Graphics: republica GmbH

How video games impact our understanding of the history of money

The motto of this year’s digital conference re:publica was „Cash“. On our panel, we discussed the history of money in video games. On the sidelines of the events, we asked our panellists Laura Laabs and Aaron Sahr to talk about the idea of progress in games associated with money.

Photo: Körber-Stiftung/Deana Mrkaja

Money and video games – how do they go together?

Laura Laabs: I don’t even know how you would separate them. On the one hand, there is the video game industry, which is insanely productive economically. On the other hand, there is a connection to technology, to the gaming equipment we use, as well as to the games themselves, which are very expensive. A lot of money has to be invested before you can start playing. In the games themselves, there is the question of in-game currency – keyword: “freemium”. Do I have to spend money to be able to play a so-called free game? And in general, we should think about how money works or is represented in games, and how games influence our ideas of money and of the history of money.

Aaron Sahr: I would like to look at this from another perspective as well. Money plays a hugely important role in all our lives, whether we like it or not. At the same time, it is not a topic we like to talk about. Many people would find it difficult to say offhand what money is or what they think monetary policies are, even though these things are at the core of our lives. That’s why it’s hugely important to look at stories that tell us about money, because they help shape the way we think about money. Video games have become an enormously important factor in this. Accordingly, we need to look at the stories that games tell us about money, as well as the history of ideas about money or its representation in literature. All of this creates an understanding of what ideas and expectations people have about money.

You both agree that money is a central aspect of and in video games. Why is that especially the case in games based on history?

Laabs: This is by no means true for all games, but games need a challenging moment, a problem for the players to overcome – that is a central aspect of play. Money offers itself as a means to that end. Our relationship with money is often characterised by challenges in everyday life, which is why it might be a good idea to integrate it into games, especially as a structuring element for the course of the game. Something like: The players can only get further towards point X if they have a certain object. In games with a historical setting, it would be difficult for me to think of an equivalent to money, precisely because money is historically important.

“In games, the money display is usually nothing more than a point system (...) in the real world, money can’t simply be described as a point-counting system of performance – especially when we look at how people are paid differently for different, socially important work.”

Aaron Sahr

Sahr: A very basic connection is first of all that we can’t imagine the world depicted in these games without money. We also notice this in debates being held today about new forms of society, about a post-growth society, about alternative economies. It is enormously difficult to imagine a non-money-based economy. This makes it easier for us to get into these games, as Laura Laabs just said. In games, the money display is usually nothing more than a point system – you have to collect these points to be able to trade in the game. Anyone understands this immediately and there are terefore no hurdles to playing the game. But all of this depicts a problem as well. Because in the real world, money can’t simply be described as a point-counting system of performance – especially when we look at how people are paid differently for different, socially important work.

Laabs: In games that in some way claim to tell history or depict history, we quite often talk about moments in the past, where money and economics are very relevant. For example in Anno 1800, which is set in the age of the Industrial Revolution, the development of certain forms of economy is an important historical aspect that plays a major role in the representation of history.

Sahr: That’s true! Especially with games like Anno 1800 – we imagine this time to be the beginning of capitalism or modern market economy. It’s a time that we narrate as a ‘monetary time’, where money has taken centre stage. The traditional idea, which is not quite right, we have of this period is that for a long time there were very rigid forms of society, where peasants farmed for themselves, and at some point things took off and everyone farmed for profit. As a result, things got better for everyone and innovation and progress occurred. By focusing on this period, Anno 1800 participates in the reproduction of a culturally powerful narrative that is impossible to avoid. We wouldn’t understand a game like Anno 1800 if it wasn’t about economics and money.

You need money to get ahead in games – that means that the accumulation of money is linked to a notion of human progress.

Sahr: In games like Anno 1800 or Civilization 6, it’s a very clear narrative of progress. There we rethink economic arrangements and see a better supply of goods. For example, we divide labour and become more productive. As a result, we generate more money and become richer. Those who have generated money rise to a new social class. This creates new needs, because our citizens then want to consume even more goods. And we can make this possible for them, because we are becoming richer and more productive as a whole, as long as society remains as it is. Everyone moves up, but not everyone moves up equally.

Laabs: And some are not allowed to move up at all.

Sahr: Exactly. You will find a lot of supporters for this idea today. Not so much among people who are conscientiously concerned with how societies function, but it is present as an ideology: not everyone can be equally well off, but everyone can be better off. That is the core liberal promise of modern societies.

