Over the last month, I spent most of my time playing an “educational” game called Eco. Strange Loop Games has launched Eco in Early Access, and the developer sells a pack of 100 copies for $500. The idea is that schools would have multiple classrooms of students all playing together in the same, Minecraft-like world.

Eco is educational because every player’s actions have consequences. If you put multiple oil drills on a beach, you’ll eventually suck that land dry of fossil fuels. If you exclusively hunt bison, they’ll go extinct. If you buy iron in your store or through a contract for a lot of money, people will stop doing other jobs to track down iron instead.

And everyone shares those consequences. If you are powering a steel mill and a factory with multiple fossil-fuel generators 24 hours a day, you’re going to raise the CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and that could raise temperatures and make it more difficult for people to grow certain foods. You could even raise the sea levels. This is why the game has a legislation system that enables players to propose laws using “if/then” syntax, and everyone can vote for and against those proposals. If they pass, the server will automatically enforce them.

Oh, and the game starts you off with a meteor that is going to hit your planet and cause catastrophic levels of damage 30 days after you start. This encourages cooperation and gives players something to work toward. We were able to blow up our meteor (and then we spawned a new one to see what the damage would look like).

You’re probably skeptical of the teaching power of a game like this. Sure, schools use Minecraft, but that’s usually in the context of coding games. We’ve had Math Blaster, Oregon Trail, and other games acting as educational tools for decades now, but they never grew much beyond their edutainment routes.

But I’m a believer in Eco. I steered our server of around 20 people into the economic systems — which are all almost entirely player-driven — and I know I was learning. More than anything, I was getting experience and lessons in concepts that I had only read about or heard about in abstract ways.

Let me give you some examples. Here’s what Eco taught me.

Trickle down theory doesn’t work

Supply-side economics is going through some tough times here in the real world. Tax cuts have led to a teacher crisis in Oklahoma. The “Kansas Experiment” — where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback spearheaded drastic state income taxes — was a disaster that forced the Republican-controlled state legislator to bring back revenues through tax increases. So this is one of those things that I already knew didn’t work, but Eco gave me a chance to see it in action up close.

“Trickle down” is a term you’ve probably heard before — especially if you’re a bit older and are aware of Ronald Reagan or paid attention during the passage of the recent tax bill. The idea is that if the government cuts taxes — especially for wealthy people — they will spend more of their money in the market. That money will then trickle down from billionaire CEOs to contractors, auto mechanics, and other business owners. And then they can pay their employees more, and the entire economy gets a boost.

But here’s something that supply-side economists never remember: Spending money is a lot of work.

That’s something I noticed in Eco. When we switched to a universal, gold-back currency from our store-credit system (a process you can read about here), one person controlled the mint. He agreed to hand out the money in even chunks to everyone. We had 650 total haypennies, as we called them, and he started out by letting me hand out 200 of them. I gave each person who was online 8 haypennies with the intent of handing out the rest as a stimulus in case we needed one. The mint owner, who goes by the handle DrJonez, had the rest and said he’d hand out the rest when we asked. But as the economy got going, the need for a stimulus never arose, and instead, I just had a bunch of extra haypennies and DrJonez had more than 400.

From this point until the end of the game, DrJonez always had the most money. This was not due to a lack of an effort to spend it. He was buying things in his shop, and he would go to other people’s shops to buy them as well. But finding ways to spend all of that money would have required a massive, concentrated effort comparable to a full-time job. He would have to work one-on-one with people on contracts to get exactly what he would want, and he’s have to rely on them not getting distracted by some other, more profitable or entertaining venture.

So trying to find ways to creatively spend money was almost always more inconvenient and expensive than doing something himself. If he needed to buy something, he could easily afford it because the rest of the economy was set to hyper-low prices due to everyone starting with 8 haypennies.

Jonez had so much money that time and patience was his bottleneck, and that’s trickle-down’s flaw. A person who has $40 billion after taxes one year and then $45 billion after taxes the next year probably isn’t going to spend their money very differently. Money isn’t the issue — it’s time and opportunity.

