Video Games and the Poverty of Poverty

Words: 1624 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

It’s worthwhile to examine the various components of media that we consume to see how this media projects a particular vision of life. These visions may reflect social, political, or economic ideas that we learn to take for granted. But in taking them for granted, they can impact how we think about the world outside of that media.

So I wanted to stop and think about money in video games. Money – in whatever form it may come in – is something that we commonly encounter and yet think very little about. We of course try to accumulate money to buy the various goods we will need or even just want, but beyond that money functions as a mere tool.

Sometimes money is an objective, a component of the game’s own narrative or end goal. In these cases, though, money still takes on no special relevance. It could be exchanged with points and nothing would actually change about the player’s experience.

But what is important is not the near-universal existence of currency. Currency in video games serves a useful function precisely because currency in real life serves a useful function. In attempting to gate players in various ways or encourage players to engage with gameplay elements such as exploration or combat, currency serves as a sort of natural lock. It might seem odd for an item to be kept from us because of an arbitrary decision or an invisible wall, but a price can feel intuitive.

What is important is the way in which games establish a relationship between the player and currency. Namely, a relationship of richness, or at least potential richness. While prices are a hurdle, they are a hurdle that is always capable of being overcome. The player can lack money, but that lack is always fixable, and usually easily fixable, with the application of time and patience.

So looking at the role of money in games can help us to understand better what we take for granted.

Gold-Carrying Wolves and Other Marvels

The nature of money in the real world is complex. Earning money is not simple, nor is it ever really guaranteed. We often lack the money for everything we want, but sometimes people can find they lack the money for the basic things that they need. The struggle to just barely get by from day to day is poverty.

While poverty is something that we are aware of in real life, it’s not something we think about in video games. Every now and then we may encounter poverty, but the player never really has to struggle with it. Poverty is something that happens to other characters – especially minor characters. The player can never be impoverished.

But then think about the impact of this fact on how we play. Do you need items, whether it’s new equipment for your party, or potions, or even some cosmetic items? Purchasing them is easy, and if you don’t have enough money, you just need to go and get it. It may require selling some stuff you’ve collected and don’t need. It may require completing a quest. Or it might just involve running around and killing enemies. Whatever the case may be, money is easy to come by.

The consequence, though, is that the player is never required to feel any sort of financial pain, except by contrivance. A player can have their items and/or money taken away from them – almost always temporarily – but it is always returned soon thereafter. The player never needs to make tough decisions with limited resources: “do I buy a new sword or some potions?” Or more importantly, the player is never fully deprived of those resources – you never really see equipment and potions on offer but literally can never acquire them.

The only genre that really imposes some kind of poverty upon the player is roguelikes. Since resources are usually stripped from the player at the end of reach run, and items often cost more than the player normally acquires, players are required to be careful with what they get. But this carefulness cultivated by the game is pitted against the repetitive nature of the game as a whole, as well as the important component of luck in terms of item/ability spawns. Different runs may result in a player never getting any money for items they really want, or having plenty of money and never finding anything worth buying. The role of luck in all of this makes it difficult to drive home anything useful about the sensation of poverty, even when the player does experience it. You may feel a sense of poverty in one run, but that poverty is just “bad luck” that doesn’t have time to set in, because you’ll likely end up dead and starting a new run which might have better luck. And then the problem of poverty is just…gone.

We might also try pointing to games that focus on resource management, usually by giving the player a limited supply of things like ammunition or healing items. But this resource management is generally presented through the lens of societal collapse – the characters need to be careful because there is so little for anyone. The ramification is that players don’t think about this in the context of poverty, since the player’s own lack is largely the same that everyone else in the game’s world is experiencing.

In other games, though, not even luck really stands in the player’s way. The only thing that matters is time and effort. If you want to buy things, you can always do so. You may not be able to right now, but you aren’t actually barred by anything insurmountable. The player is thus always potentially rich, even when they have nothing. The difference between being rich and poor – from the player’s perspective – is how much time they’re willing to invest in the game itself.

So why does any of this matter? Because the media we consume impacts how we see things like money. That impact doesn’t need to completely determine how we think. Instead it can simply solidify a cultural concept. And so the nature of poverty as something that doesn’t affect us (since gaming is a luxury, it’s not common to both live in poverty and play video games) is reinforced, and we are never brought to think about it. Likewise, the nature of our sympathy towards the impoverished is weakened. As I said before, when we tend to experience poverty in video games, it’s through the lens of minor characters, maybe even just NPCs. A beggar on the street as we walk by. We can see that character and even feel bad for the character (and thus by extension feel bad for those who live in poverty in the real world), but our sympathy does not have any sticking power in this case. And without that sticking power, it is easily pulled away from our mind.

It is by making ideas more concrete or direct in some way that they obtain any sticking power in our mind. By being confronted with a particular issue and having to solve it ourselves – or being shown that we can’t solve it – we learn more about the problem and retain information better. But if players almost never have to make these kinds of tough decisions, if players almost never feel impoverished, but are always rich or potentially rich, then any knowledge easily gained through narrative is just as easily lost once the narrative is gone.

Hence why it may not merely be enough to have games that simply focus on poverty as a thematic choice. Even in these limited forms the lesson that the game is trying to teach becomes a contrivance. The lesson is ignored because of its isolation and difference from other games.

Note that while I say all of this, it is difficult to really justify from a game design perspective the mechanic of poverty. To deprive players of the ability to purchase necessities like equipment or potions may well drive those players away. To impose this kind of hardship may go beyond the kind of challenge that developers wish to create. Just as currency serves a useful function, it also creates a powerful connection within the player’s mind. To have something available for purchase must mean that the player can buy it. To say the player can’t buy it is to lie to the player.

And so it’s not likely that we’ll be seeing games that confront players with poverty and thus make the lack of money really felt. But by standing back and seeing how currency exists in games and what viewpoints are constructed by that existence, we can see how games are molding our own perceptions in subtle ways. And by seeing that molding, we can begin to ask ourselves about our own views on money.

Concluding Remarks

Money is something that surrounds video games in a variety of ways. Games take money to get made – either directly or indirectly. They need money to get distributed. They cost money to play. And the games themselves will often include money of some kind. It is inescapable.

But how money is presented in video games has an effect on how we perceive money in the real world. It is not a foregone conclusion – our minds are not so blank that just the slightest impression utterly dominates our thinking. But the continual message that gets pushed from game to game – money is easy enough to come by as long as you have the time and willpower to get it – is going to seep into our heads the more it is reinforced by the games’ mechanics. And so we want to be aware of and wary of these messages.

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