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Someone should make a game about: Day traders

Super Cash Bros.

Hello, and welcome to our new series which picks out interesting things that we'd love someone to make a game about.

This isn't a chance for us to pretend we're game designers, more an opportunity to celebrate the range of subjects games can tackle and the sorts of things that seem filled with glorious gamey promise.

Check out our 'Someone should make a game about' archive for all our pieces so far.

There is, I'm ashamed to admit, a very small part of me that quite likes the idea of being a banker. Or at least a good banker. It's a bit like those adverts for joining the army: if you just ignore all that annoying ethics stuff there's probably something quite exciting about it, being in the thick of the action, doing something all those regular civilians wouldn't understand - and also you get to go skiing.

Day trading, as I (barely) understand it, is the most bankery of banker things you can do. In short it's when you buy and sell shares over the course of a single, fluctuating day, always selling everything by the time that day ends and, hopefully, ending up with a profit. It's something anyone can do if they have the money up front and the right type of investor account. It's also the thing those men's lifestyle influencers are supposedly doing on Instagram, what with their slightly-too-tight-fitting shirts that cling, a little uncomfortably, to their bulging biceps and stop just above their humongous wristwatch, hands pictured artfully hammering away at a Macbook Pro with graphs on it. Caption: rise and grind.

Jordan Belfort (right), of Wolf of Wall Street fame, pled guilty to fraud in 1999. He's also a key inspiration of the #daytrader Instagram craze. Image credit: Jordan Belfort's Twitter (@wolfofwallst).

Anyway, eighty percent of day traders lose more money than they make. It's a fool's game, unless you're extraordinarily intelligent and extraordinarily lucky, because by definition it's gambling. It's impossible to know, without inside trading, whether a stock is about to go up or down. You can know what everyone else knows - this market report comes out at this time on this day - but you can't know what's in it ahead of time. You can't even know, for certain, how the stock market would react to it even if you did know what was about to be announced early. A company might unveil some terrible quarterly results, making you think the price of shares in that company would fall, but they might also be about to be taken over, making the shares rise. It's a bit unlikely that'd all happen on the same day, sure, and there's probably some rule about when those things are announced that makes this a particularly bad example, but you get the idea.

Where this all gets interesting, though, is when you look at where that share's value comes from, because finance people tend to disagree. Some think it's entirely from what's called the "fundamental value", which is how much money you can actually earn from owning the shares over a long period of time, and that comes down to the actual strength of the business, how it might change over time, and so on. It's hard to pin down but at least comes from the idea that there is an actual element of share prices that is based in reality, and that they'll eventually, in the long run, revert to that fundamental price.

Inspirational. Image credit: tradealerts via Instagram.

The other is called "mark to market", and that's the idea that something is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. In other words: it's about perception. So when a company announces those bad results, the share price will drop because other traders think the share price will drop, so they're trying to sell theirs too. It makes this weird, refractive, sort of second-order market, once removed from actual reality, where everyone's buying and selling according to whether they think other people are going to be buying or selling, and suddenly you have to think about not just what something's worth but what other people think it's worth and whether you should adjust for that. A bit like trying to figure out if you should tactically vote.

What strikes me about all of it, really, is that you end up with an entire industry that's just puffed up out of nothing. At the extreme it causes bubbles - and by virtue of those, crashes - where people are buying because they think other people are buying, with no actual, underpinning value to the thing itself, and all it takes for everything to come crashing down is someone with a lot of that thing to sell deciding they've had enough. There's an illusion of complexity to it - which is not to say that the markets themselves aren't complex, or that the algorithms and analysis put together by the geniuses who work with them aren't, indeed, geniuses. But there's this sort of layer of activity going on - performed by far more than just those over-confident practitioners of day trading who make up the unlucky eighty percent - that's entirely removed from the real thing.

It reminds me, bringing this back to games, of Spec Ops: The Line - or more specifically something Emma, Oli, and Christian were saying about it in our games of the decade podcast a few weeks back. There's a layer of that game that is ostensibly bullshit: shooting, looting ammo, reloading, grinding your way through levels. It's all a bit of a dirge, and enough for plenty of people to bow out before it really gets going. But what it's hiding is a layer of real complexity, real depth, from which you can absolutely take something true and tangible. Spec Ops touched on it, loosely, in its sleight-of-hand parable of war. I'd like a game that's even more directly about it: a game with a layer of vacuous, white noise activity, filled with misguided belief that what you're doing matters, spread over something entirely different and entirely more profound.

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