Tech

Amazon is using games in its warehouses to encourage faster working

Can employees earn points for ratting on co-workers trying to unionize?

Employees are seen on duty at work stations part of mobile robotic fulfilment systems also known as 'Amazon robotics' during the inauguration of a new Amazon warehouse in Bretigny-sur-Orge, some 30kms south of Paris, on October 22, 2019. (Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP) (Photo by PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Amazon is expanding a weirdly manipulative program that gamifies the jobs of workers in its nationwide fulfillment centers. Called “FC Games,” the program features arcade-style games that can only be played by completing warehouse tasks, like sorting items for packing. In one such game called MissionRacer, a car moves around a track as an employee sorts products into their appropriate boxes.

FC Games has been around since 2019, but The Information reports that Amazon has recently decided to expand the program to warehouses in at least 20 states.

The goal for Amazon with FC Games is to incentivize employees to increase their productivity; for workers, the games can make rote tasks a little less tedious by creating friendly competition with co-workers — and other warehouses — to see who can rack up the highest scores.

Not bad, except when Amazon does it — There’s nothing wrong with gamification itself. People already use the same incentive mechanisms in their personal lives as a way to encourage themselves to stay active, complete chores around the house, or learn new languages, to name just a few examples. But FC Games is being expanded at the same time as Amazon works aggressively to fight off a unionization effort at its Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center. Workers there hope a union will help them get more sway over how they work, which benefits they’re entitled to, and give them more of a voice in Amazon’s increasingly demanding quotas.

The only prizes that workers receive for earning high scores in FC Games are “virtual pets.” Which are hard to pay bills with.

Maybe reward them with cash? — Granted, some Amazon workers have said they do enjoy the games. And Amazon does pay its workers $15 per hour, which is well above the egregious $7 federal minimum wage. But on the backdrop of its massive pandemic gains, and the wealth of founder Jeff Bezos ballooning to nearly $200 billion in the past year, FC Games feels more than a bit dystopian. Amazon wouldn’t exist today without its workers, who are injuring themselves at higher rates than average and not seeing much for their tireless efforts.

Last year, it was calculated that Bezos could give all 900,000 of his employees a $105,000 bonus and he’d be left with exactly as much money as he had at the start of the pandemic. It’s not socialism to say you should pay your employees more and give them more comprehensive benefits, even if it impacts profitability marginally.

Eventually, Amazon hopes it will be able to automate workers away completely. Maybe it’ll offer the robots games one day, too.