The best video games for economists

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The best video games for economists

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So you’ve decided it’s time to take a break from all the hard studying you’re doing during your economics Master’s or PhD program. Why not spend time playing a video game which will help you accrue business acumen, improve your real-world economics knowledge, or reflect economics concepts in its gameplay? Sound too good to be true? Thankfully, there are some games which offer just that.

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top video games for economists to practise their economics

Business Simulators

1. Capitalism

This classic business simulation game and its well-reviewed sequel Capitalism II allow you to live out your wildest dream: running the most successful business in the world. As CEO, you’ll have to avoid  bankruptcy, fight off competition, and make sure you don’t get bought out. But don’t expect this journey to be easy - Capitalism has been ranked as one of the most difficult games ever.

While the game’s beginning is not the most realistic for most of us - you can start your journey with capital of two hundred million dollars if you want - it offers an insight into how one could start a new company, providing semi-real simulations of markets and the cutthroat world of business.

At the game’s outset, you can either start totally from scratch or "inherit" a business such as an agricultural company. Typically, your goal will be to dominate a certain percentage of market share within a certain time period. An expansion named Capitalism Plus released in 1996, introduced random events such as riots and technological breakthroughs, making the already-complicated game even more difficult to play. So have fun failing at your first business - thankfully, at no risk whatsoever. 

2. Virtonomics

Virtonomics an economics video game that is used in schools and on university campuses to help students learn the ins and outs of business markets. Both entertaining and educational, this massively multiplayer online game is similar to Capitalism in that it simulates the processes of building a business in a competitive environment.

With totally open-ended gameplay and the ability to play forever if you want to (though we don’t necessarily recommend that), the turn-based game allows players to compete against not only other players but also the computer. Further, you can pick whichever market you’d like: agriculture, retail, marketing, you name it. What better way to spend your time playing a game than improving your business acumen and learning something about economics at the same time?

City Builders

3. Pharaoh

The sequel to Sierra’s lauded Caesar, this game was a huge success, adding new features to Impressions Games’ intricate city-building interface. Here you take control of ancient Egyptian societies, attempting to keep your citizens happy while producing enough raw materials to trade and improve the conditions of your workers. Military battles are fought in real-time with the choice between archers, soldiers, and naval vessels, and many missions require the building of monuments including the fabled pyramid.

Economists will be especially intrigued by the monetary system, which is pretty tough. You’re allowed to go into debt in order to build your city, but each year you remain in debt lowers your Kingdom Standing. If this rating becomes too low, the Pharaoh will send his troops to obliterate all of your hard work.

Money can be made on certain levels by mining gold deposits, but these are often located on unfavorable terrain; if your city isn’t lucky enough to have these, you’ll have to create goods like beer and pottery, open up trade routes, and pray that droughts and floods don’t hinder your ability to sell your wares. Best of luck!

4. Cities: Skylines

One of the most successful city building games ever, released to compete with SimCity (which bombed, leaving space for this game), Cities: Skylines introduced an intricate but simultaneously easy-to-understand concept of how to build a large city from just a small plot of land. You’ll start off with a small budget and a tiny plot, and have to expand into a village, a town, and a city.

Your ultimate aim: create a metropolis the size of New York City. As you work your way through the game, you’ll unlock new buildings and features, as well as the ability to designate parts of the city as districts. Along the way you’ll have to invite workers and provide them with jobs, which then will give you revenue, with which you can improve the city, and so forth.

The city eventually becomes very complex, with transport links operating from one end to the other, different road types to reduce noise pollution, the ability to force certain districts to only offer one kind of industry, and much more. Using your economic expertise (as well as architectural and design skills) you’ll be able to manage your city's finances, infrastructure, and economic planning, until your city runs like a well-oiled machine.

Theme Park Managers

5. Theme Park World

Following the success of Theme Park, Theme Park World lets you build your own - well - theme park. The player takes control of a relatively simple business model: expand the park, research new attractions, remain profitable, and win keys which open up new levels and rides. You’ll also have to hire staff to maintain the parks, including cleaners, mechanics, entertainers, and guards. All of these employees are important to keep visitors happy, prevent thefts and other crime, keep the park clean, and make sure none of the rides break down.

Once you’ve made enough money, you can start to upgrade your rides and train your staff, making the latter more efficient, and the former more fun! Once you’ve done all that, and your coasters pay for themselves, use the in-game currency of Golden Tickets to jump down into first-person mode and walk around your own park, even going on some of the rides you’ve created yourself.

