Monday, July 18, 2011

Taylor's Tower

American industry's relentless focus on efficiency can largely be traced to Frederick W. Taylor, inventor of the theory of scientific management. In the late 19th century, Taylor, a mechanical engineer and former factory worker, conducted "time studies" of industrial workers, seeking to identify and codify what we might call "best practices" in today's business jargon—the most efficient processes for producing maximum output. Taylor timed workers' movements to the second, using his amassed data to construct an ideal system of motions for maximum productivity and minimum wastefulness. In a Taylorist system, in other words, all men are machines.

But Taylor wasn't simply interested in workers' physical movements. His theory, which could be said to represent the best and worst of the Progressive Era, also set out to bridge that pesky divide between labor and management. He claimed that his methods would not only increase output, but also improve worker satisfaction, reduce working hours, and minimize conflict. Of course, he also assumed laborers, like dogs, were either too genial or too stupid to mind being treated like objects.

It's no wonder Lenin was a fan. Despite its pretensions at fostering equality, Taylorism was a thoroughly autocratic system. "It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured," Taylor wrote in Principles of Scientific Management. "And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone" [italics in original]. So, lots of enforcing going on. And lots of room for interpretation about what "best" means. Charlie Chaplin's celebrated satire Modern Times brilliantly captures the dystopian work environment fostered by Taylorism. Nothing quite like the boss's furious face appearing on a giant viewscreen while you're taking a leak to scare you back to the assembly line.

No game has made me feel like a Taylorist factory foreman as much as Tiny Tower, the iOS tapfest currently inspiring love-hate reactions across the web. If you're not familiar with the game, it's an economic/real estate simulator in which, as the Tiny Trump in charge of your Tiny Tower, you build apartments and businesses, collect money, and exercise autocratic control of your pixelated "Bitizens." You choose not only if and where they work, but if they deserve to stay in your Tower at all, based on their work aptitude ratings. The mechanics themselves, like industrial labor, are repetitive to a mind-numbing degree: Build a floor, restock stores, wait (in real time!) for coins to accrue and restocking to complete, ferry Bitizens in elevators, restock stores, build another floor. Rinse and repeat.

Brendan Keogh's review in Paste explains the game's mechanics in more detail. But it also tries to articulate the game's bizarre allure, which many players are still trying to pin down. On the surface, there is nothing about Tiny Tower that should be fun. And yet we keep playing. Michael Abbott's recent Brainy Gamer post is an elegant piece of satire on that front.

The thing about Tiny Tower that interests me most, though, is not that it's a superficial game that is inexplicably addictive; I've played lots of games like that, Game Dev Story being only the most recent example. I do find it fascinating that the free-to-play (and apparently very profitableTiny Tower is so brazen about its micro-transaction opportunities—not by plastering you with pop-up ads and "social" hooks, but by slowing gameplay to an existential crawl, unless you want to pay to skip ahead—yet largely seems to have avoided the disdain inspired by FarmVille. I'm at something of a loss to explain that, other than to speculate that Moms haven't yet caught on. Mechanically, I'm not sure there's much difference. Presumably iDevices' enduring hipness shields Tiny Tower from some of the ire reserved for Facebook games.

What strikes me most about Tiny Tower is how transparently and, well, efficiently it compels the player to adopt a Taylorist philosophy. Taylor believed there was One Best Way to perform any kind of job, a sort of miracle cure for what ailed the worker, the manager, and industry as a whole. In Tiny Tower, it becomes clear after a few hours—once you are invested enough to start caring about your burgeoning building—that maximizing efficiency, not employing creative strategies, is the objective here. Just as in manufacturing, the work never ends in Tiny Tower; there is no defined end point at which the goal is achieved. There is only more building, more production. There is little incentive to do anything else than figure out the most cost-effective and time-saving way to keep doing what you're doing. Even the "strategy guides" for this game read like Taylorist propaganda. This one explicitly bills itself not as a guide, but as "tips and tricks for maximizing efficiency."

Of course, maximizing efficiency is sometimes just the way to win. In games like StarCraft or even chess, there are proven strategies that work to the player's advantage a very high percentage of the time. It's stupid to not employ them. Listening to StarCraft veterans debate build orders, it's easy to suspect they're just trying to find that One Best Way. But StarCraft and chess players understand that different situations require different strategies, and that strategies have to evolve on the fly as each match unfolds. The joy of these games is the artfulness with which skilled players adapt to changing conditions. Taylor, on the other hand, wasn't much for evolution or adaptation. Scientific management made no room for art. Enforced standardization was quite literally the order of the day.

