What is the social class of an adventurer?

Coins arranged in the shape of a question mark

A while back, Mattie Brice tweeted a very interesting observation about her play style. She said, “For some reason, I really dislike using items. I usually just sell them.”

Adam Flynn then responded with a link to this article, asking “I wonder if this relates to your internal metaphors of value and income”. The article paints different characters of middle class graduates with different metaphors about money, arguing for example that entrepreneurs don’t consider $1m to be an obscene sum of money but instead see it as one year’s running costs for a 6-person startup.

Mattie pointed out that her own background doesn’t match those identified in the article, “I’ve never (on by own) been financially middle class,” she tweeted. She said that it was perhaps significant that she grew up lower middle class, surrounded by upper middle class culture.

Reading this conversation got me thinking: does class affect play style? How might we expect it to make a difference? And is this something neglected by game designers?

Does class affect spending?

Before looking at how class affects item use in games, I tried to find some studies of how people of different economic classes use money in the real world. We all, I think, have a habit of using social class to explain idiosyncracies, so I didn’t want to take Brice’s class-based explanation at face value.

To contradict her statement, it would have been very useful to get evidence of the kind of phenomenon described by this Cracked article on stupid habits you develop when you grow poor – ‘stupid’ here meaning ‘no longer rational if you have money in the bank.’ [Editors Note: The author of this post is not endorsing Cracked’s use of the word ‘stupid’] I want to be able to confidently point to the situation described by Zygmunt Bauman in Wasted Lives – he argues that consumer culture has created a social need for brand-name clothes among people whose means would suggest that it is more rational to buy the most basic clothes possible.

However, I’ve had trouble finding evidence to back up the anecdotes and opinions. The Consumer Expenditure Survey asks people ‘what do you spend money on?’ but not ‘do you buy the cheapest clothes possible?’ or ‘what do you do with your tax rebate?’ Measuring spending isn’t the same as measuring the attitudes to commodities that Mattie seems to have been referring to.

Fictional economies are different

Eventually I realised that no real-world evidence would really be applicable to virtual worlds and fictional economies, because the models of wealth, production and labour are deliberately constructed around a fantasy of a simpler, more forgiving world. This is something I looked at in a term paper on Final Fantasy games last year – the economic models of video games often reflect the economic changes happening in the real world at the time the games were made, but they are deliberately recalibrated to give players a great deal more agency. Often that agency is a kind of virtual artisanship or mercantilism, with game mechanics that encourage crafting items out of found materials and the exchange of goods for virtual money made relatively frictionless. Selling off your possessions for cash in the real world is not nearly as easy as in video games.

The means by which middle class people generate and hold onto their wealth are not available in most video games. Keeping money in the bank to accrue interest is not an option. There’s no investment, no leveraging of debt, not even the ‘three for two’ shopping deals that John Cheese writing for Cracked identifies as a rational purchasing decision that he fails to take advantage of because of his experience of poverty.

In the majority of video games, there’s just objects, gold values given to those objects, and gold received in exchange for time spent grinding. The economy is simple. You put time in, you get gold back, and you spend the gold on better goods. They are giant virtual shopping malls, and players are effectively made into lower-middle-class consumers by the fictional economics of the game itself – money is earned, rather than grown as wealth.

So do personal money metaphors, or class-based experiences of wealth or poverty, affect play style? In most games, probably not – the question is whether the economic landscape of a given video game world really gives that much freedom for class differentiation. But I think the economic behaviours engendered by the constrained economic structures of video games could tell us a lot about the relationship between social class and gaming. It’s something we should look into more often.

About Zoya

Zoya is a freelance writer and historian. Their particular interest is in video games: design, history, and how virtual worlds are inseparable from real-world social and economic networks. Zoya has written a book about the Dreamcast, is Editor of Memory Insufficient games history e-zine, and Deputy Editor at Gamesbrief.
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15 Responses to What is the social class of an adventurer?

  1. Nefa says:

    I have a problem when I play games (rpg, and mmorg) that I hate spending money. I love to sit around and allow it to grow into a nice little pile.

    For example, with Pokemon (with the various versions I played…) I only bought items I needed to catch pokemon. I didn’t buy fancy boosts or extra potions. My own finances were based on how many pokeballs I needed, and how much money I could spend on them to therefore be able to ride ferries or go into zones.

    With mmorgs, I avoided buying gear as much as possible. I did every activity possible to get things “free” (questing, missions, events). If I had the finances, I’d pick up something suitable from the auction house.

    Sadly, it mirrors my spending habits in real life. I don’t spend ridiculous amounts on clothing, and hate in general actually spending money…

    But I am fairly middle-class, and so I didn’t get my habits from my parents really. My family has never been classed as poor. However, my grandparents (both maternal and paternal) were very vigilant with spending on only what you needed and making sure you used what you had for all that its worth.

    Which is how I gear myself up in games. I meet the minimum requirements to meet my goal and work hard to develop a hoard of cash – just in case I need it.

    • Matt says:

      Sounds a lot like my own habits, as well as background (middle-class with some not insignificant provisos and qualifications on that label). Did you get a lot of guidance from/incidental exposure to your grandparents wrt money matters?

