Geoff Evamy Hill
PHIL 371: Philosophy of Economics
Consumer-grade simulations: economies in single-player computational games
Computational games render virtual worlds that millions of people engage with for hundreds of hours individually every year. These worlds are created by individuals or teams made up of coders, artists, writers, level designers and producers. Virtual worlds are not replications of reality; they are simulations of common models we have for understanding reality. Elements, mechanisms and processes of our world are simulated with authorial intent in order to create game-play experiences. Gravity is simulated, military tactics are simulated, and of interest to this essay, economies are simulated. As these simulations are designed and programmed by people, they naturally carry people’s assumptions. Single-player computational games contain economic models that mount persuasive arguments about the normative dimensions of how economies work.
Virtual economies of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games), such as World of Warcraft or Eve Online, are a hot topic. These worlds are populated by millions of interacting players using virtual currencies to trade items like swords and spaceships earned through game-play. Because coders can manipulate these economies, they are potentially ripe for performing ambitious economic experiments. Things like arbitrarily changing the money supply, interest rate or price level can be done at a whim. All actions undertaken in game worlds produce data that can be accessed and analyzed. This enables studies like a recent one from the Santa Fe Institute that looks at the emergence of wealth inequality gaps between players who started earlier or later from the inception of a MMORPG. (Fuchs & Thurner) These economic studies are thought to improve economic knowledge and would be impossible in the real world.
What has unfortunately gone relatively understudied because of the focus on online games, are the economies of single player games. Single player games by definition don’t involve interactions of actual people and therefore cannot rely on emergence of interactions to produce economic phenomena. Things like purchasing and selling or the behaviour of artificial agents must instead be simulated according to processes emerging from the coding of the games. Single player games rely on models, base procedural structures and mechanisms, in order to run a simulation. Essentially, like any creative exercise, game designers synthesize observations from the real world, consciously or unconsciously, to create these models.
Computational games are simplified models of reality. They 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- that is, that operate according to a [magnified] set of processes.” (Bogost 5) And thus, 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.” (Bogost 46) To create virtual economic models, assumptions must be made about scarcity, production and consumption, and the behaviour of the artificial intelligence, which acts as competing or cooperative agents in the game. These are models on par in complexity, not necessarily in rigour, with some of the economic models simulations that are built by economists. The economies programmed into video games are in a sense theories about how economies function. As a result there exists a type of consumer-grade economic simulations: procedural economic models made by non-economists to be consumed by millions of individuals. Just as a painting or novel is never neutral, this consumption is not without ideology or some intent to influence. These processes make claims about how economies actually work. According to Bogost, “a procedural model like a videogame could be seen as a system of nested enthymemes, individual procedural claims that the player literally completes through interaction.” (Bogost 43) This is procedural rhetoric, persuasion through the use of processes.
How do these procedural models of economies function? Joris Dormans and Ernest Adams game design manual “Game Mechanics: How to Design an Internal Economy for Your Game” provides a general overview of the thinking behind best practices in video game models. The base assumption is that “an economy is a system in which resources – of any type – are produced, consumed and exchanged in quantifiable amounts” and represent a system of flow or throughput. Resources can be tangible or intangible, tangible in the sense that they are represented as graphics in the physical game world or intangible in the sense that they are strictly represented as numbers. Specific quantities of resources are stored as entities; for example, cash. Dormans and Adams claim that the four main mechanics of game economies are: sources (creating and storing new resources out of nothing), drains (taking resources out of a game), converters (turning resources of one kind into another) and traders (moving resources from one entity to another). When set in action, the interaction of the player with resources, entities and mechanisms will produce economic shapes. We see patterns of positive (arms race) and negative (equilibrium) feedback. The dynamics of the economy, emerging from particular processes and player choices, create further options of choices. Typical choices are the tradeoff between the value of resources or the value of long-term investments versus short-term gains. Renowned game designer Sid Meier, creator of the Civilization series sums it up as this: “a [good] game is a series of interesting choices.”
