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Opinion: Play-to-earn feels like a disaster waiting to happen

I do not want to rent out my Pokemon.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

December 9, 2021

13 Min Read
An assembly of Pokemon merchandise and games
Image by Branden Skeli via Unsplash

I swear blockchain gaming is going to turn me into the Joker.

The drumbeat of blockchain gaming is marching ever forward. We've moved past the barrage of quarterly financial reports explaining to investors that yes, these big money-making companies will grind up some CPU juice to make them more profit slurry, thank you very much. Now we've got Ubisoft taking out columns saying that it wants to do blockchain gaming "right," and launching its own NFT platform called Quartz. 

It wants to assuage our fears and assure us that it is making this technology "For the players." It's just as unhappy about the environmental issues, scams, and marketing stunts as you are. And it wants to bring a bright future of earnable, ownable digital property to players.

I remain unimpressed. In fact, I may be further repulsed.

At first I thought the collective NFT hype was some headache-inducing repeat of Beanie Babies or the '90s comics boom built entirely on alternate cover and first issue speculation. It seemed like a bubble ready to pop (and it might be). But "play to earn" has started to enter the discourse, and I have only found myself growing more uncomfortable with the fantasies being pitched.

I'm just going to say it: Play to earn feels like a trap. Like the grifters are shady contractors knocking on your house and are already picturing what they can do with the money you give them to do literal damage to it. A number of game developers are warming up to the idea of players who can directly participate in in-game economies to earn real money. It's a fantasy I feel we should be fighting at every turn.

I will give you *one* allowance

Let's--and this is a big allowance--sidestep the numerous environmental concerns about blockchain gaming. Supposedly if the algorithms used to generate additions to blockchains are switched to the "Proof of Stake" methods (or other alternatives), the electricity usage drops out like a rock. 

I'm very skeptical about that possibility. Blockchain engineers like Bob McElrath have written about how the inherent value of Proof of Work algorithms is that the work done to generate blocks has value. Just like how I once sold my time to a family farm to haul Christmas tress around, server owners sell the labor of their machines to generate value for specific currencies.

Proof of Stake unhooks coin mining work from that equation, and may create stability issues that deter blockchain operators from using it. Blogger Abhishek Sharma makes a similar case. 

If Proof of Stake holds up, great. It does solve one issue. If it doesn't, it's gonna sure look tempting to run right back to the energy burning in Proof of Work. It feels like moving the goalposts without addressing the ethical issues underneath. 

We're going to skip ahead to the model that's really got the investors' tummies rumbling: the play-to-earn model. In play-to-earn models, players use blockchain verification methods (transactions stored in the blockchain ledger, yadda yadda yadda) to have proof of ownership over digital assets. Make a cool house in Minecraft? Sell it for coin that you can cash out into fiat currency. 

Open a digital card pack in a collectible card game and get a neat card? Rent it out to other players who can use it while you're not playing in exchange for coin that can be cashed out into a fiat currency.

Make great content about a game? You can---okay, I don't actually know what blockchain Gaming does for streamers just yet. One of you is going to pitch this in my inbox, I know it. Just stay out of my Twitter DMs.

I have read these pitches, and been told dreams about what players could do if they could make real money--money that could pay for food, or housing--off of their creativity or labor in video games. And still my stomach churns.

These systems are really not far flung from what players can do in games right now. And Ubisoft and their cohorts know it. A group of high school friends in World of Warcraft could cut deals with each other that while the rest of them are working, whoever is online farms gold to repair armor after the next raid. A Minecraft teenager who's got a knack for building houses could take cash from their friends to make cool things for them. 

A World of Warcraft orc in a mining outfit

Roblox creators literally pay each other in Robux to make content for their creations. I don't even like that particular system, but it doesn't burn more electricity than Argentina or Facebook, and I think the solution has a lot more to do with social services and safety nets rather than fundamental issues with the model.

