, while knowing that there’s no way that pink official form could actually change anything, and that it’ll probably just bring down a hail of fury on our heads. My love for Neo Cab comes from the way it embodies this resentment, while also providing strategies for how we can get past murderous daydreams into real subversion. Sometimes, we just have to keep our mouths shut and survive. But other times, we can play.