A Beautiful Mind

While playing Eco, I had the same epiphany that John Nash (played by Russell Crowe) has in A Beautiful Mind.

This is a visual representation of the Nash equilibrium, which is a game-theory solution that Nash (the real person) developed during the 1940s and early 1950s. That work earned him the Nobel Prize in Economics. The actual theory is quite complicated and involves detailed proofs and theorems, but the clip from Ron Howard’s film does a respectable job of illustrating how it works.

Here’s the key line:

“The best result will come from everyone in the group doing what’s best for themself … and the group.”

Up until Nash, the classical theory suggested that an unfettered free market would provide the best outcome for everyone. If each person does what is best for themself, the group will arrive at a natural equilibrium that is best for everyone.

What is fascinating about Eco is that the game gives you a chance to implement a Nash-style strategy or a free-market-strategy — and then it gives you obvious ways to see the results.

Through the early days of our Eco server, we fell into a natural, collectivist mentality. Everyone was figuring out the systems, and sharing resources and information made sense because every benefit to the group was also a benefit to you. But Eco eventually forces players to branch away from one another and into specializations. It does this through its skill tree where every time you spend skill points to learn something, every other discipline increases in cost exponentially.

This creates a dynamic where every player is still important to the group, but your specialized knowledge no longer applies to most other people. For our server, this also created a somewhat antagonistic and competitive system — especially when it came to our stores — that led to a free market.

Instead of working together, we began adjusting our output and prices to match competing products in order to do what was best for ourselves. And it was working up until a point.

At a certain point, I was so specialized down the mechanic path, that I had the ability to create an oil drill but not the skills to efficiently use it. So I began working one-on-one with another player who goes by the handle Izule2003. He learned all of the oil-drilling tech tree, and that enabled him to use my oil rigs and refinery to get petroleum out of the ground and then turn it into gasoline, plastic, and epoxy.

To get off to a strong start, we agreed to some fair prices based on how much it would cost him to produce each resource. But as he got more efficient, he was able to make way more than I had money to buy. If he had wanted to, he could have wiped out my bank account (which is tied to my store). He chose not to, and that was probably the right move for both of us.

Had Izule sold me everything up front for the original prices and walked away with all of my money, he would’ve had plenty of cash to buy things, but he would essentially cut off my store as a long-term source of revenue. Instead of focusing on our oil projects and turning those products into other advanced tools and machines, I would’ve had to find a reliable source of income. I would have had to spend days tracking down logs for DrJonez or wild foods for the chefs. I’d also probably have to begin charging Izule to use my oil drilling and refining equipment.

So not only would he have had to pay fees, he would have lost out on the only person who was really buying petroleum-based products.

But Izule didn’t do that, and instead I was able to use his products to fuel our motorized carts, to make modern hammers and picks, to mill tier-4 construction materials like flat steel, and to build a half-dozen new oil drills spread across two fields.

More than anything else, it was Izule and me both doing what was best for ourselves and each other that enabled us to progress so quickly and have the resources to take out the meteor with plenty of time to spare.

Teaching kids with Eco

I have an affinity for macroeconomics, and Eco won me over by enabling me to indulge that. And I think that older high school students could learn a lot from playing like my group. That doesn’t mean Eco wouldn’t work with younger students.

The way we had the game difficulty set, we didn’t end up encountering too many of the ecological problems. OK, we almost killed all the forests and Elk, but we were able to move from high-pollution machines to zero-pollution machines quickly. But as Eco continues getting updates in Early Access and players set their server settings appropriately, I would imagine that even young kids could see the lessons in learning to deal with deforestation, overhunting, and industrial pollution.

I think teachers would also find that their students quickly fall into roles and create a micro-society. And educators would have a lot of opportunities to use their students’ interactions as a launchpad for discussions about analogs in the real world and about how the players can use the in-game legal system to ban or limit certain activities that is detrimental to everybody.

It has a ton of potential, and I’m absolutely enthralled with it. My plan now is to take some time off and maybe come back after a few updates or enters a finished 1.0 version. And then I’m going to see if I can get up to 100 people playing because my dream is to have multiple cities on the same server dealing with these issues instead of just multiple individuals in one town.