Tesco, Taylor, and the rise of sinister games

The Irish Independent reported this week on Tesco strapping monitors to workers at a Dublin distribution centre, measuring the rate at which they work. If you hit the target time for a job, you get 100%, and you can score above or below this depending how hard you work. The Independent article took the angle that workers were losing points if they went to the toilet or took a break, though Tesco denied this. Meanwhile in the Guardian, Zoe Williams attacked the scheme on account of it tagging workers:

“But there is innovation here, in a new shamelessness. Let’s be honest, tagging is what you do to criminals. Criminals often don’t mind this, because the alternative for them is prison. The understanding, however, is that there’s already been a significant breakdown of respect between the authority and the person before anybody’s movements are electronically monitored. It used to be taken as read that you wouldn’t do that to a person until you already had good reason to suspect that they wouldn’t tell you the truth.”

I agree with Zoe. For my part, I’d like to add another analysis of the practice as a union of two evils: Taylorism and gamification. These are two things which on the surface sound positive (one seeks efficiency, the other motivation) but both carry a nauseating subtext about what it means to be human.

Frederick Taylor is best known as the author of The Principles of Scientific Management (1913) and the precursor to Henry Ford. In his book Work, the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen depicts Taylor as a man watching factory workers with a stopwatch, a man on a quest to raise efficiency to the highest level. Svendsen points out that in so doing, Taylor made the classic Kantian screw-up of treating workers as means not ends. They became robots, absorbed into the machine like Chaplin in Modern Times.

Gamification, meanwhile, is the relatively recent trend of applying “game elements and digital game design techniques to non-game problems such as business and social impact challenges” (link). Video games, smartphone games and all the rest have a mini arsenal of ways to keep us playing, whether it’s hanging a tantalising prize just out of reach, or simply giving us a score and showing us how we compare to our peers. If this sounds like your workplace – or indeed, the entire education system – that’s probably not a coincidence. Everyone’s been using these techniques for a long time.

Modern games bring the ability to measure the efficiency of two motivational techniques and then iterate towards the best. Taylor would have loved it. I have no idea why people play FarmVille, but have no doubt that Zynga have an extremely good idea of what makes them keep coming back. Angry Birds uses a three-star rating system, which for some reason seems to be quite effective. I’ve even seen the same format transposed onto a what is essentially a typing tutor, Typing Club, and can personally testify that it worked pretty well for me. I don’t know why, but I just wanted to go back and get three stars on every level.

The queasiness that gamification brings (apart from the ugliness of the word itself) stems from two assumptions that it makes about people. One is that we are easily manipulated. The other is that we are motivated by silly things like points. Both these assumptions are true to a superficial level, but taken at depth fail to hold up. While we are easily manipulated, we also have a need for autonomy which flares up if we are manipulated too far. One of my dad’s bugbears is the two-for-one offers at the supermarket which make you buy two when all you want is one. Awareness that we are being manipulated is the first step to rebellion. It is for this reason that the best manipulation operates under the radar (see: classrooms). And while points do motivate us (see: classrooms), they are limited. There comes a time when we just don’t care any more. Not so other, more desirable forms of motivation – self-direction being the gold standard in my book.

So what we get at Tesco is a union of an early 20th century idea with one from today. In honesty, I agree that taking elements of games and mixing them with the ideas of Taylor will probably gain short-term gains in productivity. My anxiety is that such aims are morally wrong, and in the long term will likely create rebellion and disillusionment. These aren’t concerns for “the businessman – in his suit and tie“, but these techniques for digitally measuring performance could conceivably enter education, where morality and the long-term good of those being measured are (you’d hope at least) centrally important factors. The progress of measurement means increased precision, frequency and accuracy. While these all sound like good things, I’d like to get a word of caution in early.

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