Grimes is not a communist. The tech-consumed star, who’s well known for daydreaming about futurist utopias, said just that on Instagram last month, in a caption to a paparazzi shot of her reading Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, shortly after her breakup with billionaire and amateur space explorer Elon Musk. “Although there are some very smart ideas in this book,” she wrote, “personally I’m more interested in a radical decentralized ubi [universal basic income] that I think could potentially be achieved thru crypto and gaming.” One month (and one failed promise to quit the internet and fame altogether) later, Grimes posted a TikTok digging into this thought, what she described as one of her “crazy ideas [which] make people super upset sometimes”: wealth distribution though gaming.
In the TikTok, Grimes, 33, admitted that she hasn’t been following the topic “super deeply,” but she said her ears perked up when she heard about an online, NFT-driven game called Axie Infinity. In that TikTok video, Grimes cited a recent Rest of World article, which opens with the story of a man in the Philippines who was making his living just by playing the Vietnamese game. By logging on for an hour a day, the former poultry feed-seller started netting double his normal income — earning approximately $2,000 finding tradable digital goods in the game and selling them for cryptocurrency.
When that piece published in August, one of Axie Infinity’s in-game tokens, AXS — which was worth mere cents at the beginning of the year — was valued at about $70; by the end of November, it was hovering around $140. As Grimes pointed out, any player with AXS can log onto the exchange platform Coinbase, trade AXS for the Ethereum (ETH) cryptocurrency, and then cash in that ETH for fiat money like the dollar. “It just kind of got me thinking,” she said.
Grimes believes that most manual-labor jobs are replaceable parts of an archaic system that will be blown away by artificial intelligence and automation tech. But she doesn’t see that as a bad thing, especially if the everyman could earn big by doing “enjoyable, creative things while engaging with beautiful art.” “That takes up way less of their day than if they were, like, working in a field picking strawberries,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of games could have their in-game currency traded on Coinbase. What would that do for the world? Why would you be a janitor when you could play video games? The tradeoff seems significant and the improvement to human life seems amazing.”
Dystopian undercurrents aside, her on-camera hypothesizing, unsurprisingly, is as idyllic as it is half-baked. “I’ve seen a lot of great ideas that came with great promises — micro-tasking to create new livelihoods for the poor; blockchain to end corruption and authoritarianism; open software to bring down capitalism,” says professor Richard Heeks, director of the Centre for Digital Development at the University of Manchester. “Most of these things follow a standard hype curve and then settle down to make some marginal difference. Maybe blockchain will be different but the hunch is if it starts being that different it will get co-opted and regulated by state agencies. As for redistribution of wealth from tech innovations? Don’t hold your breath.”
That doesn’t mean her game of choice isn’t promising. Axie Infinity’s website boldly describes the project as a “player-owned economy,” and its white paper even refers to it as a “job platform.” The blockchain it relies on tracks all transactions in a public-facing manner, meaning that anyone who accesses can literally see the worth of the game and its coins and therefore more accurately determine the worth of their time and skill. “We believe in a future where work and play become one,” reads the white paper. “We believe in empowering our players and giving them economic opportunities. Most of all, we have a dream that battling and collecting cute creatures can change the world. Welcome to our revolution.” So far, Axie Infinity has generated $33 million dollars in daily transactions; the total volume is over $3.5 billion.
To earn in Axie Infinity — which now boasts more than two million monthly active users, with the U.S. as its third-biggest market, according to Active Player — players can battle with their cartoon blobs, called axies, and if they win, they receive AXS and/or Smooth Love Potion (SLP), which can be used to breed axies or sold on exchanges. (The game, according to the white paper, was inspired by Pokémon.) They can also sell the axies they create to other players in the Axie Infinity marketplace. And they can explore their land and gather any resources they find.
