OPINION: Don’t be deceived by the gamification of labor

Small people in business suits on large die
(Betsy Ding • The Student Life)

As workplaces begin to look more and more like they’re taking inspiration from “Black Mirror,” we must be wary of how employers use technological advancements to manipulate workers.

Gamification is the process by which gamelike elements are applied to activities not typically associated with play. Employers have increasingly sold the gamification of labor to their workers, promising a gamelike work environment. While it can be difficult to resist promises of a leisurely working experience, workers would be best off rejecting the gamification of their workplaces in order to circumvent a rise in the expected exertion and productivity of workers. 

The prospect of gamifying a workplace can seem pleasant initially — a gamelike workplace could be collaborative, immersive and fun. Employers are well aware of the positive associations held with gameplay and have used it to their advantage. 

The largest corporations in the world have already begun imposing gamification upon their workers. In 2019, Amazon introduced a gamification program in their warehouses, and recently expanded the program to even more locations. Games with titles like MissionRacer and CastleCrafter pit employees against each other by tracking their progress and rewarding productivity with points or virtual badges. 

Amazon spokespeople have justified the gamification of their warehouses by citing the enjoyment workers experience. Yet, Amazon is hardly known for prioritizing their employees’ enjoyment while working, and that notion is borne out by the events following the implementation of the program. 

During the very same timeframe as the gamification of Amazon warehouses, Amazon workers spoke out regarding the grueling conditions they face, all a product of Amazon’s expectation of constant productivity.

The idea that Amazon has implemented games that reward increased productivity is alarming when we recognize that their employees are already being overworked. In fact, the most recent expansion of the program came only weeks before a massive push by Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama to unionize in recognition of the mistreatment they face. 

The unionization effort in Alabama ultimately failed after Amazon unleashed an aggressive smear campaign against unions, blitzing employees with banners and fliers in their warehouses. Amazon asserted that unionization wasn’t necessary and would simply cost employees union dues, ignoring the benefits and protections unions can provide along with their own mistreatment of their workers.

While Amazon was able to defeat the unionization effort, it seems clear that the gamification of their workplace did not engender some form of utopia where labor feels like leisure. Rather, it has been recognized as yet another attempt by the company to closely monitor the productivity of workers and push them to their limits. 

Uber has also frequently taken advantage of gamification with the goal of maximizing the time their drivers spend on the road. Their platform employs psychological tricks, using video game techniques to pressure drivers to achieve arbitrary goals that, while having a perceived benefit, make little difference in terms of income.  

In fact, Uber’s gamified platform often nudges drivers in directions that will actually be less lucrative for their own income but beneficial to the company. This is unsurprising — pushes to gamify the workplace are never really about centering the worker’s well-being and enjoyment. Rather, they’re a method of maximizing the productivity of workers beyond what is safe and manageable. 

None of this is to say that the practice of gaming itself is the enemy. There’s little doubt that gaming can be good for us — it can make us think, encourage collaboration and bring joy and triumph. Scientific research has even shown that gaming has the potential to improve cognitive abilities.

But as noted by scholars, the positive characteristics that gaming can bring out in humans are at their best when not being milked for production in veiled plots to maximize profit. 

If given the option, it’s in the best interest of workers to reject the gamification of their workplace. Despite the positive associations many of us hold with gaming, the reality of a gamelike workplace is clearly much darker than workers might expect. 

The rejection of gamification efforts is not always possible, especially in cases when the programs are universal and workers are expected to participate. In these situations, workers can still exercise their power to prevent being overworked, as has been the fate for many employees who’ve experienced a gamified workplace. 

Unionization is the friend of employees, especially when facing the risk of manipulation at the hands of employers. Labor unions can help to protect the safety and well-being of employees, which includes education regarding the likely consequences of gamification. Thus, it’s important to uplift existing union organizations and support efforts to unionize despite the intense opposition exerted by business leaders and corporations.

Nicholas Black PO ’24 is from Rochester, New York. He is a staunch supporter of walking simulator games. 

Facebook Comments