“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics”
Thomas Sowell, ‘Is Reality Optional?’
Allow me to take you on a personal journey of mine, to the winter of 1999, a young gaming enthusiast venturing forth into the Kingdom of Hyrule for his first experience and induction into the world of Zelda and the seminal title Ocarina of Time. I recall fervently sitting with such keen abandon, holding the unique triangular controller integral to the distinctiveness of the N64 console as those iconic and memorable opening notes echoed through my small colour television set as Epona galloped across the screen and being astonished at the transition from my experiences of the Mega Drive to the open three-dimensional worlds of the Nintendo 64 bit era. The fevered, nightmares of Link followed, who was this menace before me escaping from the castle in his suit of armour and on horseback? thankfully it was just a dream, for now and you found yourself awakened in the relative safety of Kokiri Forest, a sense of freedom and discovery shortly curtailed by your introduction to fiscal concerns and the impact of capitalism on the digital environment, having to pay the princely sum of 40 rupees for a shield to prove your means and determination to your rival in that moment, Mido. In contrast to its peer in this new and uncharted world, the launch Mario title on this specific system that continued the tradition of the collection of coins rewarding life and an extension of the journey, thereby, arguably reinforcing the concept of wealth equalling health and the enforcement of the benefits of capitalism, Zelda instead opted for a more realistic approach to money and finance, distinct monetary values applied to the various hues and colours of the crystals on your travels.
As your journey within the world of Hyrule progressed and you found yourself within the relative safety of Hyrule Castle one of your first challenges and restrictions faced on reaching this destination was the size of your wallet and financial provisions. It seemed grossly unfair that despite your best efforts on your travels of filling your wallet to 99 rupees there were advertised items outside the scope of your income. Life, and the game it seemed was entirely unfair and unjustified but as it turns out your means to save and spend would expand as the game progressed into adult hood and through completion of various quests. I still recall these many years later the genuine frustration I felt at that moment and being restricted by the game mechanic of not being able to hold enough coin whilst conversely holding various shields and weaponry, the capitalist financier in me would gladly have sacrified the weight and burden of a sling shot or deku stick if it meant being able to carry some additional rupees to spend at the market, I had no clear intention or design on any great item but it was the fundamental psychology of wanting and desiring the means to be able to purchase what items I viewed, whether I purchased them was another matter entirely. In contrast, when compared to many open world games today that seemingly have few if any restrictions on financial resources and gathering it does seem that for all the deliberate restrictions put in place certainly in the case of freemium gaming for example but also more widely seen in the Ubisoft formula where resource gathering is an important aspect that the abandonment of financial restraint occurred so quickly. In today’s open world the player is rewarded quite freely with no apparent constraint to how and where they spend their money, a societal reflection perhaps but certainly a fundamental shift where gaming originated from.
Zelda was the first title I experienced to my best recollection that instead of rewarding health and prosperity based on the collection of wealth, an extension and evolution of the arcade mechanic of influencing a continuation of play based on input and reward instead opting to mirror the ‘real world’ mechanic of assigning varying monetary value to different units of currency, the various coloured rupees as found littered amongst the world of Hyrule. A relatively simple mechanism to talk about but at that moment to curious and progressive minds it did shift the gaming paradigm in a relatively short space of time. In contrast to Mario built on similar if not existing architecture, it required a different mindset to understand a green rupee had a different value to a blue rupee or even a red, purple or gold gem located later on your adventure. Relating this to a deeper base economic philosophy or going even further back and using a psychological understanding arguably the evolution of human society occurred as man kind learnt to delay gratification at the expense of immediate satisfaction for happiness and prosperity at a later date. From the earliest societies bartering food and resources that would have provided relief in the here and now on the prospect of trade and exchange at a later date this formed the bed rock and ideology of the modern banking system as it exists today with the adage of customers ‘saving for a rainy day’ reflecting that tradition of trading immediate gratification for the possibility of growth and prosperity at a later date. That psychological step and leap of faith however doesn’t tend to occur in the here and now, and with so many games and titles centred on fixed moments of time or certainly a very short window in contrast to the decisions made over a course of a typical life span there doesn’t tend to be a necessity to make sound and normalised economic decisions. Instead the user is very much persuaded to act in the here and now, upgrading keeps and weaponry, locations and clothing to chase that perfect ending and moment at the expense of any future gain. It’s a conflicting mindset to enjoy and experience and arguably promotes a narrative that is fundamentally damaging to a great many with a vulnerable persuasion to live in the here and now with no plans or preparations for the future.
