Gaming Guilt: Sweatshop

By Alec Meer on July 18th, 2011 at 12:32 pm.

Jim?

Ooh, this is clever. It’s the new free web game from Littleloud, they of The Curfew and Bow Street Runner. Like those, Sweatshop‘s noble aim is to expertly mate education and social conscience with smart and satisfying game mechanics. In this case, it’s a canny twist upon tower defence games that also highlights the abject horror and terrible exploitation of sweatshop factories – and the most dangerous enemy in the game is your own impulse to succeed.

So, you’re the floor manager of a sweatshop, charged by your shouty, inhuman but unsettlingly entertaining boss with making as much as possible as quickly as possible as cheaply as possible. This entails materials zipping along a production line, and you then hiring and assigning the right workers to construct and pack them. You’ll also need to weigh upgrading your workers and maintaining their health and mental state with simply hiring cheap new guys to plug the gaps.

It’s tower defence, even if the cutesy management game appearance and lack of laserbeams might suggest otherwise. Challenges include a fast turnover of crappy hats and shirts for a shop chain called Crymark. No idea who that’s a reference to. None at all.

Snark aside, Sweatshop’s true cleverness is that a lifetime of gaming will compel you to be as efficient as the horrific bastard in charge demands, and the game even throws achievement-esque rewards at you for fulfilling his unforgiving criteria. You’ll feel like you’re doing your job well. That’s the point.

Except it isn’t. The point is that you’re treating your employees very, very badly. You’re costing their happiness, you’re harming their bodies and you’re risking their lives. Do you care? Can you find a balance whereby the company’s profits are decent but no-one’s suffering unduly? The comedy turns dark and there’s choice about how to tackle it, but you’ll need to ask serious questions of yourself.

Give it a go. See how well your gamer’s urges mesh with your conscience. Here’s a trailer while you mull it over.

Rest assured that, thanks to playful, often very funny writing and well-timed interjections, the game isn’t crassly preachly. It picks its moments extremely wisely and it wants you to understand, not be brow-beaten into empathy. This is the game that you should definitely be playing today.

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66 Comments »

  1. Gundrea says:

    It’s a rather chilling reminder that in real life people become resources and life becomes a game of hi-score.

    • Premium User Badge

      Okami says:

      I think for most people it’s more of a survival horror game…

    • mejoff says:

      Oh, people aren’t even resources, they’re ‘resource’.

    • Cooper says:

      When relationships between people become expressed, understood and enacted as relationships between things…

    • WPUN says:

      “Sin, young man, is when you treat people like things.”
      — Sir Terry Pratchett

  2. Undermind_Mike says:

    Reminds me of that flash browser game about the oil industry, seeing the huge amounts of oil under Iraq and going “mmmmmm! but the regime won’t allow me to drill there, how can I get it…?” then feeling dirty.

    Mike

    • JoWoo says:

      Personally I’m more looking forward to Sweatshop: Team Bondi edition.

    • Teddy Leach says:

      Sweatshop: Primark Edition. Oh wait.

    • Nalano says:

      That’s every Civ game I’ve ever played.

    • Xercies says:

      Yes same, except for some reason i didn’t feel dirty, in fact i rather enjoyed making the Nigerian people get kicked out of their homes so I could have my precious oil and paying off the government. And In The Game

      Its one of those games where you become mad with power and just want so much oil.
      Who knew i was a psychopath?

    • Temple says:

      New rule: Xercies not invited to anymore boardgame meetups

  3. TillEulenspiegel says:

    I got promoted from trainee manager to manager-in-training!

  4. Coins says:

    It’s also rather long for a free flash game, although it isn’t *fun*.

  5. IDtenT says:

    Standard tower defense, although the dynamics are somewhat interesting.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Daiv says:

    Wait… Is this pro- or anti-sweatshop? It seems to be saying that the best thing to do is to work peons to death and untold riches will ensue.

