'High Tea'

Reflex Economics, or a Twitch-Based Economy

by G. Christopher Williams

23 February 2011

"Boy low and sell high," and other frightening necessities for profiteering on addiction.

Economies are based on need. Need leads to demand. And what can be more needful than addiction?

The historical and social context of economics simulator High Tea is pretty precisely clarified in its opening text, which describes the circumstances surrounding the game: “1830, Britain is in the grip of a mass addiction to a foreign drug. TEA!”
This is the launching point for enacting what seems a pretty simple economic concept and obvious strategy in any economics simulation: “Buy low and sell high.” In this instance, the product that needs to be supplied to the British populace is tea. Given the historical situation, that tea can be costly, Britain is in need of a quick supply of cash to get its hands on a product that has become a growing addiction for the populace. What better way to raise cash then in order to feed an addiction, but to take advantage of another addiction?  Since the Chinese market is demanding opium and Britain has the ships to move large quantities of opium from India, there is a lot of money to be made for any entrepreneur interested in meeting the needs of two addicted populaces.

The intriguing thing about the game is how uniquely it treats the gameplay mechanisms necessary to achieve its ends. While frequently economic simulations place a clock on the player’s actions, rarely will one find a clock quite so demanding as the one in High Tea. While actions themselves in the game are simple enough to perform, click here to buy opium, click here to buy tea, click on a port to smuggle opium into China, because the demands of addiction in Britain grows so rapidly, keeping up with that demand requires a frantic amount of activity on the part of the player to effectively maintain these three simple clicks.

Markets in the game are constantly fluctuating with tea and opium prices rising and falling in seconds as you play. Assessing pricing and seeing where demand for large and small shipments of opium are the most profitable requires split second decision making, especially as the game requires greater and greater supplies of tea for a populace that you don’t see in the game, but can clearly gather from the numbers that you are watching, are alarmingly feeling more and more needful of their drug of choice.

As a result, this economics simulator weds something like twitch gaming to a genre that is most frequently associated with strategizing, considering available options, and setting a broad plan in place in order to achieve the ends of profit. Here though, profit is as much a product of market analysis as it is of reflex, mimicking a kind of furious image of buying and selling at a stressful and insistent rate. This is not a simulation that encourages you to strategize, but instead to act on the aforementioned simple strategy that you already know to be true, “Buy low, sell high.”  There is no time to ponder the implications of profiteering on the basis of an artificially stimulated need, like addiction. Instead, there is only time to satisfy a need that cannot be satiated. Indeed, in the ludic context of the game, the demands on the agent supplying tea and opium (the player) grow substantially more difficult because the historical context demands it. The more tea that is supplied, the more need that there will be for it.

Completing the game is more of a relief than anything else, knowing that you will not have to supply an incrementally larger shipment for the last time and being able to “retire” having grown rich off of misery is simply gratifying. Not so, for those still caught in the cycle of feeding their own demands.

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