The Amazon Games

Mental struggles and Gamification in the warehouses

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When I first started working for Amazon, a seasoned worker advised, “The ten hour shifts can be pretty grating on your mind. What worked for me was trying to completely zone out — think about nothing — and let my cerebellum take over.” People often talk about the physically treacherous aspects of Amazon’s work practices — the pace of work, the onset of carpal tunnel, and the temperatures in the buildings, but the mental difficulties are similarly grueling.

Whether you are picking, packing, stowing, or in the trucks, the items never stop appearing. The robots never stop coming and going. The conveyor belts never stop moving. All day, everyday, you see endless boxes. We are alone at our individual stations battling to stay afloat in the unending flow of work. Ten and a half hour shifts, four days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. We feel like our minds are melting, but maybe it is better to let them melt than to fight to hold onto our senses. Better to let our minds dissolve than question if time is standing still. Time, the products, the robots begin to feel infinite.

Different workers have different tactics to cope. Many people use the numbered stickers that they label us with each day to cover the time in the corners of our screens. Some people designate periods of the day to stow faster to hopefully get lost in the process. The fastest stower in our building broke the record for stowing over one million items in one year soonest. After receiving little recognition and no advancement, he now wanders the floors of the warehouse loudly shouting and singing to distract from the realities of the work.

Amazon both quantitatively (tracking our rates and scanner use) and qualitatively (through daily surveys) measures how much time we spend doing the task demanded of us, and they have euphemistically called this “engagement.” Amazon recognized our lack of “engagement,” so a group of tech workers created “FC Games.” Now, each of the stowing and picking stations have an extra screen with a small selection of “games.” One of the designers told me that he hoped the game would help workers “pass the time a little better.” In reality, game designers tell each other that the gamification is intended to slow down the turnover rate of workers leaving and to increase the pace of work. They have found that workers with greater engagement with the game are less likely to leave. Rumor has it that this warehouse sees about 2.2% of the employees quit or be fired every week. The designers implemented the games in the pick department first because that department had the highest attrition rate. Before I had “played” one of the games, I asked a picker if he enjoyed the games. He shrugged and said, “It’s better than nothing.”

Most of the games involve some aspect of competition. You might race one-on-one as flying dragons against a nearby worker or compete as a floor against another floor for your Amazon mascot to run faster around the course. In another game, you attempt to complete missions that have you work faster and faster for longer periods of time. They also provide incentives that boost your score for returning from break faster. The programs have finely tuned tricks to tap into your mind so that we work harder, faster, and longer.

I find the last game, Castle Crafter, the most peculiar though. You select different quarries, markets, and castles to build. Since you start at a low level, you are only allowed to build the low level structures, like a quarry. As you work longer and faster, you can build higher level buildings and contribute more points to the building of a specific structure. At the higher levels, you earn the honor of building the castle. The game has a few pre-programmed messages that you can send to other workers, like: Please, Quarry, Castle, Help, Wow, Market. In the short sessions where I’ve played, I briefly amuse myself by mashing the Help and Please buttons.

It took me almost seven months to realize that the designers had gamified feudalism. We are literally serfs helping to mine the quarries and build the castle. My knowledge of the Middle Ages and feudal structures is spotty so perhaps we have actually been given a promotion to build the castle rather than just tend to the lord’s fields, but the narrative is quite clear. My coworkers and I wonder about the game designers’ intentions. Were they trying to be subversively clever and make a point about the nature of our work? Or, were they unconsciously connecting our work relations to those of feudalism? Capitalists just musing about feudalism?

One of the game designers mentioned to me that after they introduced the games into the stow department, they were having trouble with getting stowers to engage with them. Months later, many of the menu screens sit idle. A pop-up window sits in front asking workers: How much would you agree with the following statement: Work is more enjoyable with FC Games? With the options: Completely Agree, Agree, Neither Disagree [sic], Disagree, Completely Disagree, I prefer not to answer. Many people so infrequently interact with the screens that they sit idle with a grey tint and a spinning idle cursor. Only at the very end of the day do some workers tap open the games to find out how many items they have stowed or picked that day and dividing the total by our ten hours days, we can learn whether or not we have made our rate for the day. We can at least use the games to avoid the surprise of being written up by a manager for not making rate.

A big tech company, like Amazon, would naturally assume that video games (more technology) could be the win-win solution they are looking for. The games help workers “pass the time” or be more “engaged” while also getting more work done. But more tech and gamification are clearly not the answers to our disengaging and endless work. The “FC Games” are not even a Band-Aid for the symptoms wrought by the grueling nature of the task, the endlessness of the work, and confronting what infinity mentally feels like. In fact, the games exacerbate many difficult aspects of the work. Perhaps the game designers consulted with the misguided healers of the Middle Ages instead. Like the feudalism games they conjure, the games are leeches sucking more and more from the psychological wounds of the work — but maybe this will balance the bodily humors.

In the virtual feudalism game, it is never made clear who is the lord for whom we are building the castle. We could only assume that we were building the castles for the richest man on Earth, but to be clear, we now ask:

Your Highness Lord Jeffrey Preston Bezos,

I am writing to you, Sir, on behalf of your most hard working and history making associates in your Fulfillment Centers to ask if the castles that we toil to build each day are for you, our Lord. I have the honor to be, Sir, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant.

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