Jan 5, 2023

Play to Earn

Dr. Frances Liddell

Just Busy Earnin’

In October 2022, Coindesk reported on the metaverse Decentraland, claiming that it was struggling to maintain active users with as little as 38 daily unique visitors. The report’s data was disputed by Decentraland, who argued to have around 8,000 unique daily users. Nevertheless, this highlights an important issue at hand around metaverses; how do you get users to visit these spaces? And, most importantly, how do you encourage them to stay? 

With the increased interest in metaverses from cultural institutions (CIs), it seems more important than ever to find strategies that can encourage audience engagement. But CIs might not need to look far to find solutions. In the crypto gaming industry, ‘play-to-earn’ (P2E) is an emerging trend that is blurring the lines between work and play. In this model, players are rewarded for investing time and effort into the game through tokens which can be sold on the secondary market or exchanged for fiat currencies. And although not compulsory, P2E often uses blockchain technology to provide players with the chance to truly own their rewards and content. 

Axie Infinity 

One example, Axie Infinity, has gained huge traction in recent years. This is a Pokemon inspired combat game where players battle against each other with their Axie creature NFT, a type of amphibian-like animal. The game is run on two tokens, Smooth Love Potion (SLP) and Axie Infinity Token ($AXS), and these can be earned through breeding, training, and trading Axies for battle. In addition, $AXS is part of the progressive decentralization process of the game, acting as a governance token for players so that they can be part of future decision making of the game. 

In order to join Axie Infinity, players need to hold at least three Axie NFTs, and this has historically been a barrier to entry for many players due to the high prices. In response to this barrier, a Scholarship Programme has formed where NFT holders can lease out their Axies to new players, offering new players a chance to play the game while NFT holders gain a cut of the profits made from playing. 

This Scholarship Programme is just one example of a growing number of gamer guilds in crypto gaming. Guilds utilize P2E to provide opportunities for people to enter the web3 gaming space without having to invest large amounts of their own money. They have been deeply influential in bridging the gap between web3 and gaming audiences. For example, Coindesk reported in August 2020 that Axie Infinity was attracting huge numbers of gamers from the Philippines, many of whom used the scholarship programme to start their gaming journey. 

However, recent research indicates that gaming guilds could also be a catalyst for exploitation  in this emerging P2E model. Firstly, in cases such as Axie Infinity, gamer guilds operate on a rental framework that hugely benefits early adopters who tend to be based in developed countries like the US. When combined with the fact that there is an influx of gamers using guilds from countries such as the Philippines, this suggests that gamer guilds are simply reproducing the unequal ownership of resources in the global economy in which developed countries exploit labor from under-developed countries for wealth creation. 

This is also heightened by the prevalence of ‘grinding’, a term used to describe players who are paid to do the menial tasks in a game for other players.The excess of players keen to earn their keep in the gameplay make Gamer guilds a prime place for this.

And perhaps most concerning, reports on Hackernoon suggest that there have been allegations of sponsors on the Axie Infinity Scholarship programme abusing their power by asking potential players for nude images of themselves before offering one of their NFTs for gameplay. 

P2E and Cultural Engagement 

This high risk of exploitation does not bode well for P2E. However, we should not disregard this model simply because of this risk. 

For example, developing a code of good practice can help to enforce more ethical gameplay. This code of good practice can include legal aspects such as implementing Know-Your-Client (KYC), but should also involve structural changes to P2E so that it focuses more on rewarding meaningful gameplay rather than menial tasks. In doing so, the model encourages users to engage in actions that are both socially and financially valuable. 

One example is the move-to-earn model outlined by the game Genopets, a type of ‘Tamagotchi’ NFT which grows as the player cares for it. The act of caring involves the player moving, and the more steps the player takes, the stronger their Genopet will be. Players use their Genopets in the ‘Genoverse’, a place to build habitats for their Genopet, battle other players and earn through gameplay. In this respect, Genopets adds a new dimension to earning in online gaming that also encourages a more active lifestyle. The player’s investment into the game is therefore both financially and socially valuable. 

CIs could utilize this model in their metaverse engagement strategies by encouraging users to move and explore the different physical and digital spaces of the institution. This could include the metaverse space, the website, or even the physical space. In doing so, this would connect these different aspects of the CI together and encourage a virtuous circle where users have an opportunity to explore the collections in different ways, 

A learn-to-earn model could also extend this idea through educational value. Earn-to-learn encourages players to learn whilst earning, providing them with new skills and knowledge alongside their crypto earnings. Emerging examples of this model include crypto companies such as Coinbase and Coinmarketcap, who are incentivising their users to learn about the crypto ecosystem by rewarding them with micropayments of cryptocurrency as they learn. Likewise, CI’s could incentivize users to learn about the collections through the process of earning tokens. This would offer users the opportunity to invest in themselves through building their knowledge and understanding of culture and art. 

A code of good practice also requires meaningful forms of spending earned tokens. This needs to go beyond exchanging tokens for fiat into  finding valuable ways to spend in the metaverse. For example, an earn-to-give model could encourage philanthropic and altruistic attitudes by allowing users to give their earnings to support specific projects connected with the CI. Alternatively, they could gift them to other users to show appreciation for their contributions or engagement. This would work in a similar way to web3 social media such as Desofy, where users can ‘tip’ one another using the platform’s token, giving creators an opportunity to directly earn from their content. 

Earn-to-own could also be an interesting opportunity where the token signifies a right to be part of the governance process. Axie Infinity’s $AXS is a case in point because it allows players to earn a say in the decision making over the future of the game. Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) also work in a similar way where collectives of people work together using tokens as a transparent voting mechanism. For example, curation DAOs such as Fingerprints DAO or Particle DAO use their own crypto tokens to create a sense of community decision making in producing and curating collections. CIs could also use this idea to create a more democratic process to curating exhibitions or projects in their metaverse space. In doing so, this would enable those who invest the most time into the metaverse to also have a say in how it is designed and used. 

Together, these ideas illustrate how P2E is really only the beginning of a new emerging engagement strategy. Indeed, these ideas showcase the other kinds of values created through P2E that can extend a CI’s mission into their metaverse engagement strategy. As mentioned at the start, we are seeing an increasing number of CIs enter into the metaverse space, and with this in mind, finding new modes of engagement that combine the power of web3 with cultural value will be the key to the future of cultural metaverse spaces.