Redefining Management in “To Build a Better Mousetrap”

How a game about work caused April-Lyn Caouette to rethink corporate structure.

Written by April-Lyn Caouette

I always suspected that I would be a terrible manager, but today a video game confirmed my theories. I simply don’t have the skills necessary to balance employee satisfaction with profitability and efficiency. Let’s be honest: if I had a company, I would alternate between giving all my employees exactly what they want – because I want to make all people happy at all times – and keeping as few people as possible employed just so I don’t have to deal with them.

To Build a Better Mousetrap is a short, semi-abstract game created by Italian developers Molleindustria that puts players in the role of capitalist overlord – or in this case, the literal “fat cat”. Players are responsible for deciding how many workers to move from a slowly growing line of unemployed mice into either a production line or an R&D department, which at any time can research new products, computerization technologies (to replace profit-guzzling R&D mice), or automation technologies (to replace inefficient production-line mice). You begin by promoting an ordinary worker mouse to be the cat in charge, then decide what wages the mice should earn, when to hire, fire, or reassign workers, and when to move unruly mice into incarceration. As you work, your profits are measured by a vat of yellow goop, which fills as you complete products, and empties as wages are paid out to your workers.

I have played this game at least a dozen times (a play-through takes less than five minutes). I’m not sure what conditions cause me to lose, but so far each of my games has ended with “Insurrection”: a line of happily dancing unemployed mice, an entirely automated business, and the fat cat behind bars. I can only assume that winning the game involves a full tank of profits and a happy cat, but however I play I can’t find the right balance of variables that would please everyone. Instead, I seem to be playing a game that favors no one.

My first impulse when talking about the disparity in the corporate hierarchy is to blame those in charge. Corporations need to take care of their workers! Why should those of us on the bottom struggle while the fat cats at the top live in luxury? While I still think those statements are true, taking the role of management gave me a new perspective. If trying to balance the variables in a simple video game was difficult, how much more so for a real-life company with real-life challenges? What happens when you throw customers, stockholders, investors, a complicated supply chain into the mix?

The system is larger than the individuals in leadership, and the people making high-level corporate decisions are prisoners of that system just like those working the assembly line. From the limited experience granted to me by this game, I know that the answer isn’t as straightforward as simply redistributing profits back into the pockets of employees. As the one pulling the strings, I found there was always a demand for more jobs and higher wages, even when my production line was outpacing demand, my wages were exceeding profits, and the unemployment line grew beyond the number of jobs I had available.

I’m not an economist or a labor analyst, so I won’t even pretend to have a solution. But in a system that favors no one, any answer needs to come from a place of compassion, as much for the ones on the top as for the ones on the bottom. As is the case in Better Mousetrap, the person in charge often starts as a humble worker, with the same essential goals as the workers: make the business run, and provide for self and family. Instead of retelling the narrative of “them against us”, maybe it’s time to write a new story of “humans caught in a trap together”, and start talking about how we can eliminate the trap entirely.

“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” – WarGames (1983)

  • Janice Swanner

    Welcome to my life, April. My degree is Organizational Leadership. This is all we discuss/study