This process of weighing production costs against what consumers are willing to pay is the same process that companies like Sony use in determining what to charge for things like PlayStations and plasma TVs. And World of Warcraft players willingly do it every day with the sort of dedication that economics instructors can only dream of their students having.

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There are limits to what you can learn from game markets. You won't learn much about trade deficits, for example, and if you're looking for insight into the mortgage-backed securities that brought the world economy to its knees in 2008, you'll have about as much luck as Lehman Brothers has money. You'll learn some about inflation and deflation but little about the programs governments use to prevent them or dampen their effects. Stocks? No. Bonds? No. Perhaps most noticeably, videogames in general lack any concept of savings or credit, two aspects of economics that everyone in modern society could stand to know more about.

Games could simulate all of that, to one degree or another, and titles like Capitalism certainly try, but the fascinating thing about markets is the way they grow and move in unexpected ways that can be both tragic and serendipitous. Videogame markets are no different.

When Diablo II was released, players swarmed online looking to swap the items they found while adventuring. Direct barter was common, but players who wanted to buy things directly ran into a problem: The game's currency, gold, was so common that no one really wanted it, and even if they did, carrying around a valuable amount of it was a real hassle. Players needed something that was smaller and rarer. To complicate things, most of the game's items were randomly generated, so they also needed to find something valuable that would appear the same way in everyone's game. Gradually, the community settled on one of the game's rings, the Stone of Jordan; it was rare, it was small, and everyone agreed that it was valuable. Item prices were listed in Stones of Jordan, and it became the de facto medium of exchange. Without any help from the game's developers, the Diablo II community spontaneously invented money.

That's an experiential lesson in one of the fundamentals of economics that would be hard to get out in the real world, and everyone involved has videogames to thank.

Adam Greenbrier has considered the opportunity cost of playing videogames but keeps deciding to play them anyway. You can find more of his thoughts online at The Clockwork House.

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