      Dunno if related, but: I remember back in the original Counter-Strike I found that, playing as terrorist in a bomb-defuse map, I could consistently buy the cheapest full-auto weapon, lie low until the bomb’s been planted, camp by the bomb, ambush any defuse attempts and eventually die in the explosion, and when I’d respawn I would still be making a profit, so that was what I did every time. (I’d eschew buying anything entirely and rely only on the pistol, except my hand would freeze up trying to mash the left mouse button in an engagement.) It was actually a very safe way to ensure a steady income throughout that map, as long as the bomb was planted.

      • Nefa says:

        My exposure with my grandparents on actual money matters was slim since they passed away when I was still fairly young/not yet handling my own finances. My financial “example” from my parents is polarized since my mother spends as soon as she gets a pay cheque and my father is much more conservative.

        It almost seems like the way I hold finances is “disaster planning”. I’d be saving up gold for some undisclosed event which may require more financing.

        I haven’t yet come across a game that the economy made the game not as fun.. though, Final Fantasy XI came close… with RMT controlling markets and the metagame requiring excellent gear or face shunning, it required some money making – which I handled by farming up materials and selling product. Some items got super expensive during some periods of time though, and then when you tried to sell things people would undercut like crazy so that their’s would sell first.

        The only one who gives me grief over my spending is my friend who sometimes questions why I don’t buy X or why my gear is like Y. But! I play the game how I like!

    • wererogue says:

      I’m the same – I hoard money and items. The only things that I sell are superseded gear, and I’ll even keep some of that sometimes for elemental damage etc.

      I had a middle class upbringing, and try not to spend money except on stuff that I’ll need. It takes a lot of willpower for me to purge my stuff IRL.

    • Mim says:

      I have a similar pattern of always having a growing pile, both in real life and in game, though I also have a habit of spending minor amounts out of lazyness or for fun an then feeling bad for it even though I can usually afford it.

      It’s probably a product of being raised as a spoiled middle class kid (could always have whatever I felt like) in family that was very economically aware. My grandparents and great grandparents may have been careful because they had to, but in my case it’s more about having the cake and eating it too, while making sure that we and future generations are safely middle class if not climbing even higher.

      Anyone else have this sort of background?

  2. Ari says:

    I was raised in a working class home, but my best friend (made through a school enrichment program – can’t recommend those highly enough) was upper middle class. His parents lived in a multi-million dollar home they owned outright and retired in their 50s to live off of investment income; my parents rented in the bad part of town and lived paycheque to paycheque. We never really thought much of it as children, but in high school and certainly in adulthood we began to recognize the ways in which it had shaped our worldviews.

    Just to take the example of videogames in this article, our spending habits there were stark contrasts: I would scrutinize every single purchase to try to obtain maximum value for the lowest cost, whereas he would happily splurge on high-cost magic and armour as long as it seemed like it would pay off in the long run. His attitude was always “well, if it doesn’t pay off, there’s always more where that came from”, and my response of “what if there’s not?” was baffling to him. To him, there was always more money. I spent less, both in terms of items and gold, but sometimes his investments in better gear would pay off in a big way.

    (As an aside: I relate completely to John Cheese. Later in life my parents landed very well-paying union jobs and could afford to send me to college and support me until I got one of my own, while my best friend’s parents finances took a huge hit in the recession and his prospects have been considerably diminished. I’d say we’re both comfortably middle class now. The whole concept of spending money to earn money is new and strange to me and it’s something I’ve really had to work on. At one point a teller fixed me with the strangest look and asked “why do you have $20K in your chequing account” and the truth is that’s because I had no idea what else to do with it. On the flip side, my best friend is also really struggling with the fact that, in his new reality, there isn’t always more money to spend.)

    • Katie says:

      I find this really interesting. I was raised in similar conditions to you, it seems, but my in game spending is very different. In real life, I’m very careful with the budget, and try to rationalize every purchase, however, in games I’m normally the crazy, spend happy person.

      This probably comes from that fact that, as mentioned, the economy in games is very simplistic and it’s easy to play the auction houses/trade markets with a little bit of time and thought, you can have all the gold you want at your disposal. Because of how easy in game currency was to come by, I had no problem splurging on silly things (for example, one of every mount, silly costume items, that wedding ring you could find in Booty Bay in WoW*). And that’s because I knew that splurging in game currency had no real-world consequences, and honestly, helped as therapy for when I wanted to splurge on stupid stuff in real life.

      *Anyone who gets what I’m talking about gets 10+ awesome points for being an exploratory nerd!

      • Ari says:

        Haha maybe it’s the type of games we were playing? I very rarely try MMOs – when we were growing up we played a lot of survival horror, which really rewards resource management. But all the same, sometimes the fully upgraded grenade launcher can really see you through a boss fight, and all your scrimping and saving will be for naught if you don’t have it. The original Diablo was probably the closest thing we played to WoW, and even then I’d always hesitate to buy expensive items. What if one that was just as good or better dropped randomly? Then it would be a waste. Whereas he’d buy anything that looked even remotely useful in town.

