On new year's day, Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda published an open letter. In it, he professed his love for blockchain technology and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), joining Ubisoft, Peter Molyneux, and Stalker 2 developer GSC Game World in similarly popular interventions. He said he hoped that the technologies become a “major trend in gaming going forward.” The letter went over as well as you might expect.
Commentators have pointed out that Matsuda's letter is incomprehensible, slathered in muddy tech jargon. He does, however, make one revealing distinction. In Matsuda's eyes, there is, on the one hand, play for play's sake, or "'playing to have fun' … motivated strictly by such inconsistent personal feelings as goodwill and volunteer spirit brought into being because of individuals' desire for self-expression," and on the other hand, "playing to contribute," a pursuit that should be nurtured by an "explicit incentive"—namely, money. The first, Matsuda seems to suggest, is incomprehensible and weird; the second is smart, normal, and productive.
Matsuda is equating games to work—wage labor, specifically. And framing them in this way, in terms of productivity and worker empowerment, is a gambit to get you to accept technologies like NFTs. You're going to be subjected to this a lot more over the coming years, as some games become truly indistinguishable from jobs.
Since we often describe games as work, using terms like grind and reward, tending to farms in Farming Simulator, logging in to complete “daily quests,” and so on, critics have inevitably questioned whether what we do in video games is play at all.
Certainly, play and work are mirrored. Their distinction is both ostensive and personal: Killing Silver Knights all day on the steps of Anor Londo to get Darkmoon Blade is work because I hate it. But some maniac may do it for fun, just as we pursue leisure activities, like fishing, that other people are paid for. Academics have labeled modding a form of unpaid labor; it could just as easily be seen as a hobby, like painting. Game designers often distinguish between intrinsic enjoyment (playing Halo for 100 hours because you love the feeling of getting headshots) and extrinsic reward (doing the same thing because you want to level up your battle pass for a camo weapon skin). The latter taps into what the anthropologist David Graeber called humans "propensity to calculate," and it's often maligned, but social scoring isn't inherently bad or antithetical to play. Really, I think the average player doesn't care whether a game hews closer to work principles or not.
NFTs take this desire for an extrinsic reward to its logical conclusion: a financial incentive. The idea is ostensibly compelling. After all, games have economies, infamously lucrative ones. You play all day, paying for Gabe Newell's extended vacation in New Zealand, yet, unless you're a lucky streamer, you get only loot boxes in return. Academics often talk about the unpaid "immaterial labor" of logging in to Facebook and having your preferences mined for advertising dollars. Isn't gaming similar? You can follow this logic: Developers are unionizing, why shouldn't gamers? Developers should treat players as corporations treat workers. We 'play to contribute.' We're productive. Just as players demand fairer progression systems, they should demand cold hard cash payments, too.
Axie Infinity, a blockchain-based video game where players collect Pokémon-like pets, tied to NFTs, demonstrates how these "play-to-earn" systems work. Players pit their Axies in combat to win cryptocurrency tokens. In 2020, someone paid $130,000 in cryptocurrency for a particularly rare one. My colleagues have pointed out that this is, at its heart, a capitalist simulation, and some individuals have indeed dragged themselves out of poverty playing the game.
But gaming is different from our day jobs in several extremely important ways, and these differences throw up serious problems, explains Tom Brock, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan. Game companies don't have to treat you like workers, for starters. "Work is more than just being paid," he says. "It's also about various forms of financial, pastoral, and cultural support—being part of a union is part of that, as is having certain protections and rights."
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In this vein, playing Axie Infinity strikes me as an extreme version of gig work. A worrying parallel would be the collapse of Football Index, a UK-based online betting firm that marketed itself as a fantasy league stock exchange. The service was basically a pyramid scheme: Users were encouraged to convert their expertise into dividends but then lost tens of thousands of pounds when Football Index collapsed. (There is, of course, already an NFT sports card game.)
Services like Football Index set the stage for the merging of NFTs and games, with microtransactions and loot boxes sullied by associations with gambling. (Crypto assets are increasingly coming under various forms of regulation in the EU, particularly in relation to money laundering.) Discussing NFTs in terms of worker empowerment is an obvious attempt to distance them from these risky associations: a scam, basically. "Don't think for one minute that, because the games companies are mobilizing this language of work, that they're also going to provide the same provisions and support that you would expect to workers," says Brock. "There's an ideological move here, where you're using the language of work as an incentive but abdicating from the responsibilities of what it is to, you know, pay people for work."
Skipping over criticisms that transcend gaming, NFTs offer players nothing new. As game designer Max Nichols points out, players already receive unique items with a tracked history—there's no need for the blockchain. Furthermore, players can already sell digital goods: Just look at the market for Fifa Cards on eBay. What NFTs do is let publishers bring this market under their control, creating another way for developers to upsell you microtransactions, a priority, Nichols laments, that didn't drive games in the '90s. (It's not even clear how this would work in practice. In another thread, game engineer Jules Glegg points out that transferring a "skin" from one game and dropping it into another is a total pipe dream—just think of the havoc this would play with hitboxes!)
Play has increasingly become a platform for commerce, Brock says. "It seems that there are macroeconomic and cultural structures emerging that seem to want to view play as a productive economic space, or more of a productive economic space, and that this language of empowering the gamer is the means to mobilize that."
Some of this will come down to the players. They will have to be vocal and organized, as they have been about things like pay-to-win systems, while distinguishing what it is they want from play. (And what players want varies between gaming communities. Do the players of Animal Crossing want financial remuneration, for instance? Actually, don't answer that.) Writer and journalist Anna Wiener recently pointed out that the metaverse will look like a video game: Farmville, specifically, was just purchased (alongside all of mobile game behemoth Zynga,) by Take Two Interactive for $12.7 billion. (Games, one expert told Wiener, are perfect for "onboarding crypto.")
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Of course, it's important to remember that many games are nothing like Mark Zuckerberg's proposition that, in my colleague Cecilia D'Anastasio's words, "corporate culture would migrate onto Second Life." Weiner's proposition can be reversed: The metaverse may end up looking like a certain kind of video game, but video games don't have to look anything like the metaverse.
Work has, of course, been stealing play's shine for a long time now—as the ping-pong tables and bean bags in Silicon Valley attest. We are told to love our jobs, but the lie-flat movement and r/antiwork show that, for many, wage labor under a boss is far from ideal. The best most of us can hope for is that we hate our jobs only some of the time. With this in mind, do we really want games to become more like work?
Play fulfills us, with or without financial reward. Yet the idea that we must remain productive at all times is so baked into our culture that when we engage in a pursuit for its own sake we feel bad about it. I'm sad to say I relate to this. When I began working at WIRED, my first thought was that I could finally play video games guilt-free, as they were now part of my job. (This expansion of the profit motive into areas of life we might not have expected has been called something else, too.)
Matsuda's proposal was met with mockery, particularly in Japan. NFTs in games are not popular. But what appears unpopular at first and what proves profitable in the future are often the same thing. (Shares in Square Enix surged after the announcement.) What will be interesting to see is whether the game world splits further. Will it be through indie games that we get the emotional and intellectual benefits of art, while corporate games become digital, dystopian labor camps? (Metaverses, in other words.)
It's probably not that simple. And what is simple may be equally controversial. If we could contribute and have fun, in both work and play, the distinction between the two would become truly academic.
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