I personally enjoyed the rupee approach of Ocarina of Time and indeed the Zelda franchise as it worked in mirroring and duplicating the currency model utilised in real world markets and trading. Whether intentionally or not, in contrast to the more simplistic golden coin found prevalent in titles across all platforms and genres, here now you faced the prospect even as early as Kokiri village of scavenging for an age in the bushes and stream to build up your reserves or instead opting for the more challenging blue rupee atop the bridge and walkway. Whilst you can read a great deal into the various psychological meaning and understanding of this, for this article I’ll choose the most simplistic and idealistic, hard work and perseverance have a positive net gain reward, and also in addition when you achieved and located those precious rupees the gratification of spending your hard-earned money to purchase your shield was significantly better than any recent open world purchase. As your adventure progressed and your wallet size grew through completion of the spider challenges so did your encounters of the various shades of rupees on your travels, whilst I didn’t notice at first I did enjoy and come to appreciate the game mechanic of scattering low-level rupees in your early vicinities and then later providing means to collect more higher value currencies as your means and abilities had grown and progressed. Stripping away the game mechanic however it reinforced and introduced the notion that different items and assets had different monetary value, that in the pursuit of greater income and reward it was a more difficult and challenging path but with perseverance and often luck you could achieve the wealth you desired, and with it the items you desired. Alternatively and most importantly through a longer path you could achieve the same outcomes if you were prepared to sacrifice the difficulty at the expense of a longer road taken.
Venturing back to my first gaming experience on the original Gameboy and subsequently on the NES, the Mario series opted instead to utilise a gaming mechanic lifted from the arcade but also to expand the gaming experience by introducing the mechanic of the collection of coins and granting an additional life having obtained 100 and resetting the counter from that point on. In my personal gaming experience it was the first of the titles that introduced the notion of wealth=health that the accumulation of gold and wealth would extend my game towards challenges further ahead. Today, it would be impossible for a generation of gamers to understand before the introduction of dedicated memory to allow you to save your progress there was no practical measure to allow you to continue your quest once you had been defeated, we take for granted today the ease and availability of save points, bonfire and check points that allow us to progress when things get to hard. It was only with the introduction of the next generation of titles with memory cards and internal memory in the cartridges users depending on your predication could users save their progress, memories of scribbling long code to input an interim measure which was both frustrating and a revelation in equal measures. As a way to circumvent the memory restrictions and expand the playing experience Nintendo opted with the release of the very first home console Mario game to allow the player to collect Golden Coins to gain additional lives, in effect an extension of the health metre today providing that psychological boost of health and prosperity. As a game Mario Bros wasn’t the Dark Souls of their day but with the provision of extra lives you certainly felt more cavalier in your approach to confronting Bowser with the certainty should you fail you had the means and resources to try once again. The notion and mechanic that wealth=health, and serving no other practical purpose until the release of its sequels at a later date it wasn’t until the introduction of the shop mechanic that the Golden Coins in Mario allow the player to face a degree of moral complexity once more, certainly for me when you first encounter the trading hut in Mario Bros 3 and the means to purchase the Flute allowing you to bypass a host of levels or instead opt to reserve your wealth and continue to build up your lives and so face the challenges ahead of you was an interesting one to pose to a gaming community conditioned to view Gold as an extension of your health. Money, wealth could be used for its intended and recognised real world application not to extend your health, with the associatory cost/benefit decision-making process, to conserve your resource to utilise and bargain for at a later date or consume in the here and now and enjoy the brief satisfaction found.
