The Cotton-Picking Game: It Takes All Day and You Can't Really Win

By Alexis C. Madrigal
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There is no shortage of articles about the brutal work that the world's poor do to supply the companies that make consumer products. Occasionally, a horrific tragedy like the factory fire and collapse in Bangladesh will stir sympathies, but the day-to-day toughness of scratching out a living on the margins of society is hard to understand by reading statistics or hearing a couple of anecdotes.

Take this example. Uzbekistan is the world's third-largest cotton exporter. Their cotton goes into shirts everywhere. And to pick this cotton, the country's government has pressed schoolchildren into labor, according to human rights groups. Depending on the time of year and age of a worker, a cotton picker could have a daily quota of 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of raw cotton.

What's that mean? Is it possible to simulate the drudgery of the work? The designers at GameTheNews tried and, at least partially, succeeded. They created a simple game. There are two buttons. Both say pick cotton. And as you do, a bit of cotton -- between one and two grams -- goes into your pack. You can press the buttons quickly, but there is a short pause as your hand reaches into the pack. The fastest strategy is to switch from left to right button as fast as possible.

But once you've figured out the optimal strategy for speed, you realize: You will have to hit these buttons 30,000 times or something in order to fulfill your quota! It would take, the designers estimate, eight straight hours of hitting the buttons to "win" the game.

But there is no winning of course. No amount of speed or skill, no lifehacking or positive thinking could make the work more fun. It's just the 50 kilograms of cotton and the hours of work required to pick it for export.


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/the-cotton-picking-game-it-takes-all-day-and-you-cant-really-win/275636/