Deep under the Disneyland Resort Hotel in California, far from the throngs of happy tourists, laundry workers clean thousands of sheets, blankets, towels and comforters every day. Workers feed the heavy linens into hot, automated presses to iron out wrinkles, and load dirty laundry into washers and dryers large enough to sit in. It’s loud, difficult work, but bearable. The workers were protected by union contracts that guaranteed a living wage and affordable healthcare, and many had worked decades at the company. They were mostly happy to work for Disney.
This changed in 2008. The union contracts were up, and Disney wouldn’t renew without adjustments. One of the changes involved how management tracked worker productivity. Before, employees would track how many sheets or towels or comforters the workers washed, dried or folded on paper notes turned in at the end of the day. But Disney was replacing that system with an electronic tracking system that monitored their progress in real time.
Electronic monitoring wasn’t unusual in the hotel business. But Disney took the highly unusual step of displaying the productivity of their workers on scoreboards all over the laundry facilities, says Austin Lynch, director of organising for Unite Here Local 11.
According to Lynch, every worker’s name was compared with the names of coworkers, each one colour-coded like traffic signals. If you were keeping up with the goals of management, your name was displayed in green. If you slowed down, your name was in yellow. If you were behind, your name was in red. Managers could see the monitors from their office, and change production targets from their computers. Each laundry machine would also monitor the rate of worker input, and flash red and yellow lights at the workers directly if they slowed down.
‘They had a hard time ignoring it,’ said Beatriz Topete, a union organiser for Unite Here Local 11 at the time. ‘It pushes you mentally to keep working. It doesn’t give you breathing space.’ Topete recalled an incident where she was speaking to workers on the night shift, feeding hand-towels into a laundry machine. Every time the workers slowed down, the machine would flash at them. They told her they felt like they couldn’t stop.
The workers called this ‘the electronic whip’.
While this whip was cracking, the workers sped up. ‘We saw a higher incidence of injuries,’ Topete said. ‘Several people were injured on the job.’ The formerly collegial environment degenerated into a race. The laundry workers competed with each other, and got upset when coworkers couldn’t keep up. People started skipping bathroom breaks. Pregnant workers fell behind. ‘The scoreboard incentivises competition,’ said Topete. ‘Our human competitiveness, whatever makes us like games, whatever keeps us wanting to win, it’s a similar thing that was happening. Even if you didn’t want to.’
The electronic whip is an example of gamification gone awry.
Gamification is the application of game elements into nongame spaces. It is the permeation of ideas and values from the sphere of play and leisure to other social spaces. It’s premised on a seductive idea: if you layer elements of games, such as rules, feedback systems, rewards and videogame-like user interfaces over reality, it will make any activity motivating, fair and (potentially) fun.
‘We are starving and games are feeding us,’ writes Jane McGonigal in Reality Is Broken (2011). ‘What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality?’
Consequentially, gamification is everywhere. It’s in coupon-dispensing loyalty programmes at supermarkets. Big Y, my local supermarket chain in Boston, employs digital slot machines at the checkout for its members. Winning dispenses ‘coins’ that can be redeemed for deals. Gamification is in the driver interfaces of Lyft and Uber, which give badges for miles driven. Gamification is the premise of fitness games such as Zombies, Run!, where users push themselves to exercise by outrunning digital zombies, and of language-learning apps such as Duolingo, where scoring prompts one to master more. The playground offices of Silicon Valley, complete with slides and ball pits, have been gamified. Your credit score is one big game, too.
But gamification’s trapping of total fun masks that we have very little control over the games we are made to play – and hides the fact that these games are not games at all. Gamified systems are tools, not toys. They can teach complex topics, engage us with otherwise difficult problems. Or they can function as subtle systems of social control.