Certainly Mario may have been one of the earliest console specific titles to utilise this methodology but it became so ingrained and integral as a mechanic it’s legacy and impact was felt across the generational divide and indeed even prevalent amongst competing companies and series which at the time were very much seen as equal competitors, talking of course about the two mascots that defined an era Mario and Sonic. As with his peer and competition Sonic had the means to safeguard against certain peril with the collection of rings as opposed to coins that would generate an additional life but also grant entrance into the chaos zone and the bonus emeralds. Providing a slight twist or contrarian point was the forfeiture of all wealth accumulated up until the point of peril when the rings scattered and a brief time frame to collect up any lost treasures. For a game engine specifically built around speed and reflex utilising the concept of self-preservation and accuracy to ensure survival was a steep but rewarding learning curve for players and users to adapt to. Where Mario suffered a physical, noticeable punishment for failure to adhere to the games strict gameplay mechanics either through a growth transformation or loosing an earned ability, there was no such punishment for Sonic who continued on his path of progression. Whether a visual impact of your actions had an effect on your play style and methodology is for another discussion, certainly there was a contrasting approach to the speed taken to complete a given level but quite simply holding a single ring provided the same level of invulnerability as holding a dozen or a hundred. For those opting to rely on an approach based on skill and precision there was no real commitment to gain or store any form of wealth, the collection of the golden rings at best provided a source of comfort and security for those less able but they were never more than a false sense of security, quickly reduced to a miniscule holding at the first wrong step. Sonic therefore could be seen as an attempt to shake up the formula and a sign of Sega opting to follow a similar trajectory in the collection of wealth and reward but adjusting the template ever so slightly with the inclusion of the entrance to the chaos zone and the collection of emeralds. Adjusting the psychological input on the user to allow a limited form of progression with just the single coin towards your ultimate destination or practising skill and precision to allow full completion with the collection of the chaos emeralds was an interesting take path to take.
Tacitly throughout the course of this specific generation of consoles this methodology concerning wealth and reward was utilised in various incarnations, from the ring and coin system as mentioned above to a slightly more nuanced and condensed version as used in the scrolling fighter genre in titles such as Final Fight, Streets of Rage and Golden Axe. With a limited range of lives, certainly in the first generation of titles the collection of gold bars, coins and money gradually built up and earned the reward of an extra life or continuation state. As games designed for co-operative play, in contrast to modern titles such as the Resident Evil franchise where accumulated wealth was divided equally regardless of who collected the gold or jewellery in these early titles the reward very much went to whoever was opportunistic to smash a crate or statue and pick up the treasure beneath. With later iterations and variations of the game, the continuation mechanic certainly on the console market instead changed the optic of the scenario and tracked the continuation count providing a ranking based on how many lives were used in the game, a mechanic carried on in the early part of the next generation in titles such as the aforementioned Resident Evil. I will readily admit on more than one occasion when enjoying these games with a friend to clearing up and collecting as much gold and money bags as I could find to ensure my own preservation, without a system allowing the provision to share the spoils of war natural predatory instinct kicks in, my own health and well-being a priority in the moment above and beyond those enjoying the game with. Just as societal development evolved from the tribal form with the recognition of self-sacrifice in the moment and division of wealth and resources for the prosperity of others so in an objective fashion had I in that moment opted to follow a rationale path best suited for optimal conditions perhaps I would have instead attempted to share the wealth and ensure both my partner and I survived and prospered ensuring an easier path towards the eventual finale. But whether the intention was to collect gold coins, rings, bars or bags of treasure, the objective truth was none of these pursuits were necessary and the games themselves were possible to complete to their entirety without pursuing these indulgent ventures, certainly in the earliest releases they provided a means to extend the gameplay experience in a similar way real money in an arcade would have held the same function. Certainly an early challenging level with no means to preserve your initial investment would have earned a reputation of notoriety and realistically, not a welcoming or inviting title to experience or enjoy neither in an arcade environment or on the home console market.
