Video games train us to maximize efficiency

Video games simulate virtual worlds that millions of people engage with for hundreds of hours each year.  Gravity is simulated and military tactics are simulated. Of interest to this article, economies are simulated.

An economy could be thought of as a system of allocating scarce resources. Economic relationships are at play in games, whether the player is managing a virtual health bar in a first-person shooter or virtual resource reserves in a real-time strategy. Games carry people’s tacit or explicit assumptions about how economies do or should work. This is because games are designed and programmed by people.

Video games are not replications of reality; they are simulations of models we have for understanding reality. Games are run on computers that, as games scholar Ian Bogost puts it, “function procedurally, [and] are particularly adept at representing real or imagined systems that themselves function in some particular way.” They “selectively model appropriate elements of that world… some subset of a source system, in order to draw attention to that portion as the subject of the representation.” Elements must be chosen and assumptions must be made. To create games, designers must think and make a statement about scarcity, production and consumption, and the behaviour of other agents.

Economies programmed into video games are, in a sense, theories about how real economies function. The main difference is that they are built with an aim to entertain, of course. As a result, they exist as a type of consumer-grade economic simulation, procedural economic models made by non-economists to be consumed by millions of people.

Just as a painting or novel is never neutral, interaction with virtual worlds in games is not without ideology or influence. The base definitions programmed as the mechanisms in the game will lead to wildly different paths for the player to follow. Value could be modeled in a game as the time taken to harvest a certain resource. It could also be programmed as some arbitrary system of exchange comparison where two “wood” equals three “gold” equals one “house.” How do the incentives of this interactivity influence thinking about how the real world works or should work?

These base assumptions might not be immediately visible to the player, but will certainly affect the patterns and possibilities of their play. Think about rational agents or the question of whether the environment is a bottomless sink for the consumer society. What do the interactive processes (not just content) of <em>Call of Duty</em>, or <em>Civilization,</em> or <em>Candy Crush</em> suggest about the way our culture views economic life?

We model very sophisticated economic ideas for entertainment. To be immersed in these theories is perhaps ever more persuasive than to read the pages of the theories propounded by economists. The economic assumptions latent in video games have persuasive implications to players and society. As a popular medium for entertainment, we need to think not just about the content, but the interactive mechanisms of video games and what they represent.