The Strange Parallel World Of Fictional Currencies

Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 14:59

There are times when real money just won't do the job.  Just as various different currencies have their place in our everyday world, so they also have their place in works of fiction too.  But the currencies you will find in books, in films and on television aren't always ones that you would recognise, even though whole countries and even intergalactic empires are sometimes built on them.

One of the most famous types of fictional currency is Monopoly money.  This is a world famous board game which is based on buying and selling property.  As such it has a learning element to it as well as being a great game.

But there are plenty of examples of fictional currencies in literature of all kinds, both in modern books and in older classics.  While some of these currencies have deliberately strange names – the Whuffie and the Simoleons for example - the most well known example of a fictional currency is taken from many science fiction stories, and is known simple as the Credit.

As such it can be seen that there are two main types of fictional currency – the one that exists purely in words and sometimes in vision (in the case of a computer game for example) and the one that exists in real life, such as Monopoly money.  In both cases however they have no actual value in the real world, however well constructed these fictional currencies are.

But do these fictional currencies exist purely in their own worlds, or do they act in much the same way as our own familiar currencies do?

In some cases these currencies are based on a fictional exchange rate with another currency which does actually exist in the real world.  By pegging it to a genuine currency in this way, the fictional currency takes on a more realistic feel.  The best and most famous example of this is the Linden dollar, which is the currency used on the website that has made a real name for itself online – Second Life.

A single Linden dollar is worth about £0.002, meaning that a hundred Linden dollars is worth about twenty pence in today's money.  Second Life is certainly the most complex fictional currency in existence today (even though that phrase is a contradiction in terms, it describes the situation perfectly), because instead of being a name for an imaginary currency and little more, it is actually just one small part of how this site operates.  The Second Life world contains businesses and services just as the real world does, and because people who are members of the site can buy the fictional currency in order to buy goods in the virtual world, the site has its own complex economy in place.  In essence, it is actually a microcosm of what real currencies and countries go through on a daily basis.  As such it provides a rather accurate – if virtual – mirror that represents this virtual world very neatly.

Many people have suggested that at some point in the future we won't actually have any real currencies anymore.  All our coins and banknotes will disappear and be replaced by a single virtual currency that is exchanged directly over the internet with whomever we choose.  It is very likely that the Linden dollars which regularly exchange hands over in the world of Second Life will be looked back on in years to come as the first real sign of how a virtual currency would work.  Wouldn't it be ironic if it turned out that a fictional currency paved the way for a real one which took over the world?

This is the most interesting part about fictional currencies as a whole.  It is possible that thanks to sites such as Second Life, fictional currencies actually have more potential power now than they ever have before.  A currency that was named but never really seen in a book, on a television programme or in a film doesn't have the same power as one which is actually used by real people – whatever the context of that usage may be.

It also seems that just as with real currencies all over the world, criminals are finding ways to make money through abusing these fictional currencies as well.  There has been a lot of publicity in recent months about people buying and selling those Linden dollars outside of the site itself, and just as with real currency there are penalties to swallow if you get caught.

It might seem strange that a mere fictional currency can have almost as much power as one which exists in the real world, but in reality they aren't so different.  A genuine currency that we deal with every day is only genuine because the government of that country has deemed it to be so.  The virtual powers that be on the Second Life website have similarly agreed that the Linden dollar will be the currency of choice in that particular world.

It seems that fictional currencies have a lot more to share with us than we might at first have thought.  Everyone needs to have some method for buying and selling goods; and as far as books and films are concerned, if those times are set far in advance of ours, or they exist in a world which has little relevance to our own, then a fictional currency can help to set the scene on this new corner of the universe.

It's interesting to think about how long our own currencies may last in the future.  No currency lasts forever, after all, and there is every reason to suppose that there will be just as many changes in the future as there have been in the past.  Will we all be dealing in virtual Linden dollars in years to come, though?  Perhaps not – for there could yet be another global currency waiting in the wings to take its virtual place.