Benign Envy and The Psychology of Tiny Tower

I’ve been messing around lately with Tiny Tower on the iPad 1. If you haven’t played it, the gist is that you build up a tower full of “bitizens” who live in your tower’s apartments and work in its shops. Employed bitizens make money over time, which you can spend to build ever more floors to get more shops to employ more bitizens to make more money. You can speed this process up by spending “tower bux” which you can either earn in-game or buy with real money. It’s very much a “wait to play” game where you check in on it, stock your shops, then check back in a few hours later to restock again and see if you’ve accrued enough money to build a new floor. I’ve currently got 48 floors. 2

You can speed things up by spending tower bux, and you can hasten your accrual of tower bux by exchanging a few real bucks –$30 will net you 1,000 tower bux. Apparently this is doing well for the developers, as Tiny Tower has shown up on the iTunes list of highest grossing apps and it has millions of players. I think they’ve missed an opportunity to make even more money, though, by not taking advantage of something called “benign envy.” 3

The idea is that there are two kinds of envy: benign and malicious. As explained in series of papers by Niels van de Ven and his colleagues 4 the latter is the kind we may be more familiar with –it’s the “They’ve got something I want, I wish they didn’t have it” variety. It especially happens when we don’t think someone deserves some nice new shiny thing that they’ve got. Benign envy, on the other hand, occurs when someone else has something we want, but we think that they deserve to have it. They worked for it, or it’s a just reward for their good character, or whatever.

When we experience benign envy, we don’t want to tear the other person down as much as we want to build ourselves up to get what they have. If doing so seems relatively easy, research has shown that such feelings of benign envy will motivate us to do what we can to close the gap. This may include spending more money to acquire a product that the other person has. In one study, van de Vern made subjects feel envious of a friend who got a desirable internship, and the result was that subjects, who were college students, studied harder to better their chances. In a follow-up study, they inspired envy for a friend who got a new iPhone, to the point where they subjects they’d be willing to pay 64% more for the gadget than would a control group. 5

Where I think Tiny Tower is missing out on some extra revenue is that it doesn’t allow you to purchase
specific shops. The game is largely capricious about what specific shops appear –flag a floor for food and you may get either a Sky Burger or a Fancy Cuisine. This is important because some shops are WAY better than others because of how deep their stocks are, which lets them generate more money while you’re away from the game.

And while Tiny Tower allows you to peek in on your GameCenter friends’ towers and see what shops they have, it doesn’t allow you to do much about it if they have, say, a Tutoring Center that stocks an awesome 5,400 units of “Trig Help” at three coins a pop while the best service shop you have only sells a fraction of that before you have to manually restock. If Tiny Tower let you buy a Tutoring Center with real money, I’d bet they’d make a lot more, especially after people visited their friends and got a little dose of benign envy.

Of course, that’s not to say that people would always see this mechanic as fair or feel annoyed over the fact that their friends are cheapening their luck and persistence by breaking out the credit card. It’s a delicate balancing act. I’m just saying, I really want a Private Investigator before I hit 50 floors.


1. It is also on the iPhone/Touch
2. Wait, now 49.
3. Yes, this is another one my evil posts about how they could get more money out of you. They’re fun!
4. e.g., van de Ven, N. (2011). Why Envy Outperforms Admiration. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6) 784-795.
5. van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M. Pieters, R. (2011). The Envy Premium in Product Evaluation. Journal of Consumer Research, 37. 984-998.

9 thoughts on “Benign Envy and The Psychology of Tiny Tower

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  2. I was actually reflecting on benign envy earlier today… what a coincidence! Some older gentleman rode past me on his bicycle… I actually never learned how to ride one, and I experienced a moment of envy. This led me to question if my envy was bad, but I quickly identified it as the productive sort, and decided that I should make an effort to learn (though the last attempt resulted in injury…)

    You can see this sort of behavior in many social sandbox games… your Farmville’s, your Animal Crossings, or even just your everyday MMO. When exploit… er, executed properly, it can certainly increase player motivation and spending. On the other hand, if it becomes too obvious, then it will only appeal to a more obsessive niche. So you’re absolutely right about it being a delicate balancing act.

    But generally an over-reliance on random consequences is a weakness in game design. At least to a healthy extent, the more the consequences and feedback reflect the desired behavior, the more players will feel reinforced to continue playing.

  3. Interesting article. I haven’t actually played Tiny Towers, but I’ve heard a bit about it.

    I also find it very interesting that Tiny Towers doesn’t give you an option to choose your store. A RPG-esque dungeon crawler game with a similar randomization element, Solomon’s Keep (and Solomon’s Boneyard), have it so that when the player level’s up, they are given the option of three different skills (chosen mostly at random, but there are biases based on previous skill choices). However, something they added a while after launch was a feature you could pay $1 for that allowed the player to pay in-game-earnable coins when you level up to choose what skill you wanted from the entire list, instead of only the limited, random selection. To help further monetize from the impatient, since the coins cost scaled up as the player got higher level, they also let the player buy a large sum of coins for $1 as much as they wanted.

    I’m curious though; what drove you to try this particular free-to-play game over the dearth of many other competing games, such as Smurf’s Village, Tap Pet Hotel, Lil’ Pirates, We Rule [whatever suffix they’re doing now], World War, etc?

    (Though a disclosure; I’m slightly biased in that I was part of the making of one of the games above.)

    • I just happened to pick it up after someone recommended it and said it was free on the iPad. All the other F2P games you mentioned seemed too silly or aimed at kids. Tiny Tower had a kind of Sim Tower vibe to it.

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