Last week, a Washington-based gaming company got some attention for an odd job listing: economist. “Valve’s multi-player games… have allowed for the spontaneous emergence of complex virtual, yet quite real, economies,” the company said. “The task of a Valve economist is to make good use of the incredible wealth of data concerning these social economies, to pose fresh questions about their workings, and to generate methods for converting new knowledge about these economic vistas into tangible ideas that help improve our customers’ experiences.”
The chance to study an economy using perfect data? Yanis Varoufakis, a professor of economic theory at the University of Athens and visiting professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, took the bait. “I was more than intrigued. I was interested!” the economist wrote on his newly-launched Valve Economics blog, which already has more than 1,100 RSS subscribers.
Valve’s games are played by millions of people who exchange millions of goods, the company said. Dr. Varoufakis will be watching the price of virtual goods, monitoring the evolution of the digital economies, and tackling problems such as how to link economies between Valve’s digital worlds. “It’s like being omniscient,” he told NPR’s Planet Money. “It’s mesmerizing.”
Video game makers hiring economists is not new. In 2010, an Icelandic company hired an economist to study the economies developing in deep virtual space in its games.
Right now, Dr. Varoufakis is studying the “peculiarly sophisticated barter economy” in Team Fortress 2, set in an alternate version of 1968 where a laser gun might go for two hats or three earmuffs:
I was expecting to find that some item or asset would emerge as currency in the context of games such as Team Fortress 2. However, a close study of our Team Fortress 2 economy revealed a more complex picture; one in which barter still prevails even though the volume of trading is skyrocketing and the sophistication of the participants’ economic behavior is progressing in leaps and bounds.