All Commentary
Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Even Video Game Conferences Need Prices

Ticket scalping lets fans translate their passion into access


Does it strike you as unfair to favor the able over the willing? It does to me. And that’s exactly what happens when in the name of fairness, prices are prevented from rising. When scarce goods aren’t allowed to be rationed by money prices, they get rationed in other ways: ways that are decidedly less fair.

I just bought tickets for myself and my son to attend a popular video game conference. The conference organizers, ostensibly in the name of fairness (although we can’t know their motives with certainty), set the ticket price at a very low $45. They work hard to prevent any secondary markets or “scalping.” This is a real shame. I posit that if they’d charge a higher price and/or allow secondary sales, the event would be fairer and more fun.

They only announce the date of the event and the ticket sale once, with a single Tweet, and it’s a first-come, first-serve madhouse. I had an alert set on my phone for their Tweets, which I’ve been monitoring for months hoping to score a coveted spot. I got an alert minutes after the Tweet finally came, followed the link, and was placed in a digital waiting room for 85 minutes. I couldn’t close my browser or leave my phone during this time, so I essentially had to eat that part of my work day. Finally I got in, paid the $90 for two tickets, and checked out. I succeeded. Minutes later, a Tweet went out that the event was sold out. Scores of heartbroken Tweets followed from those who couldn’t get any in time.

Rich in Passion, Poor in Time and Tech

Many think rationing scarce goods with money is icky, but somehow rationing with time or tech savvy is better.

To see the unfairness in this system, consider a hypothetical but plausible scenario. A young girl is obsessed with video games and this conference is her dream. Her family shares one computer and can’t afford smartphones. Both parents work and the girl is in school most of the day. She has begged her parents to let her go to this event, and a relative has even offered to help her travel there and stay with them during the conference. This is her wildest desire, and she’d give anything to be there.

But her parents are at work and barely understand Twitter. She’s at school and has neither the permission nor ability to access Twitter during the day. She gets home and waits patiently for her mother to finish using the computer to pay bills then jumps on Twitter, only to see that tickets sold out a few hours earlier, before she ever had a chance to buy one. There aren’t any secondary markets. Even if ticket holders end up cancelling, they can’t easily transfer or sell their tickets to her. She’s out of luck.

And luck is exactly the unfair mechanism used to ration the tickets. Across the country people who just so happened to be on Twitter and have a casual interest in the conference can nab a cheap ticket for the heck of it, even if they’re not die-hard fans. Those with lots of time, access to technology, connected friends, or ability to be on Twitter at a moment’s notice get the tickets. Those with all the passion in the world, willing to sacrifice anything for the event, either get really lucky, or get nothing.

Rationing will and must occur. It’s not a question of rationing being unfair; it’s as unavoidable as gravity.

I got the tickets in exchange for $45 and an hour and a half wait. I might not have at $500. I definitely wouldn’t have at $1,000. A great many other people more passionate than I would have at that price or even higher, but that was prohibited.

Those who just so happened to be able to get the tickets got them over those who were willing to work hard for them.

Rationing is Inevitable

Many think rationing scarce goods with money is icky, but somehow rationing with time or tech savvy is better. But you can’t buy more time. You have it or you don’t. Your passion can’t create more of it. Access to inside information or knowledge can’t be obtained as easily as money either.

Money is highly liquid. Those with an intense desire can get more of it more easily than they can get time or connections. Our hypothetical fan could sell her old toys, mow lawns, borrow from a relative, or use holiday or birthday money more easily than she can arrange the entire family schedule to be on 24/7 Twitter alert regardless of time and place. The best thing she could access to translate her willingness was money, which was removed from the equation.

This favors the arbitrarily able over the willing, passionate, even meritorious. Who would you rather have attend a video game convention, those so passionate they’d work an extra job all summer to afford it, or those who happened to be on Twitter and didn’t mind taking a chance on a low-cost ticket?

Letting prices rise to their market level is the most fair means of rationing I know.

Rationing by money is not inferior to other forms. Rationing will and must occur. It’s not a question of rationing being unfair; it’s as unavoidable as gravity. The question is what means are available to access rationed goods? Money is the most liquid, powerful, diverse, and fair way to allow access. And it carries the additional benefit of communicating complex information as prices adjust. Time, luck, status, and other means of rationing are less civilized, less useful, less efficient, and less fair.

This event is a private enterprise so the choice to use non-price rationing is entirely their own. It’s far less damaging than force-backed efforts by governments to limit prices. And for all I know they have reasons I’m unaware of and fans are fine with it. Still, the general attitude of discomfort with price rationing and “scalping” reflects a basic misunderstanding of economics and an assumption that anything with dollar signs is less fair than anything without. Often it’s the opposite.

Letting prices rise to their market level is the most fair means of rationing I know.