Saturday, June 20, 2015

[Your Job] is a Video Game

Video games, and video game theory, provide insight into the ways ubiquitous mobile computing will be used to transform social interaction.

Cabdriving is a video game!
K-ching! K-ching!
That’s the name of the game!

– MC Mars, “Cabdriving is a Video Game”

I’m going to Yerba Buena Gardens,” said the friendly young man. “You know where that is, right?”

Of course I know where that is, and as luck would have it, we were only a few blocks away. With a few taps of the screen, I navigated my car south and east from the Tenderloin, crossing Market at Fourth and coming up along the main entrance to Yerba Buena Gardens on Mission Street. Nothing happened; the passenger did not get out.

Damn, is this game frozen again? There should be a flag here to mark my passenger’s drop-off location. I pinched and spread the map to zoom out, and then saw it: the flag was planted way over in the intersection of Third and Howard, on the far opposite corner of the park.

Oh, of course. I was playing UberDrive, Uber’s new cabdriving (okay, “ridesharing”) simulation/game/recruiting tool. My virtual passenger, I realized, could not get out anywhere but at whatever specific location Uber’s GPS imagined to be “Yerba Buena Gardens.” Unfortunately, most of the streets around here are one-way, in the wrong direction. I maneuvered around three long city blocks, finally tapped the flagged intersection on the map, and watched the little car icon pull up. “Best ride ever!” beamed the passenger. Another five star rating!

According to Uber’s website,

UberDRIVE was designed as a fun and engaging resource for our driver-partners to hone their navigation skills if they choose to. It’s also a great way for prospective drivers to experience firsthand what it’s like to drive with Uber –– there are links to sign up and start the screening process from directly within the game.

Hone your navigation skills? Tapping intersections on a map is a far cry from the experience of actually navigating through San Francisco’s downtown streets. I suppose UberDrive could help inexperienced drivers learn which streets are one way, and how the street grids connect across Market. Experience firsthand what it’s like to drive with Uber? As a training tool, the game is hardly realistic: every single passenger was polite, no one ever cancelled, no one threw up in the back seat, or tried to squeeze in more passengers than seatbelts; everyone was at their pinned location and ready to go when I rolled up. And every single passenger gave me five stars. In other words, they were completely unlike many Uber passengers.

UberDrive is, in fact, just a poor copy of a much more interesting game – driving for Uber. The main innovation of Uber, and other smartphone-enabled “e-hailing” car services, is the insertion of a new interface into the human-to-human, on-the-street interactions between drivers and passengers. For drivers, the smartphone screen works like the little map in the corner of a first-person video game, a HUD that links the immersive environment of the city street back to the digital space of the game world. Each "ping" that alerts drivers to incoming hails is accompanied by a game-like cutscene showing concentric circles radiating from the hailer's location; drivers can log in to a "dashboard" offering "Partner Rewards" such as discounts on gas and oil changes, which drivers "unlock" by completing a set amount of quests... I mean, rides...

The interface allows the game designers at Uber, Lyft, etc., several tools for influencing the in-game behavior of both drivers and passengers: “surge pricing,” the five-star ratings system, and most importantly, the affective framing of “ridesharing” as different from (“Uber” than) the mundane experience of riding in a cab. This isn’t like those old taxicabs with their “inconvenient meatspace hailing”: it’s interactive tech, you know, more like a video game.

There is a name for this combination of storytelling appeal and software-mediated control: the allegorithm, which means the unity of allegory and algorithm. This unity comes into play when, for example, a player satisfies a game’s algorithms by hitting a series of keyboard buttons with precise timing, while, within the storyline or "allegory," they embrace the idea that they are killing orcs with a flaming sword. Or maybe they tap a smartphone screen, while imagining that they are driving passengers around SoMa. But the allegorithm really comes into its own when it is deployed with mobile interfaces into “augmented reality.” Ingress, you are already thinking; but you should really think Uber.

For the inelegance (and questionable pronounceability) of “allegorithm”, you can blame the word’s coiners, video game theorists Alexander Galloway and McKenzie Wark. But as a concept, it is of great importance for understanding how mobile interfaces are already connecting with and transforming social interaction, and how they will increasingly be used to do so in the near future.

By saying that allegorithms transform social interaction into a “video game” I do not mean that they are making the “real world” somehow “less real” or less serious. The goal of gamification is not the distortion of reality behind some kind of mystifying curtain or spectacle, but the improvement of “meatspace” reality through the deployment of design lessons learned from game development. In practice, this means carefully manipulating the kinds of information and choices available to players, studying their motivations in order to encourage desired behaviors, and inventing a compelling storyline through which players can make sense of the "game." The results can range from the benign to the sinister, from the sublime to the laughable, and we will be seeing more and more of these as the revolution in ubiquitous, mobile computing continues to roll out.

