The silly sweatshop game

sweatshop_game_logoThere’s a new game making the rounds, it’s called Sweatshop (hat tip). I thought to mention it before a bunch of people start sending me the link and asking me what I thought about it.

The game scenario: you’re a newly hired supervisor at a “sweatshop”, in charge of hiring workers and meeting quotas. You have the choice of hiring various kinds of workers from children to more highly skilled (hat vs garment makers etc) and you even have the option to invest in worker improvements so they perform better.

I played thinking it might be a useful exercise in load balancing and the cost benefits of investing in employee education and well being -which wasn’t exactly what the game’s creator had in mind. It was difficult to attempt to do a sincere job of it because the rhetoric and examples were so over the top as to be offensive to anyone’s intelligence and credulity. If you want to affect change, you can’t use the same rhetoric on the opposing camp that you use when preaching to your choir. Which is not to say the game won’t be popular (not to be confused with generating effective change). The game would have been far more effective at generating positive change by showing cost and profit benefits were led by investing in workers in meaningful ways.

I think the major downfall of the game is that one who knows production (presumably the sweatshop owners this is aimed at) can’t modify the configuration to reflect conditions beyond the caricatures (who runs caps in the same line as tops?). The game is designed to be played by people who already agree sweatshops are a terrible, horrible thing (that would be us too) but there are problems with accuracy, specifically defining quotas etc. And of course, the definition of a sweatshop is never made clear. Some people seem to think any sewing factory is an oppressive operation and others think an operation that doesn’t pay at least the US minimum wage (overseas) is guilty of the same. Good thing it’s not French people playing a game scenario featuring US workers. They would think we were all oppressed based on the 40 hour work week. In short, be cautious when applying norms from one culture to another.

The game purports to be educational. Maybe it will be that. Maybe someone thinking of starting a clothing factory will play it and realize they should not be evil. I think that percentage will be very small -if any. I think more players who already agree sweatshops are horrid places will have their beliefs and stereotypes reinforced but they’re not in the garment industry and don’t intend to enter it.

I was hoping the game would be a useful modeling tool that could be used to effectively demonstrate that output and quality gains are optimized by respecting one’s workforce but the game’s mechanism seems to prevent a positive outcome from humanitarian and profit minded players. I will play it more. Maybe some of you aren’t as game inept and will get through the levels faster to see if it is possible to do that.

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