I made this meme in 2021 because I thought it was funny how common-sense economics and budgeting in video games doesn’t resemble how our country operates in real life. Our country operates on a deficit, which doesn’t make sense to me as a videogame player.
Before we start, I should mention that I am not an expert in economics, but have done the research to explain the differences between in-game and real-life economics for the purposes of this article.
Videogame economics are very straightforward. In most strategy games, the player can only make purchases using money available at the time of purchase. Typically, if a player wants to build a tank or a research center, he needs to have the money to cover those purchases. In addition to construction costs, most 4x games impose “upkeep” or “maintenance” fees on units and buildings so they remain operational over time.
All that spending and upkeep adds up quickly and the economy will show a negative income. This is fine at first if there’s a lot of money in the bank to cover the deficit. Unfortunately, many players get distracted while conquering their enemies with a large and expensive military. As the money in the treasury gets dangerously low, the game will surprise the player with a warning about the deficit. The alert usually comes with a reminder that if the economy isn’t fixed, the player’s empire will face ever-increasing penalties… including losing the game.
- Low morale of troops and/or population, resulting in slower production or a diminished ability to attack an enemy.
- Some games forcibly sell units and buildings to cover the deficit.
- Sometimes, military units will abandon the player’s empire and become pirates or rebels.
- In many games, the population will rise up and overthrow the ruler (player). This, of course, causes a “game over.”
A Few Exceptions
A few games (very, very, very, very few) do allow players to go into a small amount of debt to cover the difference of purchases and upkeep costs. The games that allow a deficit require the player to pay back the loaned amount and/or make the economy profitable, or at least break even. These loans tend to be very punishing and if the player cannot repay, he will suffer the aforementioned penalties or lose the game.
In Real Life
A deficit occurs when the federal government’s spending exceeds its revenue. In order to keep the country running, the federal government borrows money to cover the outstanding balance. The national debt is the accumulation of this borrowing, combined with interest owed to lenders.
This is similar to how people with excessive credit card debt live. They spend more than they earn and borrow money to continue living beyond their means. BUT, there are two major differences:
- Increasing the debt-ceiling.
- The consequences of default.
Increasing the Debt-Ceiling
Unlike the federal government, an individual cannot simply vote to increase his/her debt-limit. Imagine calling your credit card company and telling them you’ve decided your debt-limit should be increased by several million dollars and they need to make the funds available to you. They’d either laugh at you before disconnecting the call, or they’ll ask if you’re experiencing financial hardship and need to start a payment plan.
Consequences of Defaulting
Unlike the federal government, hardly anyone will notice if an individual defaults on his or her debt. That means if you default, tragic as that may be for you, there’s no risk of a global economic disaster occurring.
Real Videogame Penalties if the Nation Defaults
The USA has always paid its debts, so we don’t know what will happen if the US government defaults. It’s theorized that such a default would have catastrophic repercussions within the country and in markets across the world.
If the USA defaults, I predict a couple videogame-style penalties will befall the nation.
Similar to what happens in videogames, our nation will experience civil unrest. This is especially true when social welfare programs are left unfunded and benefits are cut. Another thing to consider is that many industries are subsidized or incentivized by the government. When those freeloading businesses start seeing a drop in the bottom line, they’ll raise prices of goods and lay off workers.
This is the perfect recipe for general unrest and riots.
International Trade and Relations
Some games impose a relationship penalty against players who break commitments, and those penalties wear off after several turns or a period of time. I expect something similar will happen in the real world if the US defaults on its debts, especially with international lenders.
It makes sense that international markets would be reluctant or unwilling to trade with the nation. At the extreme, the leaders of other countries may reconsider current and future agreements with the United States. After all, if we break our commitment to pay debts, how can we be trusted to honor treaty commitments?
Non-Videogame Penalty: Credit Rating & Future Loans
If the US defaults, the national credit rating would fall and lenders would, theoretically, be reluctant to lend more money to the country. Theoretically, lenders would only agree to lend money to the government at higher interest rates. That’s the theory, but it’s unrealistic for a couple reasons:
- According to the Treasury, the government controls the way it “borrows” money by selling bonds, bills, notes, and inflation-protected securities. It’s a take it or leave it style of “borrowing.”
- And simply, the government is too much of a money-maker for lenders to ignore. In 2022, creditors made almost $500 BILLION in interest alone!
What Won’t Happen
Obviously, there’s a difference between videogames and the real world. We can safely assume the following extreme measures will not happen if the government defaults.
There won’t be a swift selloff of government buildings and military units. The government is incapable of divesting such real property assets in a timely manner, and in some cases, it’s forbidden by law. As for selling military units for profit, the very thought of selling such hardware is absurd.
Low Troop Morale and/or Desertion?
Unless there’s a Neo-Civil War, there WILL NOT be a diminished ability to attack or defend against an external enemy. We won’t have to worry about troops abandoning their posts and attacking our cities, or ships pillaging the high seas as pirates.
- The troops will always be taken care of.
- All government employees will receive back-pay for work done, and if furloughed, they may be eligible for unemployment. But, where will unemployment checks come from if states can’t fund unemployment programs without federal support?
Is it Game Over?
I previously stated that I’m not an expert in economics, but it doesn’t require a specialist to know there’s something fundamentally wrong with the economic policies of our nation.
In videogames, it’s “game over” if your empire incurs A FRACTION of the debt the USA currently has. Our government cannot keep spending the way it has without the country, as a whole, suffering catastrophic consequences. There will come a day when our nation will have to pay the piper, and the old geezers in Washington are betting that will happen on the next generation’s watch.
Such a day could see the collapse of all sectors of our economy.
Such a day could see even greater civil unrest than has previously occurred.
Such a day could be “game over” to the current economic system when the country is forced to realize we need to “format and install” a new operating system.
 4x Games: “4x” is the abbreviation for Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate. 4x Games are typically part of the turn-based strategy (TBS) genre. Examples include, but are not limited to: Galactic Civilizations (I, II, and III); Master of Orion (I, II, III, and 0); Age of Wonders; and famously Civilization (I, II, III, IV, V, and VI).
Gamers are still debating if the Anno games (1602, 1701, etc.) are 4x as well.
 Riots: As we saw at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when millions of people weren’t working because of social distancing, all those idle hands gave people plenty of time to care about stuff they wouldn’t normally think twice about. It was a powder keg waiting for a spark.
 Treasury.gov; Debt to the Penny. (2023, April 1). What is the national debt? Retrieved from FiscalData.Treasury.gov: https://fiscaldata.treasury.gov/americas-finance-guide/national-debt/
 Selling Military Equipment: I state in the article that selling military equipment is absurd, but it could be argued that we’re already selling equipment to Ukraine in exchange of some tangible reward in the future.
 United States Office of Personnel Management. (2021, December). Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs. Retrieved from Office of Personnel Management: https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/furlough-guidance/guidance-for-shutdown-furloughs.pdf
 United States Office of Personnel Management. (n.d.). Shut-Down of Federal Operations – What Does it Mean to Me? Retrieved from Office of Personnel Management: https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/furlough-guidance/unemployment-compensation-for-federal-employees-fact-sheet-december-2018.pdf
 Disclaimer: The author of this article and the website do not condone violence, criminality, breaking any laws, vigilante justice, or rising up and overthrowing your legitimate government. The intention of this article is to criticize and compare how videogame economics are different to real-life. The article does not promote or entice anyone to commit any crime or participate, no matter how indirectly, in criminal activity.