  7. A-Scale says:

    Sweatshops are actually a better choice for the people working in them than the alternative, as they almost universally provide higher wages than other work in the area. After all, if working in a sweatshop was so much worse than being a subsistence farmer or a street merchant or other jobs available to people in poor countries, they wouldn’t work in the sweat shop.
    http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2008/Powellsweatshops.html

    • Chris D says:

      In a country the only available food sources are rusty razor blades or rats infected with anthrax. I set up shop and sell steaming turds at reasonable prices. Therefore I am a living saint and deserve a Nobel prize.

      Discuss.

    • G-Sys says:

      Using the threat of destitution and starvation as a justification for the dire conditions of sweatshop labourers is exactly the kind of noxious sociopathy that the game is trying to draw attention to.

    • steviesteveo says:

      This is called the “you’re fucked either way” defence of bad stuff.

      Another example: it was good to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the Allies would have invaded and killed people in the cities anyway and this way saved lives that would have been lost in a ground war.

    • steviesteveo says:

      This is called the “you’re fucked either way” defence of bad stuff because it’s very easy for people who personally aren’t fucked either way to say it.

      See also, the much less common “I’m fucked either way” defence of bad stuff happening to yourself.

    • Nalano says:

      You may want to look up the definition of the term “exploitation,” A-Scale.

    • D3xter says:

      Sweatshops can actually be beneficial to those regions, because as big companies move in and give people jobs, and other companies move in and give the same people jobs they boost the local economy (wanting or not over a period of 10-20 years or so) and start making and bringing more and more money into it… businesses start to open up, shops and chains like McDonalds etc. see that they can get some money from that market and get into those regions and before long a working market has developed and those big companies move to another area because the wages the people are demanding are now too high and they can have a higher profit-margin by going somewhere else, and start the cycle of exploitation anew.
      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/opinion/15kristof.html

    • Nalano says:

      Using that argument to say that sweatshops can be beneficial to developing nations is somewhat akin to defending colonialism.

      “Work harder, Aziz! This backbreaking labor is for your benefit!”

    • IDtenT says:

      Um. In the bigger picture, yes, colonialism did exactly all those things and you know what? Today we have the USA, Australia, etc. as first world countries.

    • A-Scale says:

      I think people get very confused on an issue like this because reason and emotion pull in different directions.

      People live in poverty all over the world. This is a fact whether or not there are sweatshops there. Sweatshops, however, pay a proportionally higher wage that can help people to escape that poverty or at least give themselves a better life. Removing their ability to work at a sweatshop doesn’t magically fix their poverty, in fact it leaves them more destitute. It simply conceals the problem from our western eyes rather than fixing it. Don’t fool yourself thinking that you’re saving kids in third world countries from backbreaking labor when you avoid sweatshop made products, you’re just condemning them to poverty through moral imperialism. If you feel that they deserve better than sweatshops, I absolutely encourage you to donate large amounts of money to help bring them out of that poverty, but barring colossal donations, sweatshops help to raise people and societies out of destitution.

    • Quirk says:

      Indeed, and haven’t the Native Americans and the Aborigines done well out of it?

      There’s no use in pretending that people don’t treat other people in shitty ways in the name of capitalism. What people tend to miss a lot, though, is that even the terrible alternatives offered by the factory owners are often still better than what was available work-wise before the factory moved in. If you’re born into some maltreated nation to till infertile soil and hope each year that you’ll be lucky enough to escape drought and famine, prepare for the apathy of the West, punctuated only by the odd hand-out when most people you know are near to dying. If some rich pig gives you a slightly stabler income in the name of filling his own pockets, the queue of people lining up to criticise him stretches round the block.

      This isn’t to say the rich assholes who run these factories aren’t callous scum. They are. But in many of these places, Fate has already run round being an asshole to absolutely everyone there, nobody much outside is getting mad about it, and the nasty fact is that the people who’re exploiting the workers are often doing a damn sight more to improve their lot than many of the people who sit and preach about how terrible exploitation is.

      Also, to add something to A-Scale above: buy Fair Trade. Vote with your pockets for better opportunities, for sustainable local businesses in poor countries.

    • Nalano says:

      IDtenT, don’t give me that British “I apologize for having industrialized the third world” nonsense. That outlook, like most fantastically racist attitudes, has been dead and buried for decades.

