Human technology

Popularity of ‘gamified’ apps raises new legal issues, student researchers warn

With just a few button presses or swipes, you can trade stocks, hail a ride, order pizza, or find a date. But what are the implications of these gamified apps for human behavior and the law?

Law students at the University of Toronto Future of Law Lab explore these questions in a new research report that focuses on how current laws should respond to gamification – the introduction of game and play elements into activities and aspects of life.

“My research interest is in securities law, so gamification really caught my attention along with all the meme stock craze and speculation about how online trading apps might have fueled it” , explains Doug Sarro, doctoral student at the Faculty of Law.

“By gamifying investing, have online trading apps led their users to trade too frequently in assets that are too risky for them? I looked around and saw that gamification also raises issues in other areas of law. For example, when ride-sharing apps use gamification to influence when and where drivers work, does that mean those drivers should be considered employees rather than independent contractors?

“I thought the Future of Law Lab would be a fantastic place to explore gamification and gain a broader view of the challenges it poses to law.”

The lab created an extracurricular working group led by Sarro and 16 JD students to study the implications of gamification in four areas: online commerce; carpooling and food delivery; employee productivity; and dating.

Nikée Allen, a first-year law student with a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in sociology from Ryerson University, examined how dating apps can internalize and propagate racial bias among users.

“There are a lot of users – especially young people – including vulnerable members of marginalized communities who are ranked by the people who use them,” Allen says. “If racialized users get scanned less, they rank lower and they’re seen by fewer people.”

The Future of Law Lab team that worked on the gamification report (photo by Nina Haikara)

To better understand how the apps work, Allen downloaded a dating app, created a profile, and declined potential matches.

“I kept track of the type of push notifications I was getting: ‘You would get more matches if you did this on the app.’ ‘You should buy a boost; more people will be able to see you.

Allen says people who don’t know how the algorithm works are tricked into behavior, which can have unintended legal consequences.

“The coercive element comes in when users are asked to use the app more. If no one sees them, then they have to pay to increase their visibility and that’s only temporary,” Allen says. pay to get equal access to the same service that others can access for free.”

The potential for legal harm will only increase as dating apps become more popular, Allen says.

First year law student Samir Reynoldsfor its part, has studied design techniques for carpooling applications.

“There have been a lot of articles in the press about whether drivers are employees, independent contractors or some other classification,” says Reynolds, who has a bachelor’s degree in knowledge integration, math and political science from the University of Waterloo. “However, these apps can trick drivers into working at specific places at specific times. If we think they are actually telling their drivers to do this, then drivers start to look more like employees than entrepreneurs. independent.

Reynolds adds that while consumers see prices go up when drivers are in high demand, that doesn’t mean drivers are paid more during peak hours.

“These apps also tend to set artificial goals. Someone will drive and when the ride is complete they will get a notification that they only have $6 left to earn $80 on their shift. But then after doing that it will go down to just $7 instead of $90.

Reynolds came to the University of Toronto after working in technology for two years.

“One of the defining issues for this generation of lawyers is going to be understanding how law and policy, both on the side of the courts and of policy makers, can evolve and adapt with technology, which will inherently advance faster than the law,” he says.

The Future of Law Lab was established in 2020 – thanks to a donation from Hal Jackmanformer U of T Chancellor and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario – as an extracurricular program that brings together students, scholars, lawyers and other professionals to explore the intersection of law, innovation and technology.

“The Future of Law Lab provides students with the opportunity to learn about legal issues from a holistic perspective. Law does not exist in a vacuum, and in our context, legal issues are often business issues,” says the lab director. Joshua Morrisonlawyer and graduate of the faculty’s Global Professional Master of Laws program with a concentration in Innovation, Law and Technology.

“We ask our students to consider the strategic, operational, marketing, privacy and technology aspects of a particular situation. We encourage them to be innovative and solution-oriented, while encouraging collaboration between professionals from different disciplines.

The researchers argue that a digital choice environment that leads people into situations where there are risks of harm should be treated the same as a company that creates a physical choice environment that leads to the same consequences.

“Law is always trying to catch up on innovation,” says Sarro. “One of the ways it keeps pace is by staying flexible. And we can leverage that flexibility to meet many of the challenges that gamification presents.”

“If you’re using gamification to influence people to work where you want them to work, and for how long, the law can say that’s a form of control, and so we take that into account when we assess whether such workers should be considered employees.If you are a business that profits from inducing people to engage in behavior that creates risk of harm to themselves or others, the law may impose a duty to mitigate these risks,” says Sarro.

“The Anti-Discrimination Act has a flexible set of principles that can be used to encourage apps to consider the effects that design choices have on different groups of people and whether those design choices help to mitigate risk. of discrimination or amplify those risks.”

Allen sees the research project with the Future of Law Lab as good training for a career in technology law after graduation.

“The Future of Law Lab is the best place to set me up for success,” she says.