But before they can do anything at all, newcomers must have three axies to kick off their adventure. At press time, the cheapest axie for sale was priced around $100, while others are listed for millions. (Axies can have a wide variety of genes and traits, and some are rarer or more skillful than others; stronger axies give users a better chance at success.) For those who don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend before they make, there are “scholarships”: Experienced veterans with a surplus of axies give newcomer “scholars” a starter pack and teach them to play in exchange for a cut of the love potions they gather.
This program “can be quite an enabler of social mobility or improved quality of life for some people,” says Josh Ong — a marketing consultant who advises multiple play-to-earn (P2E) gaming teams, and serves as an ambassador for The Sandbox, a platform for the buying of virtual land and building of metaverse worlds; Ong has friends who run an Axie teams of scholars. “In some countries, your decision process isn’t ‘Would I rather play Axie or Fortnite?’ Your decision is ‘Would I rather play Axie or go work in a factory?’ My hope for people who have Axie scholars and teams is that they’re super humane about it and thoughtful about creating a business arrangement in a way that’s non-exploitative and fair.” In considering that the modus operandi of decentralized communities is “see something, say something,” his hopes don’t seem totally ridiculous.
To get an idea of how players could be exploited, one only need to look to gold farming — the concept of gamers selling in-game coins and beneficial goods off-platform to other players for cash — which has been around since the late 1980s. In 2017, some Venezuelans turned to gold farming as the country’s economy crashed, and crime, corruption, and poverty surged. The games people were playing then were more primitive ones — and certainly not blockchain-based — like Tibia and RuneScape. And vulturous groups would transfer Venezuelan bolivar into these farmers’ bank accounts in exchange for their service.
At the time, Bloomberg talked to multiple citizens who were hunching over computer screens — sometimes for 11 hours a day — to support their families via mystical virtual quests. Eventually, many started making enough money to cause inflation that “spiraled into quadruple digits,” as Bloomberg reported. Said one source: “It’s shameful. I never thought game currency would be worth more than our country.”
In 2007, the New York Times profiled a Chinese man who gold-farmed in World of Warcraft for 12 hours a night, only to earn about $1.25 for every 100 coins he handed over to a supervisor at a small company that was employing him for his virtual work. (The boss would then sell them for three dollars to an online retailer, which would finally sell to American and European players for $20, according to the Times.) But the difference between Axie Infinity and World of Warcraft — or Tibia or RuneScape, for that matter — is that in the new game, generating real-world revenue is not only encouraged, it’s an integral part of the game’s foundation. In traditional games, selling goods for fiat money was considered illicit, making it easy for an employer to exploit workers: If they spoke up, their actions could get them banned.
As for Axie scholars, a slew of Reddit listings suggest that 50/50 splits are common. Transparency is key in maintaining what both sides consider a healthy dynamic, and the outspokenness of chatroom culture appears to be keeping any potential bad actors at bay. Scholars also have the ability to rise through the ranks and become managers over time. Currently, there are no set rules for scholarships, since they came from the community and weren’t created by Axie Infinity — but founder and COO Aleksander Leonard Larsen tells Rolling Stone that his team is working on creating official, regulated scholarship programs and tools.
Mastering the game becomes even more incentivized if and when Axie Infinity introduces governance, which Larsen says should arrive in the next year. The idea is that the more AXS tokens one has, the more ownership they get over the Axie Infinity game, since AXS holders are to be treated like a government and receive tax revenues via marketplace fees. Different levels of governance would give certain players the ability to vote on future operations-related decisions and updates. Under that model, the developers at parent company Sky Mavis — who hold approximately 20 percent of all AXS tokens, according to the white paper — thrive as the community grows. By continuing to update the game’s capabilities in various ways, capping the amount of times an Axie can breed, and charging breeding fees, the developers believe they can create enough value to combat crazy inflation from too-fast growth.
