The first video game I remember seeing was Super Mario Bros. 3. It was the early nineties – maybe ’93, so the game was technically old by then. My sister and my mother played it but I just watched: I was too scared. I’d be lying if I said I remembered why, and guessing in this situation is asinine. Even more so because I don’t think that, in my time gaming, that it was that game that had the greatest impact on me. I don’t even think it was Final Fantasy VII, which got me pretty into JRPGs for a little while and ultimately got me into the genre that would take up most of my adult gaming life. The thing that had the most influence was Dungeons and Dragons 3.5th Edition, and it was specifically character creation that taught me the most about microeconomics.
I’m not the type of person to spend hours on video game character modding, but I have made many character sheets – far more than necessary. I guess I’m a power gamer, having been molded in the basements of high school friends who were also playing with veterans in their early to mid twenties and were there to kill dragons, get loot and ruin local economies with arcane, two hour long in-session shopping trips. There may be a few obliterated innocents along the way, sure, but with a 30 dexterity score and three attacks per a turn, chances are that the arcane blunderbuss the team’s multiclass rogue/fighter/sorcerer is trigger happy with is going to catch somethings – usually someones – ‘unintentionally’ in the crossfire.
There’s a way of processing that goes with being a power gamer: a kind of economy of ability that is literal in the parceling out of ability scores and – very importantly – of starting gear. Back in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5th Edition, when you made your character and if they started at level 1, you’d either get a pool of gold pieces or a preload out of equipment with a pittance of gold to begin your adventuring with. I always took the gold. It just made more sense to be to spend my cash on what my character would actually use as opposed to the starting equipment that the game designers provided; how often was I going to need a waterskin or pitons as opposed to the composite longbow and fifty arrows? It usually worked out with the group I played with as a teen, but that’s because we made a world that supported those early, financially risky but justified decisions. We were there for action, not necessarily roleplay, and in those cases it was more likely I’d be loosing arrows in murky, undead-laden swamp lands than chatting with aristocrats in high courts.
Reflecting on these experiences, I realized I’m better at game finances than I am at real life ones. Not in a cool way: I’m not a good gambler or card counter or something. I’m talking about, oddly enough, video game systems like in Fall Out 4 or in Stardew Valley. These are simple economies where there is both expected, guaranteed reward but also a fair amount of opportunity for smaller or even the occasional ‘main quest’ equitable reward for completing commonplace place, seemingly random actions you would already need to be committing to advance in the games. It’s decidedly less than accurate to real life, because while I am for sure ‘accomplishing’ a goal, I’m only exerting effort that isn’t inherently taxing or, to be frank, useful to me in the long term. Plus, whose to say you’re guaranteed what you’re supposedly owed in the real world if there suddenly isn’t such a reward available due to something beyond your control? What if the banks shut down: are you still getting compensated for putting in 80 hours the last two weeks? In these games there’s no scarcity that isn’t preprogrammed, but supposedly in real life that is not the case.
One reason I think I’m good with these games is that there are very rarely, if ever, credit systems. Short of Animal Crossing or a Sims game, you don’t get loans. You have no money? Well then you have no money till you earn that money. Credit has usually been a risk for me, as I never followed the common advice points of ‘credit is evil’ and ‘don’t spend what you don’t have’ well. I’ve since gotten better at it, I guess, but honestly it took a lot of help and more than one financial literacy course to even begin to get my shit together there.
Another reason I’m good at them is because of a recent development – one that I’ve gained over the past three years I want to say, where I’m more interested in saving up for bigger expenditures than I am at dwindling my checking account with little unplanned savings over the lifespan of each paycheck. I’ve rarely been delinquent on bills or anything, but to be fair I don’t and have not had the financial burdens in my life that others in my situation do: namely, no student loans, no mortgage, no kids. Those are big legs up when it comes to being financially solvent – maybe not healthy, but it certainly helps get someone to a neutral pH when it comes to toxic spending habits.
Really, the actual hard fact reason I’m good at game economics is because they are designed for me (and you) to be successful at it. If you put in even the minimum amount of awareness into how you expend credits or manage your inventory you’re probably golden in these games. I don’t count the gaining of the funds as really all that special, since a lot of games have assigned some kind of reward to actions that you are meant to take in the game, so earning potential is both through the roof and low hanging fruit. Short of your avatar standing still, you’re going to get some money for your effort. So I struggle to take too much credit for my capability with numbers, since really it’s the system that’s good.
I’ve been trying to assign value to my time gaming, since I’ve spent a lot of time doing it over thirty years. I think it’s that I’m aware of there being deficits and strengths I have in my character and philosophy when it comes to my financial abilities and responsibilities and at the same time I’m actually starting to really give a shit about it. My spending habits, my priorities when it comes to long-term or short-term rewards, the whole belief I have about how real life economies work – it’s as if, coming out of Plato’s cave, I just came into a bigger cave with even more metaphors for reality and life that I have to figure out to escape. I feel like I’m still stuck in something, but now I know that that is not just feeling but reality. Which is better than not knowing. I generally believe that to be the case, short of the knowledge of the eldritch horrors or something.
I’m left off with a question of what to do with this knowledge. Which makes me a little bothered, as most big choices usually do, but I’m also kind of excited to have them. While they might lead to calamity or blame, these kinds of decisions seem to be one of the few trail markers of progress in life, because of the things societies have determined are important. They aren’t everything that makes a person as far as I can tell, but they are historically pretty fair gauges of accomplishment. Tradition isn’t always a valid reason to do something, but in this circumstance I’m willing to go with it in hopes that, as is being presented to me by experts and other people on the journey, there is going to be some freedom and success over the mountain that is worth the trek. I think it’s fair to want your efforts to mean something more. But there’s no real reason to think that’s promised to us: life doesn’t have an overarching story the way a video game does. Or at least not one that isn’t made by us, which who knows if that amounts to anything other than electrical currents and pixels, just a few more advancements eventually to be buried under what’s left of us.