        • Katie says:

          I think you may be right. I don’t have much experience in dungeon crawlers, but money is very easy to come by in MMOs with honestly, very little effort. Usually, just playing a low level character and keeping and selling crafting materials rather than using them will get you a mint. And to be quite honestly, gear doesn’t seem to make as substantial of a difference in MMOs, at least in the PVE aspect of the game.

    • Doug S. says:

      Right now, I have a lot of money in my checking account because, paradoxically, it’s the one that pays the highest interest. It’s a “rewards” checking account that gives you high rates if you use your card a bunch of times each month (which causes merchants to have to pay credit card processing fees to the bank).

      Interest rates in general are really low right now; there’s a severe shortage of good investments relative to the amount of money that people want to save. If you’re just letting money sit in a checking account instead of making some other investment, you’re really not missing out on very much.

  3. Ronixis says:

    I grew up more or less lower-middle class, or at least I think so. I’ve found in most games I’ve played, money is not very scarce and adjust accordingly; I think my collector tendencies affect me more. I’ll never use or sell anything that I can’t ever either get more of or find a strictly superior version of.

    I also wonder if social class might affect your relation to the character in other ways. I know that when I first played Dragon Age, I found the City Elf origin much more relatable than Human Noble.

  4. Matt says:

    One of the things I hate hate hate hate hate about many CRPGs is how you are forced to constantly buy new equipment even if the old equipment is perfectly serviceable, just because of the higher stats. The way I was brought up you don’t buy a new X until the old X is broken, or at least (say, a threadbare business suit you wear to work) no longer fit for its ordinary purpose, so I find myself resenting being required to constantly upgrade like some yuppie with their new i[thing][number] or whatever.

    Meanwhile I usually almost always live off of drops rather than every buying anything, and in singleplayer I almost invariably savescum to avoid using up healing potions (many of which end up being discarded in the middle of a later dungeon because I need the space for a bigger haul and they heal less than what by that point I could regenerate in the time it would take to drink it).

    IRL, I still have deep-seated prejudices against people who don’t “work for their money” and rely on any passive income other than pensions, support from family or old age or disability benefits, “leveraging debt” is some blasphemous magical nonsense through which evil people make a killing and stupid people go bankrupt, and (one job interview about 12 hours’ Greyhound away notwithstanding) I haven’t left town in almost 10 years lest I spend more on hotels and transport. So not exactly “middle class” values as understood in this article, I suppose; but then again, #4 “Extra Money Has to Be Spent Right Goddamn Now!” is quite the opposite of my experience (which is that the money is saved and slowly drained over the remainder of the year month as Shit Happens, and that’s normal) though #3 “You Want to Go Overboard on Gift-Giving” manifests itself in all sorts of strange and inconvenient ways.

    Dunno how this maps to class, though: my dad grew up in the aftermath of WWII with little in consumer items and what appears to be very little disposable income, while my mom’s early childhood memories involve being a refugee from a Communist dictatorship, but my own childhood was very much upper-middle-class spoiled kid. My father, left unchecked, would fill any space he occupies with freshly bought consumer goods, often bought simply because they were a “good bargain” (which calculation does not factor in any actual use), while my mother and I are very much the opposite and disinclined to let things go to waste. I suppose it’s not a thing that goes away after one generation though…

  5. Chris Hill says:

    What an interest article! I’d never really thought about it before (despite the fact that I’ve written about – and appeared on panels at conventions – about class in (sf) fandom…)

    I don’t tend to use or sell items in games and, thinking about it, I think it more comes from a position of worrying about scarcity. In other words: if I use this item does it mean that I won’t be able to replace it and might really need it later. If a game gives me the opportunity to store items, the storage tends to get very, very full!

    Does it reflect my class background? I’m not sure. I come from a British working class background (my dad was a farm worker and my mum a cleaner) and money was extremely scarce. And despite having a nice lower-middle class career and aspirations these days, I do suffer from that sort of ‘imposter syndrome’ that worries that if I put one step wrong everything I’ve achieved will be taken away from me.

    So maybe my gaming habits are affected. Hmm. Okay, that’s going to be going around in my head now…

  6. Rakaziel says:

    I tend to hoard things in games. I only sell them when they are inferior to my current gear or I run out of space (the latter happens more often). A good part of it is even keeping items with which I connect memories as souvenirs. My irl behavior is pretty much the same in that direction.

    I consider it comparably likely that this is influenced by my background. Not so much income wise even (middle class) but the habits of my parents and grandparents. My grandparents from my mother’s side tended to collect souvenirs from their various vacations and my father has some tendency to accumulate things that “may be useful some time” or “are in too good condition to throw away”, including from household clearances among relatives and friends. Given that they made their way up from lower middle class in my grandmother’s time it makes sense.

  7. Lise says:

    Regarding your question as to studies of how people of different economic classes use money in the real world, there’s a book (aimed at educators) by Ruby S. Payne called A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which talks about the different behaviors and unspoken assumptions of the lower, middle, and upper classes. It might be relevant here?

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