Consoles, Competition and Comprehension

If you are studying microeconomics, whether in undergrad or postgrad courses, it can sometimes get a little too theoretical. Or that, at any rate, is how I used to feel about the more abstruse parts of advanced micro. And while memorizing the millionth derivation in order to regurgitate it in an examination, I would often wonder if there was any relevance of what I was attempting to study to the real world outside.

If you, today, as a student of micro share this opinion, let me ask you this: are you interested in video games? Are you living in fond hope that a PS5 will land up in your living room? Or are you figuring out ways to get XBox Pass?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I’m guessing that you like playing video games. Do you know how the industry started? Do you know what the Gang of Four was all about? Do you know how different business models in the industry originated? How they evolved and why, and with what consequences? Had you heard about the Great Video Game Crash of 1983? I knew a little bit (but not a lot) about the answers to all of these questions, save for the last.

But the reason I bring this up is because Ben Thompson has an exellent essay out on the evolution of the gaming industry, with a lovely recap of all of what happened, and why. You’ll learn about vertical and horizontal integration, lock-ins, attempts to create monopolies, attempts at preserving monopoloies, about how business models had to change to account for changing strategies, changing technologies and changing aspirations on part of creators, consumers and corporations. It’s head-spinning stuff!

It begins with a description of the world’s first video game (OXO, 1952, in case you were wondering) and ends with how the FTC (perhaps) doth take things too far with the Activision acquisition by Microsoft. And in the interim, it touches upon names that will evoke nostalgia among folks of a certain vintage, and curiosity among folks of a more recent vintage.

If you are a student struggling with micro but happen to love video games, this essay might motivate you to read more about the evolution of the video game industry, and understand micro better in the process.

If you are a teacher struggling with helping students fall in love with micro, consider reading and using this essay.

And a meta lesson: a great way to learn about microeconomics is to pick your industry of choice, and ask how it has evolved over time, and why. The answers to these questions is a great way to become a better student of economics.

If you’re looking for suggestions in this regard: music, television, movies, gaming, publishing, hospitality and sports (football, cricket and tennis would be great examples). And if I may offer one piece of contrarian and possibly heretical advice – begin with the industry and work your way to the textbook, rather than the other way around.

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