What would a game with realistic markets look like?

Aug 12 JDN 2458343

From Pokemon to Dungeons & Dragons, Final Fantasy to Mass Effect, almost all role-playing games have some sort of market: Typically, you buy and sell equipment, and often can buy services such as sleeping at inns. Yet the way those markets work is extremely rigid and unrealistic.

(I’m of course excluding games like EVE Online that actually create real markets between players; those markets are so realistic I actually think they would provide a good opportunity for genuine controlled experiments in macroeconomics.)

The weirdest thing about in-game markets is the fact that items almost always come with a fixed price. Sometimes there is some opportunity for haggling, or some randomization between different merchants; but the notion always persists that the item has a “true price” that is being adjusted upward or downward. This is more or less the opposite of how prices actually work in real markets.

There is no “true price” of a car or a pizza. Prices are whatever buyers and sellers make them. There is a true value—the amount of real benefit that can be obtained from a good—but even this is something that varies between individuals and also changes based on the other goods being consumed. The value of a pizza is considerably higher for someone who hasn’t eaten in days than to someone who just finished eating another pizza.

There is also what is called “The Law of One Price”, but like all laws of economics, it’s like the Pirate Code, more what you’d call a “guideline”, and it only applies to a particular good in a particular market at a particular time. The Law of One Price doesn’t even say that a pizza should have the same price tomorrow as it does today, or that the same pizza can’t be sold to two different customers at two different prices; it only says that the same pizza shouldn’t have two different prices in the same place at the same time for the same customer. (It seems almost tautological, right? And yet it still fails empirically, and does so again and again. I have seen offers for the same book in the same condition posted on the same website that differed by as much as 50%.)

In well-developed capitalist markets in large First World countries, we can lull ourselves into the illusion that there is only one price for a good, because markets are highly liquid and either highly competitive or controlled by a strong and stable oligopoly that enforces a particular price across places and times. The McDonald’s Dollar Menu is a policy choice by a massive multinational corporation; it’s not what would occur naturally if those items were sold on a competitive market.

Even then, this illusion can be broken when we are faced with a large economic shock, such as the OPEC price shock in 1973 or a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. It also tends to be broken for illiquid goods such as real estate.

If we consider the environment in which most role-playing games take place, it’s usually a sort of quasi-medieval or quasi-Renaissance feudal society, where a given government controls only a small region and traveling between towns is difficult and dangerous. Not only should the prices of goods differ substantially between towns, the currency used should frequently differ as well. Yes, most places would accept gold and silver; but a kingdom with a stable government will generally have a currency of significant seignorage, with coins worth considerably more than the gold used to mint them—yet the value of that seignorage will drop off as you move further away from that kingdom and its sphere of influence.

Moreover, prices should be inconsistent even between traders in the same town, and extremely volatile. When a town is mostly self-sufficient and trade is only a small part of its economy, even a small shock such as a bad thunderstorm or a brief drought can yield massive shifts in prices. Shortages and gluts will be frequent, as both supply and demand are small and ever-changing.

This wouldn’t be that difficult to implement. The simplest way would just be to institute random shocks to prices that vary by place and time. A more sophisticated method would be to actually simulate supply and demand for different goods, and then have prices respond to realistic shocks (e.g. a drought makes wheat more expensive, and the price of swords suddenly skyrockets after news of an impending dragon attack). Experiments have shown that competitive market outcomes can be achieved by simulating even a dozen or so traders using very simple heuristics like “don’t pay more than you can afford” and “don’t charge less than it cost you”.

Why don’t game designers implement this? I think there are two reasons.

The first is simply that it would be more complicated. This is a legitimate concern in many cases; I particularly think Pokemon can justify using a simple economy, given its target audience. I particularly agree that having more than a handful of currencies would be too much for players to keep track of; though perhaps having two or three (one for each major faction?) is still more interesting than only having one.

Also, tabletop games are inherently more limited in the amount of computation they can use, compared to video games. But for a game as complicated as say Skyrim, this really isn’t much of a defense. Skyrim actually simulated the daily routines of over a hundred different non-player characters; it could have been simulating markets in the background as well—in fact, it could have simply had those same non-player characters buy and sell goods with each other in a double-auction market that would automatically generate the prices that players face.