Tiny Tower operates in much the same way, but on two levels. As Tiny Trump,* you exercise totalitarian control over your Bitizens, from where they live and where they work to what they wear. And these choices aren't merely cosmetic; dressing up Bitizens of similar aptitudes in similar "uniforms" can make them easier to find and reassign as needed. Should another Bitizen come along who happens to have a better aptitude rating, it's sayonara to the dead weight—if you're a Trump worth your hairpiece, anyway. (That element in particular, the shedding of inefficient workers, is eerily reminiscent of workers' loss of jobs to automation in the mid-20th century, a natural outgrowth of a manufacturing culture rooted in scientific management.) Inasmuch as it is possible to suck at Tiny Tower, you will suck if you don't learn to adopt a Taylorist approach. Or, more likely, you'll just put it away.

But then there's also the way the game itself becomes the Taylorist management to the player's laborer. Half of the "gameplay" is ferrying Bitizens on the elevator (which can be upgraded for speed, of course), perhaps the most menial task a videogame has asked of players in recent memory. If you allow Tiny Tower to send push notifications, it'll pop up dialogue boxes on your device every time a store is ready for restocking or a new floor has been built. It slaves the player to the (real time!) clock in a way that few other games do. Eventually you get the feeling you should punch a timeclock every time you boot up the damn thing.

But for all that, my Tiny Tower is no dystopia. For one thing, it's cute as hell. My Bitizens seem, on the whole, a happy and well-adjusted lot, with the possible exception of that blue-haired chick with the bunny ears who works in the Soda Brewery. There are enough bemusing Easter eggs in Tiny Tower's Facebook parody, "Bitbook," to convince me there's a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek intent here. I'm genuinely glad for developer NimbleBit—twin brothers Ian and David Marsh—that they've hit on what appears to be an enormously successful formula.

I'm also glad Tiny Tower has provoked me to consider how I "maximize efficiency" in other games. I may not have been able to articulate it properly before playing Tiny Tower, but it makes sense in retrospect: The point at which I give up and put a game away is often the point at which it begins to feel like work, when I become obsessed with finding the One Best Way to play it. If it turns out there is indeed a One Best Way to play, that's usually an indication that the game is not worth the effort I'm putting into it. Or maybe that it's ceased to become a "game" for me at all.

So why am I still playing Tiny Tower? For me, and I suspect for many others, there's a calming allure to the game's very mundanity and repetitiveness. It's satisfying and relieving in the same way, say, filling in a spreadsheet can be. There's a degree of comfort in the fact that little critical thought is required. The job hasn't been stimulating or challenging, but you have produced something. Something exists where it didn't before. And that's rewarding.

At least until it's time to build the next floor.

*No actual references to The Donald exist in this game. But they really should.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Death Fetish

In honor of AMURRICA, I marathoned my way through the single-player campaign of my latest library rental, Call of Duty: Black Ops, yesterday. My reaction was much the same as my response to Modern Warfare 2:

Hour 1: Wow, this looks and plays great.
Hour 6: My soul is crushed.

There's a reason I'll never buy a Call of Duty title, but it's not what you might think. It's not because I'm terrible at multiplayer-heavy shooters, although I am. It's not because their stories are barely-comprehensible Michael Bay power fantasies, although they are. It's not because Activision is creeping ever closer to Zynga levels of transparently formulaic cash-grabbing, although it is. And it's not even because I prefer not to have racist, sexist, homophobic horseshit screamed in my ear by mouth-breathing dudebro imbeciles, although that's a factor too.

No, I'll never buy a Call of Duty title for the same reason I'll never buy a Saw movie on DVD: it's death-porn.

It's not that I won't play a Call of Duty game, of course. I like to play a military shooter every once in a while, just like I like to check out a grisly horror flick every once in a while. It's fun to see where the genre is going. I just don't want to own those titles. I can't shake the feeling that would implicate me somehow.

The graphic violence, per se, doesn't bother me. I love Mortal Kombat, after all, and that franchise stakes its reputation on its glorification of human butchery. But unlike Mortal Kombat or any number of other ultraviolent titles—Borderlands, Grand Theft Auto, Left 4 Dead—the Call of Duty games seem to take themselves way too seriously. Even the Battlefield: Bad Company games lighten their tone with humor. (For the record, I don't count Black Ops' intentionally absurd Zombie mode, where JFK teams up with Nixon, Kissinger & Castro to fend off the undead; I'm talking about the campaign alone.)