Then of course there's the dark, annoying black markets that have plagued online game developers for years. Gold farmers. Account boosters. DDOS attacks on centralized servers. I can empathize with the idea of looking for silver bullets that could knock these out for good, especially when the direct systems that could undermine these efforts (like selling in-app currency) could directly interfere with the rest of your game systems.

But is the solution to turn all this play, all this free time, all this relaxation, into labor? Really? Really?

I do not want to rent out my Pokémon

When you point out that the possibilities blockchain gaming is offering are super close to existing game systems to blockchain advocates, you might see an exchange that looks like this:

(note: I am paraphrasing this from an actual Twitter exchange).

Advocate: "With blockchain technology, you can truly prove that a digital item is yours, and create systems that allow you to extract wealth from the value of your labor. You can exchange goods, services, and more."

Me: "Didn't Pokémon solve most of these problems already? I can trade Pokémon. I can customize Pokémon to make them my own using nicknames and little costume doodads to make it feel like my own. And if a friend needs a Pokémon-related service from me, like leveling, trading, etc., I can ask them for something in exchange if I really need it."

Advocate: "Ah but you can't make money off your Pokémon."



Pokémon, and most other video games, represent leisure and relaxation. It is positively gross to begin thinking about them as a tool for labor.

Throw Pokémon out of the equation for a second (though god is it gross to think of someone renting out a Pikachu. Or a Lugia. Or any of these creatures who are often designed to embody the sanctity and beauty of nature.) Why on earth is the desired endgame here that I should be taking something I do in my downtime and turn it into work?

With the first-person in full effect here, we should be clear that I already do this. I play games in my downtime that I turn around and write about. I took a passion for writing, something I could have done all on my own, and decided to make a job out of it. I willingly took on the costs and risks affiliated with this line in the hope that the upsides would outweigh them.

(They have! Mostly.)

And I'm lucky I had a choice. Very few people on this planet have that choice. They have a far greater choice of how they spend what downtime they have, and when we think of downtime, do we really need to add video games to the list of monetizable hobbies?

It's like someone read Jane McGonigal's book Reality is Broken, read the bits about players putting collectively billions of hours per year developing these incredible skillsets, skipped the part about needing to apply some of that mindset back to the real world--making our world better--and just went "wait, people are WORKING, for FREE, how can we make money off that???"

Because make no mistake Ubisoft is not going down this path out of the goodness of the Guillemot family's hearts. There's gold in them/thar hills and they want a chunk of it. This project is not being pitched onstage at E3, it's apparently not going to be at The Game Awards. It's being pitched to investors, and now they are scrambling to get ahead of the curve of all the other investment pitches that are making their pitch look weaker and less enticing. 

It's curious that Ubisoft is interested in sharing the rewards of player labor, because they've actually got some fairly functional systems in their games that do that without blockchain. The Assassin's Creed games of late have let you recruit NPCs created by other players to help you with certain in-game missions. And you can send out your own NPC to earn some coin, which helped players navigate the in-game economy. 

These systems evolved from some earlier Assassin's Creed systems where players would build guilds of Assassins (or pirate Assassins that one time) and send them out to do timed chores that might take hours. Now I can't help look at such a system and wonder if it could be the top-layer for letting Ubisoft turn my game console into a "work" machine when I'm not using it. Maybe sending my Assassin on a quest gives them permission to run my PS5's CPU? (PC manufacturer Razer is already playing in this world).

I don't know! This all sucks and make me distrust Ubisoft even more than I already do.

hirable jomsvikings from assassin's creed valhalla

"Play to earn" is already a reality in some blockchain games like Axie Infinity. And credit to those developers, they did it. They put their money where their mouth is, charged players $600 in their proprietary currency to start playing, and enthusiastically supported the idea of "scholarships," where well-off players could allow lower-income players to play the game in exchange for some of their profits.