      For all how high and mighty you are in equating this outright, shocking exploitation as in any shape, form or fashion “uplifting” to the people it’s brutalizing, you’re wrong. Painfully wrong.

      This “capital lifts all boats” meme is truly horrifying in how it turns what is clearly an amoral economic system without concern for the plight of the humanity it grinds into a moralist touchstone for people like yourself to commit deeply immoral acts. You’re only deluding yourself.

    • A-Scale says:

      Are the poor too stupid to know that they’re being exploited? If not, why do they choose to work in sweat shops? It’s not as if the sweat shop deprives them of other opportunities that would have existed if not for the sweat shop, it’s simple one additional choice among a bunch of bad options. For a lot of people, it happens to be the best option available in terms of working conditions and pay, so they choose it. There’s nothing immoral about that. If you want to protest poverty, be my guest. You might as well protest glaciers. The rest of us will be trying to seek our own best interest and benefiting others through commerce in the process.

    • IDtenT says:

      I’m a bit confused here. How are facts racist? The British commonwealth is littered with 1st world countries. It is directly related to the impact of British colonialism and industrialisation.

      It wasn’t cool for the people at the time, I totally get that. It doesn’t however change reality, just because it inconveniences your ideologies.

    • studenteternal says:

      @IDtenT:

      I know it is kinda confusing but colonies != colonialism. Despite them being British colonies, the US and AUS are NOT products of colonialism. (though the I suppose they might be if you are looking at it from the view of the natives…)

      If you want to see the modern legacy of colonialism, the best case is probably India, for a more typical case… pretty much all of sub-Saharan Africa.

      Oddly my point is not evil white men, it doesn’t take much digging to turn up pretty evil behavior from any ethnic group, including (or perhaps especially) those that were pretty badly victimized by history (native Americans and aborigines again.) but to argue that colonialism turns out OK because of the US and AU is… factually false at best, and dis-honest at worst.

    • Malawi Frontier Guard says:

      >It wasn’t cool for the people at the time

      Funny.

    • CMaster says:

      Yeah, the only “1st world countries” in former British colonies are where European settlers exterminated the people who already lived there and then were able to combine a small white population with a lot of money to be got out of the land. In the case of the US at least, there was a very large scale abuse of immigrant labour as well.

    • age says:

      New Zealand’s Maoris have historically been treated well (assuming my history class memories don’t fail me) and they’re doing ok as a nation.

  8. fallingmagpie says:

    I don’t know if I’m doing this right or wrong. I’m halfway through, I’ve never had anyone get injured or die, and I always get about 71% and a silver medal. I’m going to guess you get gold by making more money and killing people….

    • Berzee says:

      Your moderate success is ruining the moral, fascist.

    • Temple says:

      It’s almost like if we were all okay with being moderately well off the world would be a better place.

    • Berzee says:

      *punches you until coins appear*

    • anonymousity says:

      Trade isn’t zero sum, there is trade that exists where both parties get a better deal than they would producing those things themselves, this is a result of specialisation and underscores all economic theory.

  9. Quirk says:

    Mmm. Anti-sweatshop rhetoric always makes me uncomfortable.

    When sweatshops move into places, the people who get jobs there generally were getting a really shit deal out of life already. They work in the sweatshops because the sweatshop is an improvement over risking starvation if their subsistence-level agriculture fails. Nobody was doing anything worth a damn for them before the sweatshop came along. Nobody much noticed them.

    When there’s a sweatshop, though, it’s a nice focal point for middle-class do-gooders to bleat about. The problem has a nice clean form. “Aren’t sweatshops terrible?” they say. If the do-gooders manage somehow to get a sweatshop shut down, many of them feel well pleased with their work; never mind if it’s terrible for the people who worked there, who no longer have the option to work there, who worked there solely because every other alternative open to them was worse.

    People think such crass capitalism leads to unfairness. The truth is more complicated. The world is unfair by default, and was arguably far more unfair before capitalism. Capitalism maintains that unfairness in some places, alleviates it in others. The imbalance between the poor, nice guy slaving fourteen hours a day to get enough to eat while some corporate mogul asshole swans around in his yacht off the proceeds from his efforts is going to be huge whether the poor worker works for the mogul or works in an even worse job.