Instead, I think it's the peculiar fetishizing of gruesome acts of violence that gets under my skin. Take the picture above. After battling across a rooftop level to save this guy, you watch him get shot through the head—in slow motion, naturally, with copious sprays of brain matter erupting from the wound in minute detail—just as you're about to save him from falling. You let the body (this is a body now, not a person like it was seconds ago, but the game makes no attempt to explore that terrifying concept) drop. It caroms off a neon sign, a lump of flesh and bone, literal dead weight. One cannot help but imagine ~90% of Black Ops players responding to this moment with a heartfelt "oh, sick, bro!"

In context, it makes sense that a hardened military operative like your avatar wouldn't pause in the middle of a firefight to ponder the existential meaning of life's precariousness. But Black Ops shows this event, and other similarly bloody acts, in such precise detail, in such high-definition scripted precision, that it's clear the game wants you to pay very close attention. The problem I have is that it doesn't ask you to do anything beyond that.

Consider the "rat tunnel" sequence in one of the Vietnam levels. Progressing through Viet Cong tunnels on your way to your next objective, you are limited to a flashlight and a .44 "hand cannon" revolver. Naturally, there are VC down here to kill. Except when you shoot them, they don't enact the typical death animations. Instead you get gratuitous displays of dismemberment like this:

Dismembered VC, unlike other enemies you shoot, moan and writhe for a few seconds after being shot, drawing attention to their suffering. As far as I could tell, every kill shot takes off a limb, regardless of where you're aiming. And yet, there's no narrative reason for the carnage (like in Dead Space or The Darkness). Not that I'd expect this, but there's no attempt to make you consider the ethical or psychological ramifications of your actions; at least that might have given a hint of depth to the grim proceedings. In my playthrough, I never encountered the limb-severing .44 pistol again, making it seems as if the weapon was specifically designed for this sequence. It's like a sex toy, meant for one purpose. The weapon, the amputation, the screaming: Altogether, it's as if the player is supposed to get off on the suffering and gruesomeness of this scene.

Movies like Saw and Hostel provoke the same reaction; the gore is fuel for the revenge fantasy. Perhaps in the Vietnam sequence the developers are trading on deep-seated American resentment about our dubious engagement in that country, allowing players to enact some measure of payback for our real-life perception of failure. By, you know, dismembering some virtual VC. If so, that's pretty fucking cynical and disrespectful (and aimed at the wrong generation). But I suspect that's reading a little too far into it.

It's the particular focus of these types of sequences that makes me think of them as fetishistic. There are several, and they all take place in close-up and/or slow motion. At one point, you have to swim underwater until you reach a VC patrol boat, yank a guard over the side, and stab him in the neck, keeping him from crying out by holding him under the surface. The careful attention that was clearly paid to ensuring the resultant cloud of blood disperses realistically underwater is far more unsettling than the blood itself. There's an intensity to the display that lacks any meaning other than titillation. This scene in particular has more in common with The Human Centipede than with Full Metal Jacket. Which is a shame, since the latter film used gruesome violence and bodily injury to say some very powerful and complex things. And the former was, well, The Human Centipede.

Verisimilitude, where videogame violence is concerned, is not necessarily a desirable goal. Create a photorealistic world and photorealistic animations, and your mandate then becomes to establish a degree of emotional verisimilitude as well; otherwise the experience is at risk of treading into Michael Bay or Eli Roth territory. The reality is that even for the most hardened veterans, witnessing and causing death are enormously traumatic events whose effects linger for decades, despite the protections of comprehensive training and psychological conditioning. Along with the troops who endure such horrific scenes themselves, I have deep respect for those who provide counseling services to soldiers. That shit will fuck you up. And if it doesn't, something ain't right.

To everyone but a psychopath the act of intentionally causing another person's death is, or should be, troubling at the bare minimum. Yet games like Black Ops continually ask us to behave like psychopaths without any consideration of how doing so implicates us in self-destructive, reductionist attitudes toward actual war. Their visual fidelity is precisely why they should be used not as arcade shooting galleries, which they are at bottom, but as simulators that allow players to experience the incredibly complex and disturbing aspects of combat.

In Black Ops' very last scene, SPOILERS, you finally catch up with the Big Bad Russian Guy after enduring a Fight Club twist you saw coming hours ago. You subdue him, pinning him to a catwalk submerged in water. The game then tells you to push in the analog sticks repeatedly to choke him to death. Here is the revenge fantasy come to fruition: Instead of concluding with a non-interactive cutscene in which you put a bullet in his head once and for all, you need to commit the deed yourself. You are given control of this oddly intimate act of violence. There are no blades, no guns, just your hands around his throat, pure human force. It's the most personal moment in the game, and it's as anticlimactic and emotionally empty as you'd expect. But I doubt that's because Treyarch is making a statement about the emptiness of revenge. Instead, I think it's emotionally empty in the way porn is emotionally empty: It's supposed to be.