Numismatics in Videogames and BioShock Infinite

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker ………..

Your kids might know more about numismatics than you think.

People often talk about the importance of getting young people interested in coin collecting, but how do we do that?

Some approaches seem effective – such as nurturing relationships with organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America – but it isn’t hard to imagine that a hobby full of middle-aged men might sometimes come across as out of touch.

Hey, we can’t help it if everything was better when we were young, right?

Yet as we try to make coin collecting more accommodating and kid-friendly, here’s something to keep in mind: an entire culture has been growing for more than 30 years, full of participants of all ages but predominantly associated with the young. These people, whether they know it or not, have already developed the foundations of a numismatic knowledge that’s not only relevant to their own cultural space, but also critically underestimated by proper numismatists in the mainstream.

These young people are video gamers, and they are the future of the hobby.

video games Numismatics in Videogames and BioShock InfiniteIn our lifetime, video games have gone from coin-operated cabinets to complex home experiences that take years and multi-million dollar budgets to develop. From games you could beat in one afternoon ill-spent at the local 7-Eleven to games that take hundreds of hours to complete (or, in some cases, are entirely open-ended), the last few decades of technological advancements have changed what people want and expect from their leisure time.

And young people have been right on the cutting edge the whole time.

From the earliest days, professional programmers understood that players need feedback on their performance, and at its most fundamental level this feedback is provided by the score. Shoot down a missile, destroy an asteroid, or race your car along a twisty stretch of road – all of these actions are likely to earn points. This basic incentive to play then grew more and more complex as players demanded more interesting gameplay based on ever more realistic models of the world, and computers became powerful enough to deliver them.

But it was there from the start.

Even a classic like Pac-Man contains economic and numismatic concepts. Pac-Man must collect all of the pellets in one maze in order to advance to the next. While he attends to his task, four ghostly adversaries are trying to kill him. Large power pellets enable Pac-Man to turn the tables on his persecutors for a short time. A piece of fruit occasionally appears in the middle of the maze – fruit that’s worth substantially more than the required pellets. Players must weigh the risk of running into the bad guys against the rewards of veering off and grabbing the fruit. Later levels offer a key instead.

That fruit, that key, is a temporal creation. It is worth more than a static pellet. It is, in essence, dear money. It’s a symbol of something. It is desired by the player. Why video gamers like Pac-Man is a lesson in why collectors like coins: emotional and historical references, a sense of scarcity, value.

By today’s standards, however, Pac-Man and games like it are simplistic and primitive.

Economic Concepts in Virtual Worlds Mirror Those of Reality

Many – if not most – popular videogames have their own fictitious units of account. Some even have fully developed virtual monetary units.  All offer serious numismatists an avenue by which to engage young people in the study of money.

In fact, we’d go so far as to say that money and the generation of wealth is the driving force behind the design of most videogames. It’s what makes them relevant to players.

In the classic adventure game Pitfall!, Pitfall Harry traverses a never-ending scroll of dangerous obstacles to accumulate wealth in the form of jewelry and gold ingots. These items are translated into their retail value as the game keeps score of the player’s progress.

 Mario, of Super Mario Brothers fame, uses his plumber’s head to knock coins out of bricks. These coins are worth 10 points and made of gold. Collecting 100 gold coins earns Mario an extra life. The ethos of the Mario universe is all about chivalry, heroism, and the accumulation of wealth in order to obtain a better standard of living (more lives allow players to play the game longer).

Mario’s cross-platform rival, Sonic the Hedgehog, races through Technicolor maps collecting gold rings. Unlike Mario’s idealism, Sonic has a far more existential motivation for his numismatic avocation. When a monster touches him or he fails to clear one of the many obstacles in the level, Sonic loses all of his rings in what can be quite a dramatic sight if you’ve managed to collect very many. But if he gets hit and Sonic doesn’t have any rings at all, then he dies. That’s right – the accumulation of rings protects Sonic from death. And if he has any left at the end of the level, the total number of rings collected is converted into points and extra lives.

Skipping ahead a few years, the popular franchise Final Fantasy uses a monetary unit called a Gil for transactions in its universe.  The infamous Grand Theft Auto mixes in coinage with paper notes, which the game’s protagonist accumulates while carrying out missions and causing mayhem.  In Will Wright’s insanely popular PC title The Sims and his long-running city-building series SimCity, the monetary unit is known as the Simoleon. Et cetera, et cetera

We’ll end our historical overview here, but this is just a small sample of what’s out there. There are literally tens of thousands of games like these. A comprehensive volume of videogame currencies would rival Krause’s Standard Catalogue of World Coins in terms of bulk.

But before we move on to the pièce de résistance – the real cause for excitement for anyone interested in getting kids into the hobby – we thought it’d be worthwhile to lay out one of the more involved monetary systems found in video games. In the classic Legend of Zelda series, the hero Link digs up rupees [sic] of many different denominations. The following table, originally from the Zelda wiki, illustrates the complexity of this virtual currency.