And then it worked so well it became a primary source of income in The Philippines for a minute--at least until the value of the cryptocurrency dropped below the value of The Philippines' currency. Congratulations, you made digital sweatshops.

Design models that turn in-game time into money can easily be turned into new vessels of crunch, grind, and overwork, especially in a future where climate crises and pandemic-adjacent events disrupt our economy. Putting boundaries on those systems (max payouts, forced logouts) probably kills the profit potential on hand, and makes it not worth pursuing for player or developer.

Because "the grind" is inevitable. It is waiting for us. Many of these games are already different grinds---hills and valleys of fun and frustration with artificial rewards waiting at the other end. 

It takes me 3 months of 10-12 hours of Apex Legends per week to complete a battle pass I paid $10 for. Where does that system go if I should be spending 10-12 hours of Apex per week earning money to feed my cats? And in a question that's really, really niche, how do I cover Apex Legends as a journalist if I'm earning money from playing it? How can my friends take my Apex Legends recommendation seriously if they know getting them to play could help me earn money? 

Loba and Wattson from Apex Legends in pirate skins

There is something bad out there waiting for us

You ever have a conversation with someone neck-deep in a multi-level marketing scheme or other scam? How hypnotized they seem by it? How defensive they suddenly get if you ask questions about its long-term viability? There are a few high-profile types in the game industry who are starting to sound like that. 

That rant Kevin Pereira had on G4 about NFTs was real weird in that way. It felt like the final end of those conversations, that point where you realize someone is defending a financial scheme to you because they are making money off of it.

There are questions I have about "play to earn" right now that advocates are ready and willing to skate over with "we'll figure it out." How will any of this be regulated financially? Who pays taxes on game labor to what governments? Kids already play a ton of M-rated video games, what happens if a kid gets in on this system? Is it child labor?

"We'll figure out" is the magic buzzword that solves these questions, because yes, you can figure it out. Companies are great at bending regulators to their will, or did we all forget the 2008 financial crisis? Child labor is just another solvable issue, since none of these companies really have to deal with any consequences with the fact that minors violate their TOS by being minors on their platforms anyway. (Facebook doesn't, why would Ubisoft?)

I need to leave behind the giggle-inducing pun of "minors being miners in video games" because I know that to some of you, I sound like that annoying guy in the meeting. I'm the dream killer. I'm the "it's too hard" guy. I have been in meetings with those people, and I am as frustrated with them as you are. If blockchain gaming has any good ideas in it, yeah, then the problems are worth solving.

But I am really, really scared that there are no good ideas, just more exploitation. Game developers are not in the business of financial securities or currencies. They sell leisure products--products which really should be accessible to people of all classes and abilities. 

Leisure products are obviously impacted by the unstable economic waves that shake our world, but the gods know enough people are relying on this volatile industry to pay their rent as it is. Should people who have no other opportunity than to be good at our games be reliant on us to keep them in house and home?

Think about the pressure this puts on development teams. If a weapons designer needs to nerf a gun in a live game, whose livelihoods does that impact? A designer on a collectible card game needs to nerf a card that's being rented out. Should they be sweating about the people who will lose money over this? A white hat hacker lets the developer know that they've found a security breach, and now the game goes down for maintenance. Everyone involved is already stressed about the company's revenue in that case--should they be stressing out about their user's revenue too?

Video games, for the most part, do not deal with those problems. They are a welcome distraction from it. And when they are good, they can help us process the world, and send us back with tools to process those situations. Game developers get to figure out what is fun in life, (or if a game isn't meant to be fun, we'll at least say "engaging") and bring that sensation to the world.

Work, no matter how great it is, is not fun. Without good social safety nets, it is how people stay alive. This is not a role the game industry should be eagerly working toward.

It is going to suck major ass if I am here on Game Developer dot com writing about how game creation revenue is now the top job creator for the kids of generation Z. It will suck extra ass if my livelihood will be based on grinding currency out in some unmade MMORPG.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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