Earlier this week, it was reported in a number of outlets that Tesco has been using armbands to monitor employees at a distribution center, enabling management to track moment to moment activity in a way which was previously impossible:
The armbands, officially known as Motorola arm-mounted terminals, look like something between a Game Boy and Garmin GPS device. The terminals keep track of how quickly and competently employees unload and scan goods in the warehouse and gives them a grade. It also sets benchmarks for loading and unloading speed, which workers are expected to meet. The monitors can be turned off during workers’ lunch breaks, but anything else—bathroom trips, visits to a water fountain—reportedly lowers their productivity score. Tesco did not respond to requests for comment, so it’s hard to know if the arm bands have been a success.
What struck me was the muted presence of gamification themes, both in the deployment of the technology and in the reporting of its use. The technology allows management to ‘grade’ workers and compile real time moment-to-moment data (facilitating Taylorism 2.0?) in a manner which produces ‘scores’:
The former employee said the device provided an order to collect from the warehouse and a set amount of time to complete it. If workers met that target, they were awarded a 100 per cent score, but that would rise to 200 per cent if they worked twice as quickly. The score would fall if they did not meet the target.
Micro-measurement of employee behaviour is obviously not new, however the use of mobile technology (that looks like a Game Boy) to produce ongoing scores for each individual is more novel. It produces the sustained, coherent and linear feedback which is integral to game dynamics. It doesn’t stretch one’s imagination to conceive of Tesco giving out FourSquare-esque badges for sustained levels of achievement by individuals in the depot or publishing league tables in order to ‘motivate’ workers in the depot to achieve ‘better scores’. When/if it takes such a form, gamification looks and sounds little like the radical technology described by its advocates, which draws together a trendily eclectic selection of behavioural knowledges into a easily saleable intellectual ‘movement’ which is increasingly in vogue within management schools.
However is there really such a disconnect? Drawing on the work of people like Nikolas Rose, it could easily be argued that technologies of motivation and affect (the ‘psi disciplines’) are intrinsically political. Or that, at the very least, they cannot be detached from their political implications. While I would resist any poststructuralist turn which, in my view, risks collapsing intellectual inquiry into cultural politics, I’d nonetheless suggest that people who work in these areas have a responsibility to consider the implications which their work might hold. I find gamification fascinating in a number of ways. Nonetheless my engagement with it (which to be fair amounts to watching some videos, reading a single book and doing a Coursera course) has also left me with the sense of it as deeply troubling. Largely because there seems to be little or no engagement with the question of the consequences that might be held by this work when it is thrown ‘out there’ into the world, free to be deployed in a world riven with inequalities of power and status, facing a long-term crisis of economic growth and an increasing tendency towards structural (near or total) redundancy for large swathes of the labour market. Within such a context, the failure of gamification people to engage with the politics of gamification is deeply troubling.