Game

Green

Blue

Yellow

Red

Purple

Orange

Silver

Huge (Green)

Huge (Blue)

Huge (Red)

Huge (Gold)

The Legend of Zelda

5

-

1

A Link to the Past

1

5

20

Ocarina of Time

1

5

20

50

200

100

200

Majora’s Mask

1

5

20

50

200

100

200

200

Oracle of Ages

1

10

5

100

200

Oracle of Seasons

1

10

1, 5, 20

5

100

200

Four Swords

1

5

20

50

100

200

The Wind Waker

1

5

10

20

50

100

200

The Minish Cap

1

5

20

50

100

200

Twilight Princess

1

5

10

20

50

100

200

Phantom Hourglass

1

5

20

100

200

300

Spirit Tracks

1

5

20

100

200

300

Skyward Sword

1

5

20

100

-

-

300

The evolution of the monetary system of the Legend of Zelda series. Note how color is used to delineate value.[1]

Did you get all of that?

Seriously, if kids can juggle all of these different systems and denominations in their heads as easily and naturally as real world money, then what’s keeping them from being experts in Morgan dollars, classic commemoratives, or colonial issues?

The Numismatic Themes of BioShock Infinite

No game of recent mintage makes our case as well as the newly released BioShock Infinite, available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and for PC.

Only a major motion picture doing for numismatics what The Karate Kid did for martial arts could be more important. Then again, it’s arguable whether video games aren’t more relevant to this generation.

The game (the third in a series) is a first-person shooter that blends steampunk fantasy with an alternate reality vision of American history. It is so steeped in numismatic topics that one might assume it was created by a visionary numismatist as a recruiting tool for the hobby. In fact, the ANA (which seems determined to “gamify” its internet presence to cater to YNs) could do worse than the developers of BioShock Infinite.

It all begins with a surreal rendering of America in the year 1912. The player controls a mysterious protagonist named Booker DeWitt, who arrives at a floating city named Columbia. Columbia the city is the ideation of Liberty and freedom gone wrong. Its perverse panoply of American pastoral structures shoots up from the clouds like dreams, bound together by a network of spindly airlift tracks.

The city’s overseer is a shadowy figure named Zachary Hale Comstock. Giant monuments are built in his honor. So, too, are monuments to the founding fathers Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, but Abraham Lincoln is denounced as a “devil” that led the United States to ruin. Comstock has built a cult of personality around himself in which he is revered as a pioneer and a prophet. Echoes of Deseret abound. Comstock’s vision of Columbia is a madman’s interpretation of American Exceptionalism, with pious rich overseers, an enslaved working class, and permanent racial unrest.

One trailer for the game focuses on a souvenir from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which shows the White City in miniature. It’s as if the developers chose this time and setting to show a nation just starting to grow into its strength, yet with all-too-real problems. To show a country whose highest ideals were being perverted by those conniving for power at all costs.

bioshock worlds fair Numismatics in Videogames and BioShock Infinite

The game’s numismatic touches continue.  It is replete with references to silver, and Silver Eagles are the coin of the realm. Yes it’s anachronistic, since the “circulating” (we use that term loosely) money at the time was the Morgan dollar. The game’s economic model is also out of line with 1912, as Silver Eagles are littered about the world so that they’re easily found and accumulated by the player. Considering that the average wage for an American in 1912 was less than $0.25 per hour, the developers probably sacrificed historical accuracy for the sake of a modern monetary point of reference.

That it’s a video game meant to be enjoyed by teenagers and young adults should not diminish the fact that it’s a positive instrument for making young people aware of the fundamental issues of the politics of money.

BioShock Infinite is a critical and popular favorite, and will likely sell six to ten million copies all told. That’s six to ten million people – statistically young people – learning the name Comstock, exploring a world called Columbia, and looking for Silver Eagles.

Numismatics is interesting. It truly is. And there’s no shortage of methods for exposing people to it. BioShock Infinite may not be the kind of thing most of us in the hobby know much about, but it’s an award-winning videogame that will reach more than a million players. Many of them will be dazzled by the dark fantasy, the fast-paced action, and the violence. Some of them will be drawn to the fascinating alternative history and its underpinning logic – a logic based on America’s monetary past. And that’s pretty cool, don’t you think?

Flip of a Coin:

Speaking of Deseret: A beautifully engraved stone featuring oak leaves, ivy, trumpets, a bee hive atop a four-legged stool underneath the gaze of the All Seeing Eye, and two hands clasped together in a handshake was donated for use in the construction of the Washington Monument. Inscribed on the stone is the motto HOLINESS TO THE LORD AND DESERET.

When the Department of the Treasury sold unopened, original mint sewn bags of Morgan dollars at face value back in the ‘60s, it was an all-you-can-carry proposition… literally! Buyers had to carry the 60+ lb. bags out by hand – no carts allowed.

So let’s say you bought your original mint sewn bags of Morgan dollars at face value and wanted to trade them in at the bank. Easy, right? Not so fast – you’d often get hit with a $50.00 handling fee! Even in the ‘60s, Morgan dollars were a subsidiary currency not worth its face value in bulk.

© 2013 Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker


[1] http://zelda.wikia.com/wiki/Rupee

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1 Comment on "Numismatics in Videogames and BioShock Infinite"

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  1. Jon Coolidge says:

    I was actually playing Bioshock Infinite last night; it’s a violent first person shooter, but it’s also a very intellectual piece. I have been thinking all along as I played it how it would appeal to numismatists, though I had not thought of it as a recruiting tool.

    Steampunk is a rapidly growing cultural phenomenon, in which people embrace the elegance and beauty of historic design elements. Its growth should also draw interest in coins from the 1800s, both American and English. Hey, airship pirates need something to pillage.

    I have often joked that when you complete a set, you get an extra life.

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