In the meantime, it can be useful to observe Uber’s allegorithmic gamification of cabdriving to assess how these initiatives will play out, and what successes or failures they are likely to encounter. The allegorithm needs, above all, a narrative which participants want to, and are able to, buy into; Uber (and its imitators) have shown great success with this so far, but how long can this be kept up? With any ubiquitously deployed allegorithm, the question arises as to how well the framing survives its insertion into the immersive “real world” environment. As I will discuss below, the success of the cabdriving-game deployed by Uber and others like it depends on the already gamelike aspects of cabdriving as a job; but risks coming apart when running up against the contradictions of cabdriving as work, and when the game designers, or the allegorithm itself, fail to predict or account for the real world complexity that players will encounter.

And as with any social transformation, we need to keep questioning. How good are these games? Are these the games we really want to play?

Crazy Taxi: from digital game-world to physical-world toy. Creative Commons photo by Tatton Partington.

Cabdriving was, of course, already a video game – Crazy Taxi – and the story I was told goes like this. Three San Francisco cabdrivers had the idea to design a board game based on their job. They designed a board loosely based on San Francisco, with pieces that looked like cabs, which the players moved about town looking for paying customers, the winner being the one who made the most money in a set number of turns. Then one day one of the designers (the driver who told me the story) was told by his partners that they had sold the idea to a game company for a few thousand dollars. A few years later, Crazy Taxi hit the arcades, though as a video game rather than a board game.

True story? It is hard to tell. Sega (producer of the game) attributes the idea to a Japanese game designer, not three San Francisco cabdrivers. Yet the original game in the franchise was clearly based on San Francisco, complete with its vertiginous hills, cable cars, and a choice of three bohemian taxi drivers as avatars. And the game captures at least some of the fun part of driving a cab in San Francisco. When I quit driving, I played the game as a way to enjoy some of the addicting aspects of the job. It was sort of like a nicotene patch for cabdriving.

UberDrive, in contrast, is designed to be a gateway drug—a free sample to get you hooked, to pull you into the deeper game of “meatspace” driving. Every few minutes the gameplay is interrupted by an appeal to start driving for Uber in real-life. “No Thanks,” I click, and go back to playing pretend cabdriver.

These games work because real-world cabdriving is, inherently, in many ways game-like. It is full of short, achievable objectives and quick rewards, won in exchange for taking calculable risks. It is more than a little like gambling, and can be as addicting, given the right personality. No matter how bad your luck gets, the player knows there are new possibilities waiting around the corner.

Driving in the city requires, besides patience and strength of will, ingenuity at puzzle-solving; as a passenger once observed while I threaded through traffic, “So you just basically play Tetris all day?” Or as San Francisco’s hip hop cabdriver MC Mars puts it:

cutting through lanes like fish veins
on Van Ness with the finesse of a sushi chef
Truly/deftly/ I’m the surfer with the motorcycle mentality/ when it gets gnarly/ I hit the slot between the herd and the Harley/ tourist with his head in a map/ kid on a raging Ducati/ cab driving is how I rock a party
                                           (Mars 2005: 144).

Cabdriving may be gamelike, but it isn’t all fun and games. I titled my 2004 cabdriving auto-ethnography Playing for Hire to emphasize the dual sense of the taxicab driving experience in San Francisco. On the one hand, drivers constantly talked about their job as “playing” – “playing” the airport, “playing” the dispatch radio, “playing” the streets. On the other hand, this “play” is also “work,” and drivers need to make money—to pay the cab company for the vehicle, to pay for gas, to pay off all the numerous gatekeepers who must be tipped in the course of a shift, and finally, if any is left over, for themselves. K-ching! K-ching! is the name of the game.

When MC Mars raps about cabdriving as a video game, he doesn’t paper over the bad or candy-coat the danger. He paints an image of cabdriving as a difficult job which demands and rewards the development of individual skill, “split-second reactions” and bravado. It's a view from the streets: a less controlled, messier, and more enjoyable experience than UberDrive, or for that matter, than Uber.

Uber, and other smartphone-interfaced cab services, build on the already-gamelike aspects of cabdriving, while relying on allegorithmic design to ameliorate or obscure the job’s less gamelike, real-world difficulties. Before Uber, cabdriving was already gamelike, and it already had its interfaces: radio and computer dispatch, even smartphone apps like Taxi Magic and Cabulous. But before Uber and Lyft the allegorithmic potential of these interfaces had not been developed. UberDrive shows us how this is supposed to work: happy drivers transporting friendly customers, and making quick money. K-ching!

If any UberDrive players are suckered in enough to click “Yes” and actually join Uber, they are in for a big surprise. UberDrive is not so much a view of the actual experience of the Uber driver, as a peek into the fantasy of the Uber designer, and their vision of how the allegorithmic narrative should be playing out: a superficially cleaned up, “tout est pour le mieux” version of reality, presenting the voyeuristic perspective of the overseer, rather than the in medias res viewpoint of the driver in the street. Having played both UberDrive and the real-world game it is based on, I have to say the designers are missing a lot. Could this blindness, in fact, be an effect of that other computer game, played by Uber personnel, looking down on the city from their computer screens at Uber HQ, playing Uber’s “God View?”

