'Tiny Tower' Ethics

by Jorge Albor

8 July 2011

At nearly 30 floors, I want nothing more than to destroy my tower and Tiny Tower's dubious ethics along with it.

Tiny Tower, the latest iOS game from the brother duo that is NimbleBit, has earned its place amongst the pantheon of popular iPhone/iPad games with over thirty million downloads. I too have joined the throng of tower managers. For the past week, I have obsessively monitored my building progress, stretching my skyscraper upwards whenever time permitted. My investment is reflected in the ever-growing height of my citadel. Yet at nearly thirty floors, I want nothing more than to destroy my tower and the game’s dubious ethics along with it.

With its adorable, mouth-breathing, pixelated denizens, Tiny Tower could charm anyone into submission. Called “bitizens,” the residents and visitors to one’s personal tower each have their own unique names and attire. They also have their own dream jobs. For example, working at the photo studio in my building completely satisfies the life aspirations of my resident Ashley Meyer. A huge green smiley face accompanies her information, satisfying the benevolent landlord in me.
Tiny Tower is not a game about making people happy. It is a game about management. The goal of the game is to build one’s tower as high as possible. In order to do so, players build apartments, employ their own residents in various shops, and keep their facilities well stocked to ensure a steady inflow of gold coins. Players may then spend these coins to purchase new and increasingly expensive floors.The game also features a second currency, tower bux, that can be spent to upgrade a player’s elevator or purchase coins directly. As a free-to-play game, this is how Tiny Tower monetizes the experience.

I began questioning Tiny Tower’s ethics when I intentionally moved Ashley from her dream job into an inferior position. I was one hand short of fully operating my mini-golf course. I could briefly ignore the fully stocked photo studio to maximize my income from other floors. Ashley’s dream job was put on hold. A great building manager has no scruples. Before long I evicted five tenants in a row just to find someone who could bake muffins like an expert and save me a few coins in the process. The only reason that I build apartments at all is to fulfill my employment needs. I have become an exploiter of digital-human capital.

A Marxist reading of Tiny Tower need not blemish the game entirely. After all, if I can slaughter enemies in a first-person shooter, surely I can handle authoritarian control of labor. As Miguel Sicart states in The Ethics of Computer Games, “the unethical content of a game does not affect the virtuous being outside the game world, unless in her process of interpretation of the game experience her external ethical values play a role, by means of encountering a taboo of some sort.” Tiny Tower could only be truly unethical through its interaction with the real world.

There is a sinister element to persistent game experiences that almost necessarily leech into reality. Player towers never close for the evening. When players take a break from the game, stocked businesses still earn incomes. When a floor runs out of stock, the lights turn off, but the bitizens remain walking about the darkened room. The Bitbook, an in-game parody of Facebook, exploits the pixelated characters’ charm to constantly remind (or guilt) the player to re-stock floors with statements like: “Closing up the barber shop, hope I don’t lost my job!” and “I work at the soda brewery but it’s not open today.” Completely re-stocked businesses also grant bonuses, which incentivize constant check-ups to maintain all one’s wares. With notifications turned on, a loud ding or vibration will remind players that their “Sushi Bar on floor 10 is ready to be re-stocked!” The taller the building, the more frequent the pestering reminders.

Tiny Tower is less about business management and more about personal time management. Ideally, all businesses should be at capacity at all times. With profit maximization in mind, I began checking on my wares obsessively before every extended break. I reserved the moments before and after sleep for obsessive restocking efforts. Even my battery life became an issue. If my iPhone died while I was out, how would I maintain a high and steady income?

As Sicart discusses in Ethics of Computer Games, while gaming we often think strategically instead of ethically. Management games of this variety extend this thinking into the real world. Personal time can become strategically valuable, at the whim of a game’s design rather than one’s own needs. In fact, Tiny Tower is monetized around this dilemma. As one’s tower gets taller, rooms take longer to build, elevator trips take longer to complete, and more businesses demand more player attention. I consider this a frustration-based business model. The longer that I play, the more I get wrapped up in the game, the more play itself becomes frustrating, and the more likely I am to spend real money to ease this frustration.

Perhaps Tiny Tower is only personally unethical. Maybe I find the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” in real life too overwhelming to confront in virtual space. I do know there is a dark irony watching unhappy digital workers postpone their dream jobs to shelve muffins while I wait to re-stock virtual businesses, my own dream job yet unattained. At this point, doing anything but toppling my tower to the ground seems unethical.


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