Virtual Economics, the American Dream, and Our Lust for Stuff

Videogames are no stranger to economics. Role playing games have long given players markets, work, and currency and given players some agency in managing these things in order to buy and sell goods.  I recently wrote on this subject with regard to a recent game called Torchlight II and Patricia Hernandez recently wrote something similar but more personal with reference to Borderlands 2. I think this is an important issue to consider with regard to games, so I thought I would share excerpts from both articles with you here.

Torchlight 2 presents us with an interesting economy that compelled me to compare and contrast the game with the Occupy Wall Street movement. That may sound like an odd comparison, but I think it’s one worth considering. Here is an excerpt from my recent editorial for Bit Creature:

On September 17th, 2011, thousands flocked to Zuccotti Park in New York City’s Wall Street financial district to protest the growing income inequality between the wealthiest 1% of Americans and the rest of the country. While the jury is still out on the success of the Occupy movement, the demonstration certainly revealed much about our culture. Zuccotti Park was not occupied by merely lazy and entitled young people looking for handouts. There were Ivy League graduates, people with Master’s and doctoral degrees. There were doctors, lawyers, and engineers, each of whom felt that America had failed them—their education and hard work had not provided the security and personal freedom it promised.

If we learned anything from the Occupy Wall Street, we learned that many people in our country feel betrayed by the American dream.

Perhaps that is a prime reason for why we love video games, because our efforts are almost always rewarded. . . .

What I hoped to see in the critical reception of the game was not less praise but more self-awareness. It is, after all a game about getting stuff, lots and lots of stuff.

When game critics go to its magical me-centered marketplace and complain about its restraints, I have to wonder if that says something about the world that we live in. At the very least it provides an interesting contrast to something like Occupy Wall Street. The protestors were fueled, in part, by frustration with an economy that shut them out. The economy in Torchlight II gives us everything we want and then some and we still aren’t satisfied. Perhaps we play games like Torchlight II because in it, the American Dream is a reality and we want so badly for it to be true.

Patricia Hernandez wrote about similar themes in Borderlands 2, but applied them more directly to her own buying habits:

Yes, I still spend an absurd amount of time fantasizing over what I shouldn’t own, but it hasn’t gone further than that–yet? I think it’s also possible that what I’ve been playing lately has helped keep me from indulging, given the nature of the games. Notably, they are loot-centric titles, like Borderlands 2. . . .

I don’t know what I’m going to get next in the games, but it’ll be good–and if it’s not, that’s okay. There will be new gear to ogle in a minute or two. I go forward with the faith that a new, better item is down the horizon. It is no mistake that games like to drip-feed us new items that make us a slightly stronger, better character than before: that’s how we actually think about item purchases. Games that give us less options for item equipment, or that don’t switch those options up every so often, aren’t as interesting because they go against what we think would make us ‘happy:’ being satisfied.

She understands that our fascination with loot doesn’t reflect well on us as human beings but she also recognizes that this fascination with stuff is not one we can easily leave behind. Consequently, she concludes by saying,

Somehow we’ve taken our ‘disorder’ and made it into something we enjoy: an important pillar of an addictive game which, if done well enough (and thanks to how we privilege gameplay over everything else), doesn’t need a strong narrative to go along with it. The loot is enough, despite being unfulfilling. If loot was fulfilling, then we wouldn’t constantly need to chase more and more, would we?

I don’t think Borderlands 2 can make me whole any more than a PS3 or an iPhone can. But until I figure out what can, they’ll have to do.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82


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