Screenshot: Fireaxis Games/Civilization 6

Laabs: That is interesting, what you just said. Progress in these games can also only be experienced with money. There is no historical progress in these games without money. That is partly quite concrete. In Age of Empires, you have to individually trigger progress to move into the next historical period. This means, a new age arrives at the push of a button like all the other technologies in the game. And this temporal progress costs gold. Without mining the gold, I can’t progress in history. It’s the same with Civilization 6: you can accelerate scientific progress and cultural progress with gold. That’s a very intrinsic connection between spending money and being able to progress historically.

What influence does the representation you describe have on a game players’ present? What influence do games have on the way people think, about capitalism, for example?

Laabs: I think it’s difficult and tricky to somehow try to determine the individual influence of a specific game on a specific gamer. The bottom line is, as Aaron Sahr said, that any cultural product, whether it’s YouTube videos or video games, whether it’s films or literature, all of them in some way shape our approach to history or, in the abstract, to the world. In the individual, it’s difficult to determine, but in general, we can come to that conclusion.

Sahr: As a social or cultural scientist, one would never draw a causal connection between individual factors and individual persons or actions. But the representation of such connections in video games is part of what is called discourse, i.e. social narratives and cultural imprints, and those connections can’t be denied. And this is used strategically. There have been historical conflicts, especially in the 19th century in the US of whether to use gold or silver standards. This question was discussed widely, not only in many different media, but also in stories, in magazines and in children’s stories. You see something similar again today, especially in the conflict over money. We have a very vital movement around the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, and here, too, there are a number of children’s books that are emerging and that tell children’s stories, where children encounter problems that they solve by using Bitcoin. When I write a children’s story to positively influence children and young people in regards to Bitcoin, that is strategic. You don’t have to imply this in regards to the makers of video games in order to think that the connection is important. After all, we all grow up in an environment of stories. We often don’t know where our own beliefs or knowledge came from. Pretending that computer games do not have these effects is therefore not a convincing argument.

“I believe that the way video games represent goods, scarcity or money accumulation contributes significantly to how value and work are measured.”

Laura Laabs

Laabs: I would definitely agree with that. Many games also strongly determine attitudes on the subject of work, but also on the subject of value – as is the case with World of Warcraft. For example, there are items that are very rare, so there is a scarcity of these goods, which then cost a lot and lots of value is attributed to them. Value that can also be translated into real monetary value, because such items are also traded outside the game world. Even farming gold or grinding levels is connected to work. I believe that the way video games represent goods, scarcity or money accumulation contributes significantly to how value and work are measured.

The influence of video games on issues such as money or the history of capitalism has hardly been studied so far. Does this mean we underestimate or underutilise something here?

Sahr: For the research I am involved in, I can answer this very clearly. One notices that video games as a research topic, for example in sociology, basically play no role at all. But this is true for many cultural products, because in academic disciplines the cultural studies part has been separated off, so to speak, and has not been given a good status, i.e. not much appreciation. That’s why in the “old” social sciences there is very little engagement with media forms other than classical text. Scientifically, the influence of pop-cultural forms such as video games is often underestimated, and socially I imagine it to be similar. We are also dealing with an age structure where many people, who are in the privileged position to speak about this, are not yet from the generations for whom gaming is no longer something that certain nerds or a certain subgroup in school did, but a mainstream phenomenon.

Laabs: That’s an exciting question, because in cultural studies and media studies, there is sometimes a justification gesture at the beginning of certain texts. It usually reads: video games have arrived in the center of society or it refers to the size of the global video game industry. This is usually written somewhat polemically, but there is a defence mode, a defensive gesture that one should finally please devote oneself to video games.

Sahr: And an economic justification. We deal with them because they make so much money.

Laabs: Totally! It is important to take video games seriously as a medium, as a cultural product or also as cultural artefacts with regards to the question, what narratives do video games act out? That happens not often enough.

Do you already know games that depict a world without money or an economy referring to the common good? What influence could such new perspectives have in games?

Laabs: I think it’s important to realise that not all games are money-oriented. Puzzle games are games that often function without monetisation logic. Among indie games, there are some that work without currencies. They often have a narrative focus in which a story is told. Basically, though, I’m sceptical to say we just have to invent better games to come up with other ideas. It’s not that simple.

Sahr: Even with big titles, there are some that value money differently. For me, the latest Crusader Kings 3 would be a game where other currencies besides money are important. But I also have some scepticism about what to expect from games as a subversive force. In the end, they are games that always have to take into account the emotional factor in terms of playability. I think we have to take games seriously, read them, analyse them and also present research to give people a reflective approach. But I think that when it comes to experientiality or the shaping of new economic forms, games are not the first port of call.