As we have seen, the choices made available to the player are not from a blank slate. They emerge from initial conditions that are then processed by the simulations and respond to player interaction. There is significant path dependence that shapes the actions of a player in a virtual economy. From initial conditions, the processes form arguments about the outcomes and functions of a system. According to famed economist Joan Robinson, this is not unlike how economic models play out in the world of economic theory. We can look at the term ‘value’ that she explores in her book Economic Philosophy. Robinson argues that economists from Smith to Marx have defined this basic concept in order to meaningfully it. This has typically been in order to quantify and compare aspects of an economy, but it has never been totally successful. Nonetheless, the internal logic of the theories, when processed endogenously, dissolves the problems of definition. She argues this by looking at the definitions of value from Smith and Marx. Robinson claims that Adam Smith’s conception of value as “the time that it ‘usually costs’ that governs exchange” was “derived … from moral preconceptions… how it ought to have been.” (32). For Marx, value is “the labour-time required to produce a commodity”(38) which she claims, and thinks Marx would agree, is not accurate. It all leads to a question of whether it is “value that determines prices or prices that determine values?” (47). She claims that all of these definitions emerge from core ideology they are built atop of, the ancient ideal of a just-price. It all means that value is ‘metaphysical’ concept with “no operational content” (47) to be used outside of the internal logic of the models proposed by these thinkers. From the initial conditions of Smith or Marx’s theories, his conclusions about international trade or the nature of capitalism tautologically come out as true. The formation of these models is ideological and the definition of terms is malleable because they are mechanisms to convert inputs into desired outputs. The logic, particularly of mathematics, can produce whatever ideological outcomes are desired based on the appropriate starting rules.
Economies in video games run into the same normative implications as economic theories in the real world. The base definitions programmed as the mechanisms in the game will lead to wildly different paths the player follows. Value could be modeled in a game, for instance, 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’. These base assumptions might not be immediately visible to the player, but will certainly affect the patterns and possibilities of their play.
In setting up these processes, the economic models in games imply to the player normative and positive conclusions on how economies in the world should work through their procedural rhetoric. I shall use the game Banished, a subsistence village simulator, as an example. The screenshot below has a graph that represents the food supply that increases and decreases in response to population change and seasonal change:
The consumptive needs of adults and children in the game are set at fixed thresholds. Below a certain amount, they will work less efficiently. Below that threshold, they will die. The game divides workers into different classes of labour to harvest resources from the ‘physical’ game world and to build and operate technologies that improve the efficiency of the resource production. Farms are built, which come at the expense of forest resources, and which provide food that grows the population. As the population grows, the food supply diminishes. These mechanisms, including the representation of seasons which is atypical in games like these, create a resource economy (there is no money represented in the game) that does not rely on negative feedback loops: it is and economy in constant, and often dramatic, disequilibrium. The implied path of gameplay is to grow population and accumulate resources while balancing the efficiency of your economy. Destruction of the village through overpopulation leading to a vicious positive feedback of food shortage and starvation is all too common. This simulation emerges from the basic rules programmed into the game and some are described above. Through these processes, the game makes a compelling argument about the dynamics of a subsistence-based economy. It also seems to have latent ideals about the place of money in society, the value of compulsory education in an economy (in that it is a short term tradeoff of unavailable labour leading to long term efficiency) and the tradeoffs between agriculture and gathering.
These assumptions are written not on the page as Marx and Smith’s, but written in code on computers by programmers. Banished was created by one person, so we might, through a biographical analysis, see what inspired the ideologies implicit in his game. Bogost quotes Gonzalo Frasco, a game developer and researcher, on the topic of authorship: “Simulation authors do not represent a particular event, but a set of potential events. Because of this, they have to think about their objects as systems and consider which are the laws that rule their behavior. In a similar way, people who interpret simulations create a mental model of it by inferring the rules that govern it.” (Bogost 64) When Smith and Marx were thinking about their definitions of values, they were imagining them as producing larger outcomes – the invisible hand or the communist system. Perhaps if they had the tools, they might have visualized their theories using computers. Today, for entertainment, we model very sophisticated economic ideas. To be immersed in their tautologies is perhaps ever more persuasive than to read the pages of the theories propounded by economists. The economic assumptions latent in video games are ideological and have profound normative implications to players. They should be studied in more detail under the realm of philosophy of economics.
Word Count: 1 864
Bogost, I., “Preface, Procedural Rhetoric” from Persuasive Games, pp. vii-xii, 1-64, ©
MIT Press, 2007.
Fuchs, Benedikt, and Stefan Thurner. “Behavioral and Network Origins of Wealth
Inequality: Insights from a Virtual World.” (n.d.): n. pag. 25 Mar. 2014. Web.
Economic Philosophy. Chicago: Aldine Pub., 1962. Print.
Shining Rock Software.
Banished. Computer software.
Banished. Shining Rock
Software, n.d. Web. <http://www.shiningrocksoftware.com/game/>.
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