What I Learned from Games & ComicsThe Economics of MeatWhat I Learned from Games & Comics - RSS 2.0
In 2009, when Zimbabwe's rate of inflation was estimated at 516 quintillion percent and prices were doubling every day, it made me think about meat. Not meat as in livestock or pork belly futures but meat as in meat paste and meat stacks: the currency of the Kingdom of Loathing.
Where other games have gold, credits, or gil, Kingdom of Loathing, a jokey, browser-based MMOG, has meat, and on August 8th, 2004, players discovered an error in the game's code that granted anyone virtually unlimited funds. The error revolved around an innocuous item called a meat vortex that was designed to steal a bit of extra money from the game's monsters. However, in certain circumstances, players could use one to conjure over 18 quintillion (that's 18 billion billion) meat from thin air. As word of the code exploit spread, players rushed out to buy big ticket items they could now easily afford, so player-run stores raised prices on everything to keep expensive items from selling for what was now chump change. Common things that sold for just a few thousand meat, like bat haggis, saw their prices soar into the billions. Players rushed to buy things before they couldn't afford anything at all. Within hours the game's economy was an utter shambles.
Like Zimbabwe, the Kingdom of Loathing had fallen victim to what's known as hyperinflation. This happens whenever the amount of currency circulating through a market increases dramatically. Because there's so much more money in everyone's pockets, each piece of money, be it a stack of meat or a Zimbabwean dollar, is worth less than it was before. Shopkeepers raise their prices to keep up, and buyers rush out to spend their money before it becomes even less valuable. This is not to say that the situations in Zimbabwe and in the Kingdom of Loathing are in any way equivalent. The situation in Zimbabwe is a human tragedy brought on by horrendous monetary policy that has had real consequences for real people, while the economic collapse of the Kingdom of Loathing was a software glitch in an entertainment product. However, both of these events followed the same economic processes, and I'll be honest that I have a better understanding of hyperinflation and its effects from having experienced them in Kingdom of Loathing than from reading about them in Zimbabwe.
Economics is a science that's often shrouded in jargon and politics. And while we might learn about something better by experiencing it than by reading about it, economics often feels like something so complex and beyond the scope of our daily lives that any experience we do have with it is more likely to be as victims or bystanders than as participants. Videogames offer players an opportunity to experience markets in a way that isn't possible for most of us in our day-to-day lives.