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What Video Games Taught Me About Finance

Action-adventure and RPG games are packed with hidden lessons about real world wealth.

by Becky Ferreira; illustrated by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia
Mar 5 2018, 11:04pm

Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia

It started, as many adventures have, in the town of Blackwater on the shores of Flat Iron Lake. I walked into the Gunsmith’s shop to check out his wares and saw the most provocative and expensive weapon I had ever come across—an “explosive rifle,” on sale for $10,000. Despite the fact that there were many people depending on me, the reformed Wild West outlaw John Marston, to carry out errands for them, I became obsessed with raising the cash to buy the gun.

You may have caught on that I’m not referring to real places or people, but rather locations and characters in the 2010 Rockstar game Red Dead Redemption. Like many fans of the game, I was completely sucked into Marston’s world, which is why I was surprised by how easily the explosive rifle derailed me from the main storyline. Ever since that frivolous quest, I’ve frequently found myself chasing virtual big ticket items in games like Skyrim or Horizon Zero Dawn, while holding off on other more pressing missions.

The result has been some weird lessons about money garnered from video games that are intended to be dazzling narratives, not financial primers. Because most immersive games mimic the real world to some extent, they weave in at least some rudimentary economic principles—a bank account, means of income, and products that can give you an edge when achieving your goals.

These systems are an important functional feature of the playing experience, but they also spotlighted some of my own financial strengths and weaknesses, and reinforced basic principles about real world finance. Here’s some examples of ways in which the bank accounts and wish lists of my game characters got me thinking about my money habits in real life.

Credit Impacts Pricing

Like most action-adventure games, it’s fairly easy to rustle up some cash in Red Dead Redemption, so my Marston took off to bag outlaws for the bounties, gamble, collect valuable herbs, and hunt game to sell in general stores.

When I eventually circled back to the Blackwater Gunsmith to collect my rifle, my Marston had also done a bunch of good deeds, apparently enough to accumulate the positive “honor” to be ranked a Peacemaker in the game (this status reflects how noble Marston has been in past social interactions; if you play as a scoundrel, you get different rewards). This cut store prices by 50%, and suddenly the explosive rifle was only valued at $5,000. Marston’s good behavioral track record had become a kind of permanent discount card.

In the real world, we have a similar system—credit scores—though it is correlated with the ability to consistently pay debts. That metric is not necessarily related to honorable actions in this day and age, yet does evoke however, an old-world honor when debts were a sign of weak will and questionable morals, and we hadn’t yet created a system that saddles people with an average of almost $40,000 of debt by their early twenties. But the point is the same: Consistency, whether it’s good deeds or paying bills, enables prices to fluctuate in your own favor.

When I played this game back in 2010, I was already aware that it’s a good idea to work on your credit score, but I hadn’t put much effort into it. Marston, wise rogue that he is, was part of the reason I got more invested in building better credit by prioritizing paying off debts and working to have low utilization ratios on my cards. I hope Red Dead Redemption 2, which is due out this October, will have other weird finance lessons in store for me.

Mo Money, Mo Problems

Notorious B.I.G.’s hit about the trappings that come with wealth is a timeless classic, and his point is borne out by some evidence (for instance, an estimated two thirds of lottery winners wind up going broke within a few years, according to the NY Daily News, and they are more likely to declare bankruptcy than the average American).

I recently experienced a similar effect in the addictive and beautiful game Horizon Zero Dawn. Like Red Dead Redemption, this game has some extraordinarily cool weapons that require some extra effort to obtain. In particular, I coveted enhanced versions of weapons called the Icerail, the Forgefire, and the Stormslinger, and I was overjoyed when I finally got together all the goods to claim them.

Unleashing the power of these weapons on the game’s robotic beasts was a literal blast. Suddenly I could do exponentially more damage to my adversaries, plus the enhanced guns are very fun to shoot.

But I quickly learned that the weapons were serious resource guzzlers. I had over 10,000 “metal shards,” the game’s currency, when I first got the guns, but because I had to constantly buy more juice for them, I ended up totally broke after only a few fights with machines. As with the real world, I found that there are plenty of hidden costs associated with shiny new toys that can lead to debt or bankruptcy if you’re not careful.

For me, IRL versions of these temptations are things like boats or horses, both of which are somewhat notoriously impractical purchases. Not only do these types of luxuries have big upfront costs, but they also demand an unpredictable amount of money to maintain and repair, in the case of boats, or keep healthy and safe in the case of horses (as the Simpson family learned in the classic episode “Lisa’s Pony”).

Learning to anticipate the actual experience of life with an impulse buy, as opposed to the idealized version we have in our heads, is a big factor in staying solvent. Aloy’s adventures with her advanced guns—as cool as they are—was a reminder of that reality.

Money Is Not the Same As Value

I recently played through Super Mario Odyssey, one of those games in which money is literally just lying around for the taking wherever you go. But while coins are easy to come by, the game’s main currency is Power Moons, which can be used to unlock new worlds and to fuel Mario’s airship. The Power Moons are normally awarded after completing levels or mini-games within the worlds, or figuring out how to obtain them from difficult to reach places.

But the stores in the game also sell Power Moons, so I thought maybe I could cheat a bit by just buying a bunch of them to fuel up the airship. As I quickly learned, though, before you’ve beat the entire game, you can only buy a single Moon at any shop. The game shows that buying a reward is less satisfying than “working” for the reward (not that it feels like work to play this very fun game).

This emphasis on hard work is central to morality tales about money that date back centuries, such as Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ant. When money is inherited or otherwise not directly earned by an individual’s labor, there’s more of a social stigma attached to it compared to money that is earned by hard work (see: the negative archetypes of the “trust fund baby” or the “trophy wife”).

I admit it’s a stretch to think Super Mario Odyssey is intentionally making a point about how pursuing valuable items through effort is more rewarding than simply buying them outright with easy cash. But the game plays on that psychology nonetheless, in order to encourage richness of gameplay experience, rather than Mario’s literal richness in coins.

Many of us may experience some of the same effect once we start becoming financially independent from our parents. It can be initially intimidating to have to start balancing your own budget, but there’s a satisfaction that comes with earning and spending your own money that can’t be learned secondhand, or through lucky windfalls alone.

Likewise, Super Mario Odyssey reinforces the idea that the gratification of a reward is related to exploration and discovery of pursuit, and the pleasure of new skills, which is more valuable in the long run than any bank account balance.

Of course, plenty of video games are built on some rather bad or even illegal financial habits (looking at you, Grand Theft Auto). But one of the joys of exploring these imaginative worlds and living through a character’s perspective is that every player has a unique individual experience. The above lessons are not revolutionary, and it would be disingenuous to say I spent hours playing these games because I was looking for financial guidance. But encountering money principles in these games enriched my understanding of how I manage my finances in the real world—an environment in which, unfortunately, cash isn’t just littered all over the ground.

Follow Becky Ferreira on Twitter.

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