Making/Money: The Wisdom of MMO Banking

Does it seem strange to save up to buy a house in a game? We are in an era where the real world economies of some nations are paralyzed by debts incurred from home purchases. Yet in games where there is player housing there is a surprising lack of player debt. MMOGs offer a simplified financial system seemingly impervious to the ills of modern society. What could we as a gaming society learn about real-world finance and money management from the way we act in game?

In-game lending is, at least theoretically, possible between players. Years ago, while playing Ultima Online: Renaissance, I had what might be the closest thing to a mortgage in a MMOG. Due to the restriction of having only one house per account per server (similar to the way Lord of the Rings Online does it), a friend who was trying to be an in-game real estate broker asked me to hold a small villa in Felucia on my account while he found a buyer. I agreed, but also asked how much he wanted for it (200K gp, in case you're curious – and want a good laugh). At the time, I did not have enough money but I offered to put a down-payment of 50K gp on it and let him know when the rest was available. He agreed. It was probably the cheapest way to get a house at the time short of actually buying the building permit from the housing broker and trying to find an empty plot to put it on – which was a losing proposition anyway.

All MMOGs have some sort of cash storage system. In LotRO and Final Fantasy XI, all money is carried on the character allowing for it to be used at any time for purchases throughout the world. In World of Warcraft, gold is primarily stored on the toon, but may also be put into a guild bank deposit for use by multiple players. Think of this as a joint savings account. In games like Ultima Online and Runescape, gold may be stored in the bank, like a savings account, or on the character. Only what is in the character's coin purse may be used, thus making it more difficult to spend large amounts all at once. And though UO offers a check writing function, in order to carry larger denominations of gold without having to use up your storage weight with coins, it is not a checking account system. If games are meant to be fantastic, idealized worlds, does that mean finance has no place in our dreams?

By using a savings-only banking system, MMOGs force players to evaluate their purchases carefully and make choices between otherwise similarly-valued goods. In order to purchase more costly items, the player must plan and save for it. For those games where gold may be stored in the player's bank account, they must then make the run back to a bank, get the funds, and then proceed to wherever the item may be purchased. It takes time: time to grind, loot, craft, farm, or otherwise earn the gold required – time during which they are thinking about whether it is worth all of this to have whatever it is they're after. Some players are even willing to put in this time in order to buy virtual items repeatedly on different characters. How many of your level 70s in WoW have epic flying mounts?

But when it comes to the real world, instant gratification must be obeyed. Instead of saving up for the car of your dreams, it could be financed through the seller or dealership in order to obtain it sooner. Rather than paying cash for a house, most borrowers (at least in the United States) get a mortgage for the majority of the cost. This is a feature strikingly lacking in MMOGs. And when you think of the fact that these are fantasy worlds, it makes you wonder whether the devs are trying to hearken back to a less intricate time financially.

Yet while it's plausible that players could lend one another money, there is precious little of this type of transaction. I also have yet to find a game that offers loans. The games themselves do not offer them and they certainly don't promote that players do so. And yet no one is phased by this.

So why is it that we're willing to save in a game but not in real life? Well, the short answer is self selection bias. We choose to be in the game and do whatever it is we do. It is not a societal requirement in the game that we craft or quest (though it helps if you want to experience content). It is our choice how we spend our time and in-game money. Therefore we are more interested in doing it. The lack of opportunity to buy on credit helps us escape the real world just that little bit more. We enter a place not set up around money itself but rather on the goods and services that money helps us trade.

There's a sense of glee when you save enough to buy your first epic mount or a nice little player house to proudly display the loot you've collected in your exploits. You've worked hard for all that. Scrimped and saved your gold, credits, gil, and so forth. In this way, can games teach financial responsibility by providing elation after accomplishing financial goals?

Alexis Kassan is a numbers nerd. She spends her days with statistical programs and her nights with spreadsheets and textbooks. She's also a MMORPG addict, having gotten sucked into Ultima Online at a formative age. In her time away from work, books and games, she can usually be found drowning in pools of sprinkles. If you have a question about in-game economics or how crafting fits in with them, hit her up at alexis DOT kassan at weblogsinc DOT com.