Inflation can be a headache for any central banker. But it takes a certain type of economist to know what to do when a belligerent spaceship fleet attacks an interstellar trading post, causing mineral prices to surge across the galaxy.
Eyjólfur Guðmundsson is just that economist. Working for the Icelandic company CCP Games, he oversees the virtual economy of the massively multiplayer video game Eve Online. Within this world, players build their own spaceships and traverse a galaxy of 7,500 star systems. They buy and sell raw materials, creating their own fluctuating markets. They speculate on commodities. They form trade coalitions and banks.
It’s a sprawling economy, with more than 400,000 players participating in its virtual market — more people, in fact, than live in Iceland. Inflation, deflation and even recessions can occur. Which is why, from his office in Reyjkjavik, Guðmundsson leads a team of eight analysts poring over reams of data to make sure everything in Eve Online is running smoothly. His job bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Ben Bernanke, who oversees the U.S. economy from the Federal Reserve.
“For all intents and purposes, this is an economy that has activity equal to a small country in real life,” Guðmundsson says. “There’s nothing ‘virtual’ about this world.”
Nowadays, many massively multiplayer online video games have become so complex that game companies are turning to economists for help. Without oversight, the games’ economies can go badly awry — as when a gambling ban triggered a virtual bank run in the online world of Second Life in 2007, with one bank alone costing players $750,000 in real-life money.
But there’s a flip side, too. Just as video game designers are in dire need of economic advice, many academic economists are keen on studying video games. A virtual world, after all, allows economists to study concepts that rarely occur in real life, such as full-reserve banking, a popular libertarian alternative to the current banking system that cropped up in Eve Online. The data is richer. And it’s easier to run economy-wide experiments in a video game — experiments that, for obvious reasons, can’t be run on countries.
That ability to experiment on a massive scale, academics say, could revolutionize economics.
“Economic theory has come to a dead end — the last real breakthroughs were in the 1960s,” says Yanis Varoufakis, a Greek economist recently hired by the video-game company Valve. “But that’s not because we stopped being clever. We came up against a hard barrier. The future is going to be in experimentation and simulation — and video game communities give us a chance to do all that.”
At least, that’s the dream. The reality, as always, is more complicated. Game companies are often wary of meddling economists trying to conduct experiments that suck the fun out of their virtual worlds. And some academics scoff at the notion that there’s anything to learn from universes filled with warlocks and starfleets. Game companies and economists may need each other. Now if only they could learn to share the controller.