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Amazon turns warehouse tasks into video games to make work ‘fun’

Amazon turns warehouse tasks into video games to make work ‘fun’


Warehouse work: the video game

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Illustration of several frowning faces made using an upside-down version of the Amazon logo.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Conditions in Amazon’s warehouses are notoriously grueling, but the company has a new tactic it thinks will make employees’ lives easier: turn work into a video game.

As detailed in a new report from The Washington Post, Amazon has started installing screens next to workers’ stations that feature simple games with names like PicksInSpace, Mission Racer, and CastleCrafter. Their physical actions, assembling orders and moving items, are translated into virtual in-game moves. So, the faster someone picks items and places them in a box, for example, the faster their car will move around a virtual track.

The games are intended to make work less tedious, but also encourage higher productivity by pitting workers against one another in the virtual game world.

The games are voluntary and have so far been installed in five warehouses in the US and the UK, reports the Post. In at least one facility, managers reward workers who achieve high scores with Amazon “swag bucks.” This is a company currency that workers can only exchange for Amazon-branded merchandise, like t-shirts and water bottles.

Warehouse Distribution Centre For Amazon Online Retailers
Workers in Amazon’s warehouse often complain of taxing conditions, where they fear going to the toilet will make them miss productivity targets.
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

This transformation of work into would-be play is known as “gamification,” and is a tactic often exploited by companies to increase engagement in products or services.

Taxi apps like Uber and Lyft, for example, regularly set targets for drivers, like completing a certain number of rides in a week, to encourage drivers to log greater hours. You may have encountered gamification tactics in your own life. In fitness apps like those bundled with the Apple Watch, for example, users are encouraged to meet daily movement goals (an achievement known as “closing your rings,” due to the graphical interface).

Experts say these sorts of arbitrary targets and rewards have psychologically powerful effects. They can make rote tasks seem meaningful and engaging, and can be used to shape behavior, pushing workers harder and harder. Taken too far, though, they become just another type of work, one made even more depressing by the facade of play.

“Competition is only enjoyable for a short time.”

Jane McGonigal, a video game designer who’s written about the topic of gamification, told the Post: “Competition is only enjoyable for a short time ... As soon as workers start underperforming against their colleagues, it becomes less fun and can actually be counterproductive.”

Amazon currently employees hundreds of thousands of workers in warehouses around the world, including more than 250,000 individuals in the US. The company recently raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, but stories of bad working conditions are rife. One survey from worker rights platform Organise found that 74 percent of warehouse workers avoiding going to the toilet for fear of missing productivity goals.

Meanwhile, Amazon continues to introduce greater numbers of robots and machines to automate elements of the job. Although the company says the possibility of fully automating its warehouses is at least a decade away due to technology constraints, employees say current working conditions have become more robotic.

Warehouse workers often now simply stand in one place while Amazon’s robots bring shelves of items to them from which they assemble orders. A layer of gamification can only go so far to relieve that kind of tedium.