For a brief, heady moment during the pandemic, people in some parts of the world, especially the Philippines, were turning to video games for work rather than pleasure.
The “work” was flexible, could be done remotely on a smartphone, and appeared at a time when COVID-19 was devastating people’s lives and incomes.
These were not professional e-sports players, or people who make a living live streaming their gaming exploits on Twitch.
Shealtielle Blaise De Jesus describes herself as an “average player” who turned to gaming for one reason: money.
“I decided to play [the game] Axie Infinity as I needed extra money as a student,” the 20-year-old Filipina said.
Learning to play was a challenge, but during her most successful playing period, Ms De Jesus said she was able to earn around 1,500 pesos ($37) a week — a decent additional income for a student.
A gaming gig economy?
So-called “play-to-earn” games incorporate blockchain technology, which allows players to earn tokens they can exchange for real currency.
Ben Egliston, a postdoctoral research fellow at Queensland University of Technology, said some investors characterised Axie Infinity as a flexible way to make money at home during the COVID pandemic.
“It’s really framed as how a lot of gig-economy-style companies talk about themselves, as offering people flexible working arrangements … [and the possibility of] making as much money as you want theoretically,” Dr Egliston said.
But like the gig economy, Dr Egliston said, play-to-earn games were deeply exploitative in practice, especially when it involved low-income players in the developing world.
To play Axie Infinity, the most well-known play-to-earn video game, gamers had to purchase NFT (non-fungible token) characters with real currency that last year cost hundreds of dollars.
Players who couldn’t afford to buy their own characters could rent them off investors who owned characters and would then take a cut of the in-game currency they earned.
These players were known as scholars, and the investors who rented their assets were known as managers.
“Investors have said, ‘what if we just start buying these assets and leasing them out to low-income players’,” Dr Egliston said.
“You’ve got these sorts of wealthy ‘whales’, essentially, who own these crypto assets, who are then leasing them out to these other players who are receiving a cut.”
A spokesperson for Sky Mavis, the developer behind Axie Infinity, said it was not a play-to-earn game.
However the Axie Infinity website teaser states “join the blockchain gaming play to earn revolution with Axie Infinity!”
The company also references “play to earn” elsewhere on the site.
The spokesperson said the ability for players to earn tokenised resources and sell them on an open marketplace enabled some players “to earn a living from the game”.
He said the game allowed players who were “scholars” to generate resources without taking on any risk.
The usual split between manager and scholar was 70:30, he said.
“Without any risk to the scholar, where is the exploitation,” he said.
The spokesperson said a new version of the game, Axie:Origins, would be released soon, and players would be able to join for free “without having to use a middle-man”.
‘Blessed and stressed’
In 2021, as well as trying play-to-earn herself, Ms De Jesus investigated the experiences of Axie Infinity players in the Philippines as part of a university research project.
“Mostly, our participants answered that they were really blessed, really lucky to have this opportunity because when the COVID-19 pandemic struck a lot of people lost their jobs, or they couldn’t go outside,” she said.
“So, they were really thankful for [Axie Infinity] and they didn’t mind the stress as long as they were earning money.”
The stress experienced by the 20 players Ms De Jesus interviewed derived from the relationship players [scholars] had with their managers, she said.
Ms De Jesus said players worried they could not meet the minimum daily quotas set by their managers if they suffered a losing streak.
A lack of sleep and irritability after long hours spent in front of a screen also took its toll on players, Ms De Jesus said.
While the term play-to-earn might be new, Dr Egliston said the ethical concerns around potential labour exploitation within crypto gaming hierarchies was not new.
Emerging in the early 2000s, players of games like World of Warcraft could earn in-game currency and sell it via a third-party exchange for real currency to players who did not want to spend the time amassing it themselves, Dr Egliston said.
This practice led to “gold farming”, where an emerging digital working class, most of them in China, played games for hours on end to generate in-game currency which was then sold for real money to wealthier players.
“It was basically a case of outsourcing labour to poor rural areas in China, as well as incarcerated people in some instances, to just sit at their computers and generate these kinds of in-game assets,” Dr Egliston said.
“There are real lessons that we can learn, looking back at the much earlier era of play-to-earn games, even if it wasn’t really called that,” Dr Egliston said.
Too good to be true?
Ms De Jesus said she stopped playing Axie Infinity because of the recent crypto currency crash.
“I lost my excitement to continue playing because of the SLP [in-game currency] value,” she said.
“I noticed that the players on multiple communities were converting their SLP into cash as soon as possible … [there was] panic selling.”
According to Bloomberg, Axie Infinity had around 2.7 million daily users at its peak in April 2021.
Last week, the game had around 111,000 active players.
But the recent cryptocurrency crash is not the only force behind the drop in value and declining player numbers of Axie Infinity.
In March, hackers stole almost $921 million in cryptocurrency linked to Axie Infinity.
“There’s also fundamental problems with the economics of these games, which haven’t quite been solved yet,” Paul Delfabbro, a professor from the University of Adelaide’s School of Psychology, said.
As players generated more and more in-game currency, the value of tokens decreased because the act of generating more tokens from nothing was inflationary, Dr Delfabbro said.
“People suddenly discover that the returns they get from the games go down over time and that’s been the experience with some of those other popular games like Axie Infinity, which have emerged in the last two years,” he said.
Dr Delfabbro said critics had rightly labelled such games Ponzi schemes because they can only succeed when more players buy into the game.
The Sky Mavis spokesperson denied Axie Infinity was a Ponzi scheme and referred the ABC to the economy and long-term sustainability section of the company’s white paper.
The spokesperson also said the company had conducted “economy-balancing efforts” within the game to ensure more of the in-game currency was “burnt” — spent in-game — while playing Axie Infinity rather than exchanged for real-world currency.
This could reduce the inflationary effect of players generating tokens.
Dr Delfabbro said many game developers were trying to solve these issues to create sustainable play-to-earn models, and “tokenised” activities would continue to emerge in many contexts.
“It’s a whole movement towards using tokens and credit systems to reward different behaviours, some of which may be positive, some of which are more extrinsically motivated to earn money,” he said.