LittleBigEconomy: the possibilities for user-generated content in economics-based videogame

economistsI have spent almost all of my career in public policy, and while I’m almost always surprised by some of the solutions governments put forward to policy issues, I’m never surprised by how much the work resembles playing a video game. As an economist who builds all sorts of models, and bases work on all kinds of microeconomic and macroeconomic theories, the parallels are even greater than they may otherwise be.  Needless to say regulation of the telecommunications market feels more than a little bit like an abstracted round of Super Smash Bros.

And there’s good reason for this.  Games, however fictional take inspiration from life.  In games that slant toward economics or world-building, in a lot of ways, often try and model their mechanics after real world economic forces, and use them as key parts of their games. While the term ‘in-game economy’ has been hijacked and misappropriated by the enthusiast press, the approximated and in many ways crude representation of market forces and government edicts or policies is a great introduction to sorts of variables governments grapple with in making some of the tougher decisions that face an economy.  But they’re there and usually a pretty good abstraction of how things work in the real world.

Even my earliest introduction to economics was in video games.  I was fascinated by and often fixated on Sid Meier’s Civilization, which even from an early age, had me calling for just one turn.  I can vividly remember scorching hot days in school holidays sitting in front of the monitor of my Commodore Amiga 500, plodding my way across landmasses big and small, learning about trade and taxation, the costs of warfare, and managing scarce resources.  Within months I writing primary school projects on the World Bank, Communism and Industrialisation.  And it’s a similar story with Maxis’ classic city-building simulation, Sim City 2000, which introduced me to the wonders of managing a government’s budgets (and just how roads and transport departments hate to lose money), and how precarious of a balancing act managing taxation with spending really is.  These were great, and in some ways crude, approximations of an fiscal management, serving the sole purpose of regulating the player against the game’s rule set, namely through constraining their budget.  They are games after all.

But imagine if there was a game that closely and accurately resembled how a nation’s economy works, an interactive and highly modifiable (and slightly more accessible) Computable General Equilibrium model, with a game built around it.  Imagine building a nation, either one to resemble a real-life economy or an economic utopia or banana republic, and taking the reigns of a public policy maker with a job to steer your country to prosperity.  Too often we see games built with its economy shoe-horned in, often meaning the soundness and logic of the market is compromised for the sake of gameplay.  In order for an economics-heavy game to work it has to be at front and centre of the development process, something I hold out hope that what game designer Soren Johnson describes as an “Economic RTS”,  Offworld Trading Company, will achieve.  I’ve talked previously about how economics can be used to inform game design, and sung Port Royale 3’s  praises for its modelling of the closed economy, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been utterly blown away by a game’s representation of economics.  As it currently stands I think Kalypso’s Tropico series is the closest I’ve seen to an accurate representation of how real-life economies work, and even that has significant limitations.


Perhaps that’s because are dynamic and living things and Government policy makers are always devising new ways, new models, and new approaches to playing in the sandpit that is the global economy – something the traditional video game business model, with their sequel and DLC plans, aren’t equipped to necessarily deal with.  But what if, like LittleBigPlanet, a game gave players the toolset to generate their own content, their own policies, and their own market interventions, and share them with other users through policy ‘modules’ that could be dropped into the games of others?  The LittleBigPlanet model would give players an ‘economic playground’ to experiment with , and with the core economies modelled, would allow them to experiment in the market.  Imagine wanting to build up your fictional nation’s automotive industry and having the tools at your disposal to see what it would take to make it viable, and the number of tariffs and subsidies it would take to keep the industry afloat, or putting limits on water extracted from water systems for irrigation to meet environmental objectives.  If you want to pursue  free trade with your regional trading partners, the world is your oyster.  If you want to tax beer, cigarettes, and other economic ‘bads’, be my guest. The possibilities are endless, and the ability for users to replicate real-world policies shortly after they’re announced by governments, and implement them on their own economies would be a massive step toward understanding the challenge faced by policymakers across the world every day.

Criticisms aside, developers have taken enormous strides in how they incorporate economics and politics into their games, and that isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.  But giving players the freedom to manage their ‘nations’ would open up creativity in a way that no other game has before, and would offer up endless possibilities for playing around in a global market, and watching as the realistic market forces take hold.  After all, in a world where graphics and physics are getting closer and closer to resembling real life, shouldn’t this be the next great development challenge?