Economics You Can Play, Not Economics You Can Use?

Curator's Note

Video games have painted economic pictures – and been economic playgrounds – since the 1980s.  More than three decades of games engaging with complex ideas has helped the serious games movement gain the traction it has today.  Not surprisingly, because they excel at creating controlled, rule-based simulation, video games have even garnered the attention of economists in recent years:  gold farming, micro-transactions, virtual economies roughly the size of Bulgaria.   Who could resist?    

The beauty of video games is the range of things that can be made into an economic lesson.  In-game advertising is set to become a major revenue stream for the industry, and everything from the goods you make to the reputation you create is potentially profitable in a virtual world.  

What has received less attention is the portrayals of the economy video games have put forth.  Simulation games have long been a mainstay of the industry, and economic simulations have numbered among the best sellers in the industry.  Games like Maxis’ SimCity (1989) and Interactive Magic’s Capitalism (1995) engaged the player with their own versions of what capitalism and economic management was about.   These games were successful enough to spawn franchises, but like many popular media texts that touch on economics, these franchises offer a fairly limited and less than critical view of just how complex economics can be.  

More recently, though, games like Electronic Arts’ The Sims (2000) and all its spin-offs offer a distinctly different take on what the economy is about.   While early games focused on maintaining complex systems – cities, nations, business or industries – games like The Sims have shifted the focus to micro-economic moments.  More significantly, they’ve leaped from thinking about the labor theory of value and balancing supply and demand to a wholesale (no pun intended) adherence to the utility theory of value and consumer driven economics.    To be fair, there are jobs in The Sims, but the labor itself is pushed to the margins – who wants a virtual job?  - but the focus is on anything but labor.    Whle such games focus tremendous effort on realistic replication of environment, reflected in lines of code and complex physics algorithms, the ideas themselves rarely are treated as complex.   The lesson of The Sims and in the economies of all those MMORPGs is simple (but by accident or design?):  if you want a better life, buy a better good.    And while there’s evidence of some limited engagement with the problems of these simple portrayals,  there are few examples which are both thoughtful and use the form, let alone offer responses recognizing the problem and the irony of preaching consumption.   It leaves us to wonder whether the active engagement of players that makes video games useful for training, potentially pushes passive acceptance of others? 


I think this analysis is so useful to thinking about the economies of virtual worlds. Since I have somehow completely missed entire generations of video games (I can play Pong), my reply is only to suggest other kinds of narratives that might prove fruitful for consideration, like Grand Theft Auto. What seems fascinating about this game, and its surrounding controversy, is the way it privileges success at the jobs and skills necessary in a criminal economy. I think we often overlook a life of crime as an alternative and often subversive labor and financial world. I'm also thinking about war games and the possible uses of the military-industrial complex required to win. Thanks Randy, you gave me a lot to think about.

I feel like there are some interesting parallels between this and your example, in part because of how video games require the assumption of the "I" position while often obscuring any real ability to act collectively or collaboratively (combat/military games being an obvious - and often problematic exception).   But should we be surprised that video games tend towards competition rather than collaboration when that's a theme of so much of our daily lives?

The GTA example, while something of a lightning rod, is fun because, read as an economic narrative, it tells us that success - no matter how dirty - washes everything clean:  it's okay to be a criminal as long as you're a successful criminal.   Certain criminals are fodder for the actions of the game, while others become off-limits by virtue of their success. 

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