Still, the idea of completely basing one’s living off something as volatile as crypto is perplexing. And while the value of AXS has increased, the game’s developers made it harder to earn lots of SLP in order to protect its value, which has actually decreased. (According to NFT Radar, earning $1,500 a month was common pre-August — but by September the daily average SLP gain resulted in about $180 a month.) In fact, they are continuously working out kinks. Throughout July, users flooded Twitter with complaints about server crashes and game glitches, resulting in some users apparently losing the money they had earned. (“Please fix the servers ASAP, I am hungry and need to produce SLP to sustain my wive and 6 children,” one Twitter user wrote.) The developers chimed in on Twitter and Discord with updates every few days, thanking people for their patience and admitting that recovery could take weeks. In October and November, there were still complaints of server issues — albeit not as much. Moreover, without the governance elements in place, games that aren’t fully decentralized could just vanish without warning: According to Axie Infinity’s terms and conditions, the site itself will technically be provided “as available” — and the developers have the right to delete accounts without reason and without warning.
“It’s high risk,” Larsen says. “It’s an experimental technology. But we think that we’re making massive change to how jobs are being created in the world.”
While Axie Infinity might be the biggest play-to-earn game online at the moment, other likeminded enterprises are barreling in. It’s no secret that 2021 has been full of blockchain hype. According to a DappRadar report, NFTs had generated more than $10 billion during this year’s third quarter, up 704 percent from Q2. Year over year, the increase was at 38,060 percent. And DappRadar stresses that the “play-to-earn movement” in gaming is a key driver, attracting “millions of users across several blockchains.” DappRadar also specifically calls out Axie Infinity as the “spearhead” of the movement.
Overall, Ong says that the P2E movement right now “is kind of focused more on the E than the P”: “A lot of games are blowing up not because they’re fun to play but because they’re earning people money.” He adds that, at their core, P2E games are really just an introduction to decentralized finance (DeFi) — a money model that avoids banks and brokerages, wherein transactions happen rapidly, globally, and 24/7. “If there’s no interactivity, storytelling, lore, or world-building… it’s DeFi with a thin sheen of gaming on top. My hope for the P2E industry is that the playing of the game becomes more well-developed.”
Ong often finds himself playing Zed Run, a blockchain-based horse-racing game, but he also hypes the potential of fantasy trading-card games God’s Unchained and Parallel — and the 100-percent on-chain Furballs, which is similar to Axie in that it revolves around adorably weird-looking critters but is still in its early stages. (Furballs’ creators include a gaming expert who built Words With Friends, a graphic designer who’s worked for the likes of Google and Amazon, and the architect of AirBnb’s programming interface.)
Ong insists that every P2E game needs to be “extremely thoughtful about their tokenomics.” (People in charge of token-based economies consider things like how many tokens to mint and how frequently, and how easy or difficult it is to obtain tokens via challenges, as well as the amount of governance responsibilities that come with certain tokens.) “The really great blockchain games empower their players and owners,” he says. These days, he often gets approached by teams with plans for NFT gaming projects, and sometimes, he says, they “are not any more than concept art and a smart-contract developer.” Entrepreneurial minds are scrambling. “That warrants an element of caution,” he says. “Game development is tricky. Running a robust economy that has free-to-play, paid, and earned [elements] is tricky — especially if you’ve never done it before.” But he believes that the P2E community will learn from both successes and failures in the space, and then adapt. In entering this space, “there is a risk,” he admits, before saying that he encourages anyone and everyone to do their research, much like they would before applying to a job or investing in stocks.
In regard to Grimes’ broad-strokes talk of radical wealth redistribution, Ong chuckles. “It’s very Grimes,” he says. “I love that vision.” But developers are still figuring out if and how a virtual, contribution-equals-reward ecosystem works on a massive scale. He does see the movement as onboarding for some sort of DeFi future, though — because users aren’t just earning while they play, they’re learning about economics. “Can we create a world where there’s enough value around to earn a living through games? That’s the hope. But I understand if there are skeptics. The money can’t come out of nowhere.”