Economics in Early Computer Games

(First published 27 May 2020, when I found it in my “drafts” folder.)

In an article on consumerism in role-playing computer games, Garrelts explores a history that leads back to Adventure and Zork: “At this stage, while there were objects that could be manipulated that had use-value, there were no developed economies; in fact, there was no money to be exchanged.”
It may be worth noting, however, that Crowther’s original Colossal Cave Adventure offered the following motivation (originally in all-caps): “SOMEWHERE NEARBY IS COLOSSAL CAVE, WHERE OTHERS HAVE FOUND FORTUNES IN TREASURE AND GOLD, THOUGH IT IS RUMORED THAT SOME WHO ENTER ARE NEVER SEEN AGAIN.”
Among the original treasures are gold coins, silver bars, jewels, and diamonds. Don Woods not only added additional treasures, but also a pirate who steals your treasures, and a troll who will let you pass if you give him one of your treasures.
Thus, rather than the death-costs-you-another-quarter model that motivates arcade games of the Pong and Space Invaders variety, we can at least say that the first text-adventure game offered an acquisitive premise (collect treasures, use magic to carry off the gold nugget that won’t fit up the steps, etc.), and that Woods upped the ante by introducing economic competition and a barter system.
Zork also uses the acquisition of treasure and barter, but the culture of the game invented the zorkmid (a unit of currency) and one of the game’s most infamous puzzles is set in the Bank of Zork.
Digital games have far reaching origins spanning technology, art, and play, and it would not be much of a stretch to identify the current trend as ultimately having its beginnings in some other medium that far predates current technology. More recently though, one might begin with the development of digital games in their computer based and console based forms as they became publicly and commercially available to audiences during the 1970s. Of special relevance are the text adventures, Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), and Role Playing Games (RPGs), that were the precursors to the current Massively Multiplay Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) and virtual life simulations. —Nate Garrelts, Bad Subjects
Of course, the overall point that Adventure and Zork did not implement a full economic system is sound. However, see also Hamurabi, an early resource-allocation game that put you in charge of buying and selling grain (popularized in Ahl’s book BASIC Computer Games during the mid 70s). Consider also the 1969 Lunar Lander, a text game that simulated the complex interactions of fuel consumption, thrust, velocity, and the mass of remaining fuel.
Here’s how Nate Garrelts explains his interest in consumerism in games:

Soon I started to notice more downloadable content for games I owned, and friends started mentioning to me how they paid money to add new characters to games–I could add Yoda to Soul Calibur IV for around $5.00. Growing up in a world in which additional levels and special characters were rewards granted to players based on their gameplay, I was infuriated at the thought that cool content would intentionally be withheld for profit. And as I looked to the PC games market, I saw everyone getting squeezed or squeezing someone else. There were subscription fees, gold farms in Asia, auctions on ebay for virtual items, real currency conversion rates, people making their living fabricating, selling, and working in virtual worlds. What happened to the days of just being a wizard laboring for fun with my friends and acquaintances in a violent and soft-core Multi-User Dungeon (MUD)? My point is not to weigh the relative value of this phenomenon. Rather, my aim is to briefly historicize the consumption of goods in digital games in order to discover how we arrived at this moment: a moment where a slave like ideology of commodity fetishization and conspicuous consumption has entered the virtual world along with our real dollars.

Julian Dibble’s work on MUDs (My Tiny Life) and in-game economies (Play Money) are both destined to be the authorities in recording what things were like back in the day, with the former work touching on economics and the latter work built on an economic premise.
I will quibble with this line:

However it wasn’t until Atari released a graphic interpretation of Adventure (1979) that video games attempted to do visually what computers were doing textually.

Robinett’s Atari Adventure was only “a graphic interpretation of Adventure” to the extent that, for instance, Oklahoma! is a theatrical interpretation of frontier life, or de Muth’s painting “The Figure 5 in Gold” is a visual interpretation of the William Carlos Williams poem “The Great Figure.”  The casual reader who has no first-hand experience of either Colossal Cave Adventure or Atari Adventure may conclude from Garrelts that Robinettt merely added pictures to the story provided by Crowther and Woods. But just as Oklahoma! and de Muth innovated in their own rights, we would lose something significant if we watched the musical in order to learn about frontier life, or treated the paining as an authority on modernist poetry.
Of course, by calling Atari’s product “a graphic interpretation,” Garrelts is not excluding the possibility that Atari was innovating and re-imagining. I agree wholeheartedly with what I take to be the impetus behind the line — the observation that text adventures were innovating in important ways, and that during the 80s visual games had a lot of catching up to do.  Atari Adventure’s innovations included objects that could be picked up, carried, and used. Color-coded skeleton keys, a magical bridge, and of course a sword could be picked up (with a press of the single joystick button), maneuvered into place (while hovering alongside the player’s simple square-shaped avatar), and dropped. Because there was no way to swing the sword, or point it in any particular direction, fighting a dragon meant making sure that you could get your floating sword icon between you and your opponent. This made the game far more exciting than “hit the ball with the paddle” or “shoot the enemy,” while at the same time ramping up the difficulty to legendary levels. Scott Adams’s “Adventureland” (1978) and “Atari Adventure” (1979) both illustrate how quickly the term “Adventure” became a generic descriptor.
While these early text games all shared common elements such as dragons, magic, a lamp, confinement in complex interior spaces, it’s more productive to think of them all as variations on a core trope, rather than think of the later games as “interpretations” of the original.
The exception would be if we were to discuss the Crowther/Woods version as Wood’s interpretation of Crowther’s original, and to trace all the further variations on the Crowther/Woods theme. Also, what we know of as the Zork trilogy was at one point a single game called Dungeon, also known as “Mainframe Zork,” but it was split into three smaller games for commercial release.