    Sweatshops should not raise people’s ire. The circumstances that give rise to sweatshops should. Doing something constructive about these circumstances does not involve campaigning against sweatshops, for they can exist only as long as people working there have few better alternatives. Instead effort should go toward improving these alternatives. Fair Trade is a positive direction. Charities that invest in education are also good. If the alternatives improve enough, the sweatshops will either move elsewhere, or learn to pay competitive wages.

    • Torgen says:

      I’ve never known the “do-gooders” to demand the sweatshop be closed down. They demand inhuman working conditions be improved for the workers (and sometimes, that raw pollution not be dumped into their villages.) They demand that human beings be treated like human beings, and they will not buy the products of the company produced using abusive labor practices.

    • Quirk says:

      Right, and the net result of boycotting the company is? At best, with a really effective boycott that a company will actually feel, the company is forced to close some factories. Score. Much of the whole economic argument for the company to set up in a country with poorly developed infrastructure, riddled with corruption, is that at least their labour costs are much cheaper. Make cheaper labour costs a big source of negative PR, and there’s little incentive for the companies to bother, particularly as them cleaning up their act is never likely to be as widely publicised as their initial callousness was.

      And then the workers can go back to the equally abusive working conditions they had in the first place just to scrape enough food to survive, but this time there isn’t someone big and obvious to blame, and people pay their plight very little attention.

    • Torgen says:

      That a company is “forced” to close factories before they will improve working conditions is something made up on your part. The social pressure of the boycotts work far faster than the flow of goods through the supply chain. The companies improve conditions in order to stop damage to their brand name, which they spend many millions of dollars annually to improve.
      There is no “social conscience” involved- it’s all about money. Until the costs of inhumane labor practices become more than the benefit, the labor practices will continue. Conversely, if we as consumers do not demand such practices cease, they will not, as we are condoning and financially rewarding those practices with our purchases.

    • Quirk says:

      I haven’t heard of many boycotts that were notable in making companies improve working conditions. Hell, the extremely widespread boycott against Nestle for the far more serious crime of promoting formula milk to families in developing worlds who would be better breast feeding has been going on since 1978, and they’re still carrying on with business as usual. That’s a boycott most of us will have heard of; most boycotts attract vastly less support. And, as PR problems, they are usually met with PR and spin and token gestures rather than company-wide change.

      Where such boycotts do have an impact, the results will not generally be distinguishable from the company having a bad couple of quarters. Cost-cutting ensues. The last thing anyone in the company suggests is that the company increases their overheads by doubling their labour costs.

      And, again, the anger at the terrible working conditions vanishes when there’s no obvious Big Bad to blame, when it’s just some dirt-poor farmers trying to scratch out a living in inhospitable terrain. Their lives are still every bit as hard, but people don’t get remotely as worked up about it.

    • Nalano says:

      Has it ever occurred to you that typifying the entire third world as “dirt farmers,” hoping only for the white man to come and show them the Way – that such exploitative labor practices are better “by comparison,” – is just a PR meme that said companies and lobbyists’ have worked so hard to advertise?

    • zbeeblebrox says:

      Quirk, your argument seems to rest on the assumption that countries containing sweatshops *will* be made worse if the sweatshop leaves, but there’s no clear evidence that this is accurate. Though this is partially due to the vagaries of how sweatshop management and ownership is defined in relation to the corporations they do business with. Often, these are very *very* informal positions with little oversight or documentation behind them.

      That aside, you are correct about the futility of boycotting and negative PR on a major company. For example, new major investigations into Nike’s business practices in poorly regulated country have been opened up basically yearly since the mid-90s, and none of it has done a thing to curb their actions or even slow (let alone decrease) their annual revenues.

    • anonymousity says:

      For some countries it’s concerted economic choice as a path to industrialisation, china for example created a situation in which it’s manufacturing industry (sweatshops) would flourish which supercharged it’s economy when it pushed through with industrialisation a process that is still going on transforming it into the largest economy in the world and causing much consternation in America, mostly because of the mercantilist way in which it’s continuing on. Ironically enough America is printing lots of money partially in response to china’s mercantilist act of artificially holding down it’s currency to hold up it’s manufacturing industry, which advantages them with all the sovereign debt they owe to china. Much of this is really standard economic theory but bleeding hearts are so bad at seeing the bigger picture and would rather fuck impoverished countries in the longer term by stopping them from industrialising.

    • Quirk says:

      @Nalano:

      If you believe that the people who work in sweatshops are not dirt poor and severely lacking in other options, you have to come up with a convincing reason why they choose to work in them. I say and mean “choose”; these are not slaves on plantations. “That’s what the PR flacks want you to think!” is only half an argument, you have to then explain the workers’ choice, preferably in a way that doesn’t assume that they’re idiots.

    • G-Sys says:

      @Quirk

      Are you familiar with the concept of wage slavery? Unless there are national social assistance programs that can support someone while they are looking for a new job, their choice is effectively between “continue working” and “die”.

    • Josh W says:

      Ok, so sweatshops are better than death. People chose them and are not slaves. So why not support the even better choices? The solution is to buy clothes that are not made in sweatshops, perhaps made by very poor people, or people with very low exchange rates, who can actually live off their work without pushing themselves near to collapse. Or if you can, pay a bit more.

      Course there is another argument: The clothing industry makes huge profits off the difference between what we can pay and what they can get away with paying, so maybe you should not pay any more, on principle, just get the stuff shut down, over and over.

      They will still want to make money, and unlike everyone else in this equation, they have the money to hand to move to a better system. They can afford to set up new shops that aren’t sweatshops. They can afford to squeeze their margins.

      In other words, we can work outside the market mechanism, for something that is in the short term bad for those who loose their jobs. But is in their long term interest.

      Support the fairer companies, but campaign for better worker treatment to be law in those countries that hold sweatshops, (via i demands, treaties etc; better to have our influence working the other way) then for that law to be enforced.

      Stick and carrot, not just paying more.

    • PFlute says:

      @Quirk: You mean there’s a difference between how we do (and SHOULD) react to bad luck and poor natural conditions and actual sentient beings making conscious choices to hurt and exploit other sentient beings?

      Holy HELL. The presses! Alert them!

  10. aircool says:

    Hang on… we’re talking about a target market that locks sims into a brick wall until they piss themselves and cry.

  11. JP says:

    Use of Flash prevents the ultimate irony: playing this game on an iPad.

  12. OJSlaughter says:

    This game is really fun and quite horrible when you think of it lol

  13. MCM says:

    It has fantastic music.

  14. geldonyetich says:

    I hear Nike’s improved their practices a bit, so it’s somewhat a shame to see that Nike swoosh on the trailer as their reward.

    That said, I like the provocative idea of tower defense with a sweat shop trapping and the style in which they executed it.

  15. Cryo says:

    Good news is that freemarket libertarians are soon going to personally know the joy of doing backbreaking labor for 50 cents an hour. Bad news is that so will the rest of us.

  16. aircool says:

    50 cents is quite a lot of money in many countries…

  17. Agrona says:

    So ‘CryMark’ first sounded to me like a mash-up of Crytek and Futuremark.

    That’s probably not the case, though. I guess it’s a Wal*Mart thing? Although from the title alone it sort of looks like it would be Hallmark.

  18. droid says:

    The problem I have with it is that a “killed” robot gives bad karma. And the robots get tired.

  19. jaimenalee says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Gaming is a hobby, nothing more or less. It sometimes takes over a little more than it should, just like any other hobby because we tend to choose hobbies we’re dedicated to. As for being more or less “productive” than others… gaming *is* more interactive than watching a movie; after all, in a movie you have no control over what happens next. I like a bit of both, although I only watch movies on DVDs (I don’t own or want a TV).

    I tend to be very open about my gaming hobby. I enjoy the shocked looks I get while people ask what “someone like” me (a professional woman of 42 years) sees in a computer game, and then I explain a little and watch the lightbulbs flash up over their heads :-)