Numismatics is the study or collection of currency, including coins, tokens, paper money, and related objects. While numismatists are often characterized as students or collectors of coins, the discipline also includes the broader study of money and other payment media used to resolve debts and the exchange of goods. Economic and historical studies of money’s use and development are an integral part of the numismatists’ study of money’s physical embodiment.
Gamers take coins for granted. We didn’t use to. In the ’80s we spent plenty of coins in the arcades, but in contemporary video games, we collect them, hoard them, exchange them, spend them. As players, though, how often do we pause to consider something as everyday as a gold piece, taking a moment to look at its design, and to consider where it came from?
Over the next few months, I do plan on embarking upon a serious research project concerning the numismatics of video games, studying the currency used to drive in-game economies, but also those coins and other media of trade/value collected for points or prizes from everything from Mario to Grand Theft Auto to Destiny. Questions that I will attempt to answer, and things to explore will include:
- What are the earliest appearances of coins/money in video games, and when are the earliest instances of coins being used as currency within those games?
- Catalogue every type of currency used in every game published.
- For currency found in-game, document its material of composition (e.g., gold, crystal, paper, etc.), findspot or location of a “drop”, place of production (i.e., mint or town), denomination, era (old v. new coins), image/design, if the currency is to be used as such, or if it is treated in a game as an artifact.
- Create a history of currency used in game series (e.g., Elder Scrolls), exploring how the currency changes from game to game.
- Record drops of currency as well as types and amounts retrieved from looted corpses (and from successful pickpocketing attempts). Use this information to learn about cross-cultural trade and inter-city (and/or regional) commerce.
- For coins with busts on them, research the history of the person depicted. For those with symbols, report on their use and interpretation. Look for mint stamps. Translate inscriptions.
- Can coins found in-game be used archaeologically (e.g., for establishing a secure date for something)?
- Are there in-game coin collectors, numismatists, and numismatic achievements that are deliberately part of the game?
- Do modding communities create their own currency?
There will be plenty more to do as I explore. I do plan on consolidating currency wikis from various games into a single hub, and will work with user groups, communities, and official game websites/publishers to work with their data.
The hardest part of a major project like this is to determine how and where to start? I seem to be in an Elder Scrolls rut, but at least I can start with a series I love and work outwards from there. As I consider the to-do list, I’ll likely settle into themes that draw information from dozens of different games, but in the beginning, starting simply with a series might be easiest as I work out how to apply methods from real-world numismatics into game environments. As I go, I’ll blog about what I find, refining my approach.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has taken a systematic approach to the study of currency in video games of any type or time period, from side-scrollers to RPGs to MMOs (other than creating game-wiki pages). How is gaming currency used, by whom, for what purpose, and how was it acquired, and from where? Is the currency purely functional, or is there history as well? As I publish here, feel free to comment, make suggestions, criticize, ask questions, or suggest questions that I should be asking.
ADDENDUM (Sept. 9, 2014)
I thought of some other things as I showered this morning to explore/document when it comes to currency in games:
- How often does currency appear in a funerary context in a game, and in what other contexts can currency be found? What purpose(s) might the currency have in such contexts?
- What drives a games designer’s decisions for including currency, and also for spending time on its graphic design? How do game developers consider currency within a particular title?
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming