The Escapist Fantasy of NFT Games Is Capitalism

Thousands of wealthier Axie Infinity players have been renting out their Axies to other players in return for a 30 or 40 percent cut of their earnings. It’s the same with NFT card game Splinterlands’ digital cards, which, according to cofounder and COO Jesse Reich, straddle both an “altruistic and capitalist experience … to increase their financial status and standing.” These other players are often based in developing countries like Ecuador or the Philippines. (Over half of Axie Infinity players are Filipino, according to Sky Mavis). Many of them are part of scholarships or “guilds.” Players rent out their accounts to each other, sharing usernames and passwords, as part of manager-worker relationships organized over Discord. In Axie Infinity’s Discord, dozens of workers “apply” for positions every 10 minutes, sharing why they should be hired, what their gaming experience is, and how good their internet connection is.

After noticing Axie Infinity players sharing their usernames and passwords this way last year, Gabby Dizon, a Philippines-based mobile game CEO, decided to formalize the relationship with Yield Guild Games, a “play-to-earn gaming guild” that stretches across 15 different titles. Siu was an early investor. Dizon laid out the guild’s business model in an interview with WIRED: “We come in, buy and breed Axies en masse, and then lend them out to players.” Players receive 70 percent of earnings, while the “community managers” who recruit and manage them day-to-day on behalf of YGG get 20 percent. YGG itself receives 10 percent and might reinvest those tokens to breed more Axies. Each party receives their cut of the profits automatically, via a self-executing piece of blockchain software, or smart contract, developed by YGG.

“Right now, we have something like 5,400 Axies. Next year, this time, we want to be in the hundreds of thousands,” says Dizon. So far, his bet seems to have paid off: YGG was the recipient of an Andreessen Horowitz-led funding round of $4.6 million in August. In a blog post announcing the deal, the firm waxed philosophical about the actual definition of what a “job” is—and how the concept is evolving because of crypto and gaming. In Dizon’s opinion, Axie and similar titles are not even in the same league as other video games. “These games are actually competing [for players] with other forms of gig work—like Uber, or Grab or Gojek, where you’re delivering food for someone and get paid a small amount for it,” he says. “Why not work from home, play this game, and get paid in tokens, instead?”

The rise of Axie Infinity is happening as the boundaries between investing and gaming have grown porous. Apps like Robinhood have helped turn investing into entertainment while also lowering the barriers to entry by offering commission-free trades. Cryptocurrency exchanges have also grown more mainstream, providing improved access to investors who hope to make a few bucks off crypto’s volatile prices. The idea that investing is for everybody, including people who have no experience with financial institutions, could be attributable, in part, to Covid-19 and the financial volatility many experienced over the last two years, says Jill Carlson, founder of the economic research nonprofit Open Money Initiative: “That woke people up to the system,” she says. “You’re seeing this volatility and having questions like, ‘Why shouldn’t I take more control over my financial assets?’” This past year has seen a flurry of amateur investing activity, often taking cues from online communities, from WallStreetBets’ GameStop surge to the popularity of meme coins like Dogecoin of Shiba Inu. The rising weirdness in retail investment behaviors has led the chair of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Gary Gensler, to repeatedly denounce the “gamification of investing.”

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