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.


  1. Brilliant analysis, JP.

    " Tiny Tower is no dystopia. For one thing, it's cute as hell."

    Oh man, as if cuteness has ever been a guarantee of non-hellishness! Have you ever been trapped on a plane with a baby?!

  2. This is one pimp-ass post.

    I, too, can't quite figure out why Tiny Tower hasn't earned the widespread disdain that the -Ville games have, but I share your suspicions that it's due to some combination of the the (perceived) audience and the iOS hipness factor.

    Anyway, way to write a pimp-ass post, bro. ur smart

  3. @Ben: ...babies are cute?

    @Kirk: I can only aspire to that level

  4. Infinite +1s for using Taylorism and Tiny Tower in the same sentence.

    As a recovering WoW addict, I often question the fine boundary between gaming and "work." At my peak of my addiction, I was crunching DPS spreadsheets, logging and analyzing game data to maximize my game efficiency to its highest potential.

    I've since taken to Tiny Tower and a few other of these kiddie games to fill the void. There's definitely a huge sense of reductionism to the game. Tiny Tower gives you the concept of "leveling up" in its simplest (and most literal) form.

    The incredible popularity of the game is almost ridiculous. One single screenshot of the game is responsible for about 40% of my blog's overall traffic. I suppose people like the idea of achieving goals and being masters of their own domain. I, for one, am still eagerly anticipating the release of "Heroin Hero."