The more important reason, I think, is that game designers have a paralyzing fear of arbitrage.

I find it particularly aggravating how frequently games will set it up so that the price at which you buy and the price at which you sell are constrained so that the buying price is always higher, often as much as twice as high. This is not at all how markets work in the real world; frankly it’s only even close to true for goods like cars that rapidly depreciate. It make senses that a given merchant will not sell you a good for less than what they would pay to buy it from you; but that only requires each individual merchant to have a well-defined willingness-to-pay and willingness-to-accept. It certainly does not require the arbitrary constraint that you can never sell something for more than what you bought it for.

In fact, I would probably even allow players who specialize in social skills to short-change and bamboozle merchants for profit, as this is absolutely something that happens in the real world, and was likely especially common under the very low levels of literacy and numeracy that prevailed in the Middle Ages.

To many game designers (and gamers), the ability to buy a good in one place, travel to another place, and sell that good for a higher price seems like cheating. But this practice is call being a merchant. That is literally what the entire retail industry does. The rules of your game should allow you to profit from activities that are in fact genuinely profitable real economic services in the real world.

I remember a similar complaint being raised against Skyrim shortly after its release, that one could acquire a pickaxe, collect iron ore, smelt it into steel, forge weapons out of it, and then sell the weapons for a sizeable profit. To some people, this sounded like cheating. To me, it sounds like being a blacksmith. This is especially true because Skyrim’s skill system allowed you to improve the quality of your smithed items over time, just like learning a trade through practice (though it ramped up too fast, as it didn’t take long to make yourself clearly the best blacksmith in all of Skyrim). Frankly, this makes far more sense than being able to acquire gold by adventuring through the countryside and slaughtering monsters or collecting lost items from caves. Blacksmiths were a large part of the medieval economy; spelunking adventurers were not. Indeed, it bothers me that there weren’t more opportunities like this; you couldn’t make your wealth by being a farmer, a vintner, or a carpenter, for instance.

Even if you managed to pull off pure arbitrage, providing no real services, such as by buying and selling between two merchants in the same town, or the same merchant on two consecutive days, that is also a highly profitable industry. Most of our financial system is built around it, frankly. If you manage to make your wealth selling wheat futures instead of slaying dragons, I say more power to you. After all, there were an awful lot of wheat-future traders in the Middle Ages, and to my knowledge no actually successful dragon-slayers.

Of course, if your game is about slaying dragons, it should include some slaying of dragons. And if you really don’t care about making a realistic market in your game, so be it. But I think that more realistic markets could actually offer a great deal of richness and immersion into a world without greatly increasing the difficulty or complexity of the game. A world where prices change in response to the events of the story just feels more real, more alive.

The ability to profit without violence might actually draw whole new modes of play to the game (as has indeed occurred with Skyrim, where a small but significant proportion of players have chosen to live out peaceful lives as traders or blacksmiths). I would also enrich the experience of more conventional players and helping them recover from setbacks (if the only way to make money is to fight monsters and you keep getting killed by monsters, there isn’t much you can do; but if you have the option of working as a trader or a carpenter for awhile, you could save up for better equipment and try the fighting later).

And hey, game designers: If any of you are having trouble figuring out how to implement such a thing, my consulting fees are quite affordable.

Games as economic simulations—and education tools

Mar 5, JDN 2457818 [Sun]

Moore’s Law is a truly astonishing phenomenon. Now as we are well into the 21st century (I’ve lived more of my life in the 21st century than the 20th now!) it may finally be slowing down a little bit, but it has had quite a run, and even this could be a temporary slowdown due to economic conditions or the lull before a new paradigm (quantum computing?) matures. Since at least 1975, the computing power of an individual processor has doubled approximately every year and a half; that means it has doubled over 25 times—or in other words that it has increased by a factor of over 30 million. I now have in my pocket a smartphone with several thousand times the processing speed of the guidance computer of the Saturn V that landed on the Moon.