With the introduction of the save mechanic, the necessity of rewarding lives through the accumulation of treasures was quickly removed and no longer remains certainly in the current generation of consoles as anything more than a novelty, Mario and Sonic certainly retaining some elements of the coin and ring collection but certainly largely removed from nearly all games today as a means to ensure perseverance and continuity of play. One of my own personal recollections of the changing mechanic of wealth and reward with the introduction of the save mechanic were the Pokemon titles that once more fundamentally changed how money was used within the gaming environment, both as a reward but also a cost. With the introduction of the market buildings in the Pokemon games there very quickly became a tangible objective for you to save and spend your earned capital easing or in certain cases allowing your progress to continue. In the context of modern, open world titles that seemingly reward you with both capital and resources in equal measure and effectively allow you to complete the game whether you wish to indulge in the market experience or bypass it entirely, any recent Assassins Creed title or indeed a Ubisoft title do provision and allow for the possibility of purchasing certain upgraded equipment, costumes, locations and accessories. All of which of course assist your character but none of which are essential besides certain purchases and reinforce the notion of disposable objects and items discarded at a whim. With the Pokemon titles and certainly a restriction in terms of memory there was a very real necessity to ensure any items offered for purchase were more often than not integral to completion of the game or at the very least served a tangible purpose. By necessity or design Nintendo and the Pokemon company had fundamentally altered and changed the dynamic of money and wealth within gaming, perhaps arguably a simplistic approach but certainly given the demographic of the user base at that moment in time it served to function and demonstrate the basics of markets and capitalism, saving income generated through battles and tasks and allowing you to spend as you wish, executing trades within the Pokemon community to facilitate your journey, once more the notion of sacrificing immediate gratification for the pursuit of a brighter more optimistic future. Equally however the titles also introduced a conflicting and challenging mechanic, the loss of generated wealth in conflict with your earnings reduced as and when your creature was defeated in battle. With a very real tangible impact on your gaming experience, the potential loss of a means to purchase potions, pokeballs for instance it facilitated a requirement to ensure you prepared methodically and prudently, to avoid certain conflict and challenge to maintain your financial standing. If Mario and Sonic were the halcyon days of accumulating wealth, the introduction of the stores and markets of the world of Pokemon, and the cost of loosing was a sober reminder of the realities of the free market and that prudence and governance of your wealth and income was a necessary step. With a generational change and welcoming a new methodology and structure came a new attitude and approach to wealth within the gaming environment, where we find ourselves next time looking at the bank of the future in the gaming market.
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5 thoughts on “Financial Incentive and Reward in Video Games: Part One -The vaults of history.”
I have to say that the Zelda franchise is really weird when it comes to money. Sometimes it’s dirt common and borderline useless while other times, it’s rare and indispensable. I’d say it wasn’t really until Twilight Princess that money became consistently useful in Zelda. Indeed, as problematic as Skyward Sword was, I actually liked that it made you manage your finances responsibly. You always had something you were saving up for in that game.
I give kudos to any game that tries to represent finance and financial management effectively and maturely. Because of the nature’s of most, Zelda titles narrative occurring over a period of time such as OoT transition from youth to adulthood there tends to be a contrasting view between them and a game over a fixed period of time, an assassins creed. Finding a note/rupee on the street and spending it freely contrasts massively to the responsibility of getting paid a fixed income and budgeting for bills/rent etc. As most titles occur in a fairly fixed period of time, that social budgetary constraint and attitude of responsibility is removed and IMO encourages the attitude of spending without restraint.
Would a ‘banking simulator’ be fun? Probably not but equally if ‘we’ champion these titles as positive tools presenting an arguably morally false representation of prudence and restraint is damaging
I tend to associate currency incentive with progression in games, which is true to life too. The more money you have, the more you can do, generally, assuming you aren’t in drastic debt like college educated millennials. (Insert manic laugh-crying here)
I remember my parents thinking kid me was hilarious for being obsessed with Animal Crossing because of its mortgage payback progression mechanic and the stock market turnip trading. They thought I was being tricked into learning or something. Pffft
I can’t say much about Zelda myself as somehow I really only played Twilight Princess before BOTW, and that was ages ago, but I find your post insightful regardless. 🙂
Many thanks. I have a slightly biased interest in the matter working in the sector so always fascinated how games portray finance and money management. One of those more deeper conversations to have should people be exposed to concepts such as mortgages, loans and credit cards through a hobby or past time, all borrowing and a necessary evil of modern life.