There’s been plenty of talk about all of the problems surrounding NFTs, particularly around their carbon usage, lack of regulation and the way companies are frothingly jumping on board. But there’s another angle to the NFT story, one specifically related to gaming, that’s worth sharing.
It comes courtesy of Play To Earn, an Australian led documentary by Leah Callon-Butler and Nathan Smale. It’s about a Ethereum blockchain-powered game called Axie Infinity, but the interesting angle here is what a rural community in the Philippines’ Nueva Ecija did with it. Axie Infinity is a little like Pokemon, where players battle, raise and breed little blobs that look an awful lot like Kirby with shorter legs. Developed by Vietnamese developers Sky Mavis, the whole game is built around the Axies, which are NFTs, and the cryptocurrency called Axie Infinity Shards (AXS).
In a Coindesk article last year, which the developers credit with helping explode the game’s popularity (in the Philippines especially), the model works like this. Players earn an in-game item called the small love potion, which is used to breed new Axies. Users have then sold those tokens through Uniswap as Ethereum, where that can then be cashed out into something more tangible.
Watching Play To Earn stirs up a wealth of mixed emotions. It’s fascinating to see a small community effectively find itself a temporary — which all multiplayer, online-based games are — revenue stream off fundamentally problematic technologies. And seeing young people and the elderly throw their hopes behind a blockchain powered NFT take on Pokemon is heartbreaking.
“Even if it’s just a little, we are still earning from playing,” one of the elderly players said. “However, that can be used to buy our medicines. Of course, old people like us always need medicine,” the other added.
Imagine having to turn to a mobile game because you couldn’t buy insulin, a puffer, or your regular medicines.
But for a community completely ravaged by COVID and lacking the same financial support that families in major Western nations received — the Philippines didn’t have anything like the size or scale of JobKeeper — that lifeline has made a difference for some. One Axie gamer interviewed in the story talked about covering the debts and paying for food, which is a wild thought. There’s another segment where someone talks about a tricycle driver turned to this crypto game for income. Another 22-year-old spoke about graduating college but there was no jobs available, so they did a bit of crypto gaming on the side.
You can view the whole 18-minute documentary on YouTube below. I have a few problems with it: It’s not critical enough of the ecosystem that’s being created, and it doesn’t question the implications of a rural community sustaining itself on a virtual ecosystem. The developers are mostly absent, too, save for a brief chat with their head of growth who doesn’t really talk about the responsibility that follows all of this.
But those are also questions that are easier to ask when you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, let alone day to day as many workers in the Philippines are. And that’s really a position gamers in Australia, and the vast majority of people, are never really forced to reckon with. So it’s an interesting alternative into the impact NFTs have had, and for that reason alone, I think it’s worth sharing.
I just hope that all creators in this bizarre, crypto-powered venn diagram between video games and wealth generation, takes their responsibility seriously. The lack of regulation in the NFT space is problematic enough as is, and that’s well before you get to the late-stage capitalist nightmare of families and towns turning to NFTs to cover their groceries.