6. Roller Coaster Tycoon

A PC classic, Roller Coaster Tycoon puts you in the shoes of a theme park designer tasked with saving a series of increasingly hopeless theme park businesses. Each level gives you a new park in a new area, a set of objectives for how to save the dying business, and a pat on the back, leaving you to figure out how best to save the business on your own.

In order to succeed, you’ll have to manage the happiness of your guests, find out which rides suit their tastes the most, adjust ticket and concession prices, hire staff to maintain your properties, spend money transforming the landscape, place food stalls and rides in the best possible locations to encourage spending, balance your monthly budget, and more. Become profitable by each scenario’s deadline, and you’ll have succeeded in saving the park!

Of course, there’s also a sandbox mode which lets you build your own park from scratch with no time limits or pressure, so it can be quite relaxing and fun to build your own dream park. While the game linked here is the original, the success of Roller Coaster Tycoon spawned many sequels and spin-offs in similar ventures, like Zoo Tycoon.

Society-building Strategy Games

7. Civilization VI

One of the most famous and widely loved strategy series of all time, Civ (as it’s commonly known) allows you to choose a historical leader, create a civilization and control it all the way from an early settlement to a highly developed, industrialized world power. Whether you choose to dominate the world through military might, technological or cultural superiority, or diplomatic acumen is up to you. While there’s a mode to play against the computer, you can also play against your mates, making it a fun, turn-based competitive game as well.

Civ features multiple strategic layers to consider, such as militarism, scientific research, and politics, which creates complex and long-ended gameplay. You’ll have to deploy your economics knowledge to make sure your raw materials are used correctly, your neighbors are happy and will trade with you (or avoid declaring war on you), and you’re able to continue making improvements to your cities. 

Newer installments, such as 2016's Civilization VI and its expansion pack Gathering Storm from 2019, include features such as the introduction of natural disasters, as well as new leaders and civilizations to control. So head in, pick your civilization, and take over the world.


8. Animal Crossing: New Horizon

Perhaps not the first game you think of when it comes to economics, but the latest installment of the Animal Crossing series for the Nintendo Switch, New Horizons, is special for its in-game currency of Nook Miles and the ability to craft tools, pay off your home loan debt, and furniture. The basic concept of the game is that you purchase an island on which you create a community of anthropomorphic animals. You collect items and materials which you can craft into decorations and tools, and slowly build up the infrastructure of your little slice of the world to attract more denizens and build your own paradise.

The latest installment allows multiple people to play together or simply visit each other’s islands, and includes new weather conditions, as well as seasons which adjust to which hemisphere the player is in. Part of a beloved series, the game has received overwhelmingly good reviews. So get to your island and start figuring out how you’re going to make enough money to craft those decorations!

9. Real-Time Strategy Classics

While not for the faint of heart, real-time strategy (RTS) games are an interesting choice from an economic standpoint. In these types of games, players compete against the computer or each other to build a functioning wartime economy while doing battle. Economic growth and efficient allocation of resources are absolutely critical for success in an RTS.

For example, in the sci-fi Starcraft II, players must balance two resources - minerals, which are widely available and easily mined, and gas, which is rarer and takes a longer time to mine. Minerals are used to build most structures and economic workers for your bases, which increase your income and allow you to grow your economy quickly. But, to research important upgrades and build advanced military units, gas is needed.

Even in this simple framework, the best players are set apart by mastering the balance of how many workers to build while having enough military units to defend, how to allocate workers to each resource, and optimizing when to switch workers around among resources. Other popular RTS games, like the historically-inspired Age of Empires IV, include even more resources to manage: wood, gold, stone, and food. For even more complexity check out the fantasy setting of Warcraft III, which famously includes ongoing upkeep costs for your military, throwing even more consideration into a fast-paced game.

10. Kerbal Space Program

Have you ever wanted to manage the funding, research and development, and general management of a space program? Are you willing to take responsibility for the lives of cute, enthusiastic alien astronauts (the titular Kerbals)? Look no further - Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is the game for you.

KSP’s Career Mode is the biggest draw here for an economist. You must complete contracts to generate funds so that you can grow your space program, but funding isn’t the only resource to manage. Reputation increases the amount of contracts your program attracts, and the size of the rewards that come your way, allowing your program to grow more efficiently.

“Science” points, meanwhile, increase your selection of rocket parts. Since you’re not only the program manager, but also the designer of all of your program’s spaceships, you’ll need plenty of science to ensure you have enough realistic parts (using physical statistics based on real life space programs and real physics to determine if your rockets succeed or explode catastrophically) to complete your missions.

With all of these choices, we hope you find a video game with economics themes that scratches your gaming itch.

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