"An Icarus flying above," the Uber GodView player looks down on "the devices of Daedalus in mobile and endlesss labyrinths far below" (de Certeau 1984: 92). Image by Uber.

Perhaps UberDrive’s designers could make a better game if they got out on the streets and drove a bit. Perhaps Uber’s designers could benefit from the same exercise. Perhaps the folks at Uber HQ could make better games in general if they pondered a bit more critically how their own game’s allegorithm is shaping their experience. They do know they’re playing a video game... don’t they?

Michel de Certeau, (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

MC Mars, (2005) Don't Take Me The Long Way: 30 True, Truly Outrageous Cab Stories. San Francisco: Off D Edge Press.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Why "Taxicab Subjects"

Mosaic of a Roman cisium in the Terme dei Cisiarii, Ostia. Creative Commons photo by SebastiĆ” Giralt.

There are some subjects which may be written about even in a cisium.

Cisia were the ancient Roman analogue to the modern taxicab: mule-drawn carts, hired from stands at the city gates, which provided transportation in the Roman suburbs (carriages were banned from the narrow, congested streets of the city center). Seneca wrote these words late in life, a retired statesman living in his villa on the outskirts of Rome. In a letter “On Business as the Enemy of Philosophy,” he detailed the mundane, everyday responsibilities and tasks which prevented him from enjoying the peace and seclusion necessary for the profound philosophical contemplation and writing with which he would rather have been occupied. Fortunately for the harried Seneca, some subjects (possibly this very letter) are simple or direct enough to be written about, even while being jostled along, from one appointment to another, in the back of a cab.

With “taxicab subjects” I want to build upon Seneca’s insight into the link between writing and place. Some subjects are fit for spaces of quiet contemplation; others are suited for cabs, on the move. What are these “subjects” fit for the taxicab? Three kinds spring to mind:

1. The history and development of urban hired vehicles. Despite the fascinating diversity of hired vehicles which have appeared at one time or another in urban history—waterborne gondolas and shikaras, litters and sedan chairs, rickshaws, horse-drawn and motorized cabs, pedicabs and motorcycle cabs—there is nothing inevitable about the emergence of vehicular traffic in cities. For most of urban history, such a mode of travel was rare or unknown. Until very recently, cities were built for pedestrian traffic primarily or exclusively.

2. Urban form and experience as these are impacted by travel in taxicabs and similar vehicles. Our cities today, of course, have been built around the automobile, or altered to acommodate its needs. Hired automobiles (taxicabs, jitneys, and motor liveries) played a crucial role at the outset of the automotive era, in habituating the riding public to the new, motorized experience. If the technology of “self-driving” cars is successfully developed, it is a fair bet that cities will once again be redesigned around that technology. Already, driverless taxis are being envisaged as an entry model to accustom the riding public of the future to the idea of self-driving vehicles.

3. Drivers and passengers. It is the writing, experiencing, and interacting taxicab subjects, in that other sense of the word (the subject as locus of subjectivity) which I am most interested in. In the dual sense (to paraphrase Althusser and Foucault): subject as the seat of awareness and origin of initiative, and subject as one who is subjected, controlled, or directed. Subjects, constrained and empowered as participants in the taxicab assemblage (composed of vehicles, persons, stories, cities, technologies, etc.).

The idea that a cisium driver (cisiarius) might also write would probably not have occured to Seneca. Today, writing on “taxicab subjects” encompasses not only the back seat, and not only the front seat, but any writing in response to the varied subjects that pass through the cab, or that cabs pass through, and so are fit for cab writing. Who writes in the cab? What subjects does the cab, in its movement, inscribe? Encompassed in the practice of “in cisio scribere” are the harried office worker, completing letters or emails on the way to work, the cabdriving memoirist (in San Francisco alone, drivers have produced more than 11 book-length cabdriving memoirs over the last several decades), the passenger who writes about the experience of the ride (check out the eclectic backseat twitter comments collected by @myuberdriverbot), and the ethnographer writing down the words of the driver.

My own research has focused on the changing relations between drivers and passengers, particularly as these are revealed in two historic conjunctures: the switch from horse-drawn to motorized cabs a century ago, and the present moment, in which the fascination with “driverless” vehicles reveals a great deal about contemporary sensibilities, whether or not the technology is ever succesfully rolled out. As they move through the city, cabs of any era have moved through a changing web of images and imagination; evolving ideologies of class, gender, race, labor, and technology; and shifting anxieties and celebrations of the kind of urban mobility which taxicabs, and similar vehicles, provide, and the varying subjects they provide it to.