Satisfactory way of thinking

I've spent hundreds of hours in the factory building game Factorio, and more recently Satisfactory. In both of these games you are a single person dropped on an alien planet, tasked with building everything you need by using only the local resources.

However as a visitor from a more advanced civilization, you already have the tools and knowledge to build advanced machinery. This means that you already have the tools to build say an automated drilling machine to get iron ore from the ground, but still need to figure out all the intermediary steps to take that raw material and gradually refine it into iron ingots, iron plates, screw etc. until finally you progress to building things like weapons, cars or even a space elevator.

While they are very (or should I write "dangerously") entertaining games, I think they also impart a useful way of thinking. In our daily lives we have our own little routines, and take our own little role in society, and rarely get to think about things from the higher level perspective that these games offer.

Process perspective

The offered perspective being that a larger task consists of subprocesses, each of which can be reduced to inputs and outputs. It's refreshing for once not to consider what is inside of the black box of the process. Just that it takes something, and turns it into something else.

After getting into this frame of mind, you initially become saddened by not finding anything in your practical life where you could use this systems thinking. But then I realized that it's because I am taking the games too literally by looking for only physical processes. But the inputs and outputs, the way they connect, and the black box could be anything.

Take for instance the prevalent conveyor belts in the game, which are used to connect the processing such that items can flow from one unit to the next. Miner takes ore from the ground, the miner is connected by a conveyor belt to a smelter that turns it into an ingot, which is connected by another conveyor belt that takes it to yet more units that turns it into more and more refined things.

Not just conveyor belts

If you owned one of these processing units in real life, say one that takes in iron ore and processes it further into something else, you might rather be connected to your source by a cargo ship and send the result forward on a train. And actually there is already a "conveyor belt" that connects us to everything — the post office. For an operation that doesn't require a massive quantity of inputs, you might take in all materials by mail, turn it into something else and again ship it onwards by mail.

The black boxes also don't have to be machines, but could rather be a clearly defined roles filled by people. Now with this attitude it suddenly becomes practical to emulate such processes in real life, even without investing millions starting your own iron smelting operation. Instead you can have a business that takes in input materials by mail and turn them into something else to pass onwards.

Not just machines

The connections don't have to be conveyor belts, and the units don't have to be machines. What about the items? They don't actually have to be physical stuff either. They could be just information. But isn't information too varied to be considered a distinct unit? Not necessarily, and iron ingots aren't all exactly alike either.

The inputs and outputs are distinct enough as long as they are fit for their purpose. An iron ingot with a funny shape is still interchangeable as long as it can be used for its intended purpose.

Not just stuff

What would such interchangeable piece of information look like? An example that comes to mind is one service I'm familiar with: a site (now defunct) that sells user feedback. You would place an order for say 10 pieces of feedback, and real people would visit your website and write a paragraph telling you what they thought of it. The owner of the service did not hire people to write this feedback. Rather he further passed the writing task to another service called Amazon Mechanical Turk where others would write the feedback.

The owner rather took a role like the player of a factory game: he connected Mechanical Turk and user website information as the inputs, and had a system that produced the output, a piece of information that fulfilled its role as a decent piece of user feedback.

Thanks for reading

I hope I managed to convince you that factory building games can be quite inspiring and educational.