This meteoric increase in computing power has had an enormous impact on the way science is done, including economics. Simple theoretical models that could be solved by hand are now being replaced by enormous simulation models that have to be processed by computers. It is now commonplace to devise models with systems of dozens of nonlinear equations that are literally impossible to solve analytically, and just solve them iteratively with computer software.

But one application of this technology that I believe is currently underutilized is video games.

As a culture, we still have the impression that video games are for children; even games like Dragon Age and Grand Theft Auto that are explicitly for adults (and really quite inappropriate for children!) are viewed as in some sense “childish”—that no serious adult would be involved with such frivolities. The same cultural critics who treat Shakespeare’s vagina jokes as the highest form of art are liable to dismiss the poignant critique of war in Call of Duty: Black Ops or the reflections on cultural diversity in Skyrim as mere puerility.

But video games are an art form with a fundamentally greater potential than any other. Now that graphics are almost photorealistic, there is really nothing you can do in a play or a film that you can’t do in a video game—and there is so, so much more that you can only do in a game.
In what other medium can we witness the spontaneous emergence and costly aftermath of a war? Yet EVE Online has this sort of event every year or so—just today there was a surprise attack involving hundreds of players that destroyed thousands of hours’—and dollars’—worth of starships, something that has more or less become an annual tradition. A few years ago there was a massive three-faction war that destroyed over $300,000 in ships and has now been commemorated as “the Bloodbath of B-R5RB”.
Indeed, the immersion and interactivity of games present an opportunity to do nothing less than experimental macroeconomics. For generations it has been impossible, or at least absurdly unethical, to ever experimentally manipulate an entire macroeconomy. But in a video game like EVE Online or Second Life, we can now do so easily, cheaply, and with little or no long-term harm to the participants—and we can literally control everything in the experiment. Forget the natural resource constraints and currency exchange rates—we can change the laws of physics if we want. (Indeed, EVE‘s whole trade network is built around FTL jump points, and in Second Life it’s a basic part of the interface that everyone can fly like Superman.)

This provides untold potential for economic research. With sufficient funding, we could build a game that would allow us to directly test hypotheses about the most fundamental questions of economics: How do governments emerge and maintain security? How is the rule of law sustained, and when can it be broken? What controls the value of money and the rate of inflation? What is the fundamental cause of unemployment, and how can it be corrected? What influences the rate of technological development? How can we maximize the rate of economic growth? What effect does redistribution of wealth have on employment and output? I envision a future where we can directly simulate these questions with thousands of eager participants, varying the subtlest of parameters and carrying out events over any timescale we like from seconds to centuries.

Nor is the potential of games in economics limited to research; it also has enormous untapped potential in education. I’ve already seen in my classes how tabletop-style games with poker chips can teach a concept better in a few minutes than hours of writing algebra derivations on the board; but custom-built video games could be made that would teach economics far better still, and to a much wider audience. In a well-designed game, people could really feel the effects of free trade or protectionism, not just on themselves as individuals but on entire nations that they control—watch their GDP numbers go down as they scramble to produce in autarky what they could have bought for half the price if not for the tariffs. They could see, in real time, how in the absence of environmental regulations and Pigovian taxes the actions of millions of individuals could despoil our planet for everyone.

Of course, games are fundamentally works of fiction, subject to the Fictional Evidence Fallacy and only as reliable as their authors make them. But so it is with all forms of art. I have no illusions about the fact that we will never get the majority of the population to regularly read peer-reviewed empirical papers. But perhaps if we are clever enough in the games we offer them to play, we can still convey some of the knowledge that those papers contain. We could also update and expand the games as new information comes in. Instead of complaining that our students are spending time playing games on their phones and tablets, we could actually make education into games that are as interesting and entertaining as the ones they would have been playing. We could work with the technology instead of against it. And in a world where more people have access to a smartphone than to a toilet, we could finally bring high-quality education to the underdeveloped world quickly and cheaply.

Rapid growth in computing power has given us a gift of great potential. But soon our capacity will widen even further. Even if Moore’s Law slows down, computing power will continue to increase for awhile yet. Soon enough, virtual reality will finally take off and we’ll have even greater depth of immersion available. The future is bright—if we can avoid this corporatist cyberpunk dystopia we seem to be hurtling toward, of course.