Can We Run Economic Experiments in Video Games?

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about for a while. Brad Plumer has a write-up of the current state of the (virtual?) field in the Washington Post. Here’s the summary:

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.”

Besides bank runs and full-reserve banking as mentioned in the article, we could test risk aversion between game modes when players suffer a small loss and when they suffer a large one, plus look at the changes in price of introductory/upper-level goods as the median population level shifts.

Those are just two examples I can think of. No doubt there  are countless more.

(Could we calculate the “wage” necessary to earn an item for different characters? Could we test their marginal products and see if players are adapting to comparative advantage? What about shifting worlds from states of autarky to trade? etc. etc.)

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