An aesthetic history of video game currency

If you aint talkin' rupees, then your talkin' don't matter

Virtual worlds and their internal economies have a long and complicated history with each other. 

In the current landscape of microtransactions and pay-to-win mechanics, it’s comforting to consider the golden coins of gaming’s yesteryear. The sparkling jewels, bills and gold pieces of gaming history have helped to breathe life into a wide range of titles both classic and modern. When looking at the broad history of video game currencies, several different approaches to their overall design emerge.

Many games that we now point towards as genre-defining classics were also the titles that helped shape gaming’s relationship with currency. Beyond all the other influential aspects of the original Super Mario Bros, it’s also the game that wrote the textbook on how to insert currencies into a linear game: use it as an incentive for players to explore specific routes, make it both plentiful and valuable to the player, and most crucially, make it appear valuable. In Super Mario Bros. this was achieved by creating a shiny, golden coin. The association with value for the player in this case is obvious, and it continues to inform the aesthetic foundation of golden coins in games today.

Credit: GameModding

When it became graphically viable to start putting detail into the look of fake currency, different approaches began to emerge. One such approach is the attempt to represent ‘real world’ currencies. An early attempt at this can be seen in the side-scrolling beat-em-up River City Ransom, where pummeling your foes will cause them to drop small, grey, faceless coins that seem to represent far more in dollars than these coins could ever actually be worth.

This type of over-abundant pseudo-money is something that crops up often in a broad range of titles. The Grand Theft Auto franchise, which in recent years has doubled-down on its fascination with the almighty dollar, started out in much the same way. Grand Theft Auto 2 has a dollar count that exists only to increase your score, and can be found in large amounts amongst every civilian that you run over. In this case, the money is more like a type of score modifier than an actual resource to be earned, tied to no form of elaborate design. By contrast, Grand Theft Auto 5 has evolved its currency to become a more central focus, acting as the primary motivation for the protagonists in the story as well as a more accurate simulation of real money in its gameplay applications. Although it’s still (mostly) easy to acquire, money in modern GTA (including the incredibly popular GTA Online) operates in the same way we’d expect money in the real world to, giving access to property, weaponry, entertainment and opportunities. It’s a long way from ‘money as a score modifier’ and a lot more analogous to a real economy.

The other type of currency that we frequently find in games is the kind that we might immediately think of if asked to provide an ‘iconic’ example of such a thing. Think of Zelda’s rupees and Fallout’s caps – both of which help to communicate an idea about the settings in which they exist, and serve as a tasty morsel of world-building detail. The opposite of this is the deflating presence of ’almost real money’ – think of things like Monster Hunter’s Zenni or even The Sims’  Simoleons. These are essentially facsimiles of real money that are masquerading as an original concept. In most cases, their design will be tied to a type of coin or bill we’re already familiar with from the real world, but perhaps with a visual twist that incorporates other iconography from the game. These serve more as a reminder of the concept of money than something with its own identity.

In the modern day, most currencies in games could fit loosely within this categorisation, with surprisingly little deviation. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and it’s no surprise that there’s a creative ceiling on the ways in which we can get coins to make sense in interactive media. The last decade, however, has shown some development in this area with the rise of microtransactions and ‘premium’ currencies, which are slowly eroding the borders between real and virtual money in a concerning breed of innovation. It’s certain that this will have a further impact on how currency is represented in games going forwards, but exactly how is something that will take more time to firmly crystallise. For now, we can enjoy the shiny coins that games have brought us, and wait to see what further gems, or lumps of coal, may be unearthed in the future.

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