• Play-to-earn games could bring digital identity, assets, and ownership into players’ hands as the gaming industry is becoming decentralized.
  • This is how modern video games may introduce new paradigms that lend themselves to a wide variety of emerging digital environments and forms of value creation.
  • These games are also spearheading a recent development: the increasing convergence of the physical and digital worlds.

This article is written by two university graduates. Surprised? Didn’t think so. But what may be more intriguing is how we each paid our tuition. One followed a ‘conventional’ route: a combination of student loans, summer jobs and the good fortune of parental financial support. The other played video games.

Long before esports—the industry of competitive video gaming—was broadly recognized as a profession, popular play-to-earn PC games like ‘Diablo II’ (2000) or ‘Runescape’ (2001) created fully-fledged digital economies, in which the best players were able to make a living simply by being good at the game. Indeed, Moritz Baier-Lentz, one of your coauthors, was able to finance his undergraduate and graduate education by completing in game challenges and selling the resulting rewards for real money—at some point, more successfully than any of the other 13 million active players worldwide.

However, the early 2000s were a ‘Wild West’ of digital assets, virtual ownership, and online identity—and video game marketplaces and transactions were never fully legitimate and secure, making stories like this a case study in crafty individual entrepreneurialism more than a viable professional pursuit.

Enormous growth of gaming industry, built on centralized systems of value

Today, almost 3 billion people around the world play video games, and there is an entire infrastructure around professional gaming— one that has created significant opportunities and wealth for top players. The very best of them are considered athletes: employed as salaried team members, sharing in prize money at tournaments, and commanding lucrative sponsorship agreements. Others monetize live streams of themselves by playing games on viewership platforms like Twitch or YouTube Gaming.

Video games now represent a $336 billion industry, according to BITKRAFT Ventures, accounting for a wide spread of software, hardware, and intellectual property. As gaming has grown to become the world’s largest media category ahead of linear TV, on demand entertainment, film, and music, certain characteristics have developed with it. Importantly, almost all game based economic activity is centralized, giving developers and publishers the rights to everything going on within their games. The business case for this is to capture the billions of dollars generated from the sale of in game content, digital items, and subscriptions—but it also means that the vast majority of players themselves have few ways to share in the value without following the route of professionalization.

This historically custodial model of ownership and profitsharing has persisted as the industry has grown—but it might be on the cusp of transformation, with the arrival of so-called ‘play-to-earn’ games. This type of video game allows players to ‘truly’ earn and own digital assets that they can then sell outside of the game at their own discretion.

play-to-earn games
Historical models for video game ownership like in Diablo II never allowed players to legally own their in-game assets such as hard-earned weaponry or armor.
Image: Diablo II Resurrected, Blizzard Entertainment

Play-to-earn could bring digital identity, assets, and ownership into players’ hands

If individuals are to allocate serious time, attention, and personal investments to digital environments, establishing trust in the durability of their digital presence and goods—as well as their economic robustness—is paramount. Early implementations show that this is indeed achievable with blockchain technology, which, using cryptography, can ensure digital trust and a decentralized storage of value.

Blockchain is already being applied to a broad range of sectors from finance to art—and video games are no exception. Play-to-earn games rely on blockchain technology, including in the form of non fungible tokens (or NFTs), as the foundation for value creation. An NFT is a digitally secured claim of ownership for a unique, non interchangeable digital asset. In practice, NFTs can take many shapes inside virtual worlds: characters, items, land, decorative personalization features such as digital clothing, and more. People ‘earn’ the most valuable items by playing the game very well, and can sell them for real-world money at their own terms.

The true innovation lies in the decentralized integrity and security of these digital items, which—for the first time—can transcend the traditional proprietary, custodial ownership and discretion of a company or even government. As an example, instead of relying on the permission or rules of publishers or other third parties, in game resources from play-to-earn games can be sold freely on marketplaces both inside and outside of the game.

Recently, countless examples of communities have sprung up, highlighting the potential of play-to-earn games in building a new economy. Most notably, a video game called ‘Axie Infinity’ shows that this is more than just a pipe dream. The popular play-to-earn environment, which advanced from 4,000 to 2 million daily active users within few months, has become especially popular in the Philippines and Venezuela. For players in countries like these in the Global South, the income they can earn inside this digital world is far more significant than what their local physical economy can offer.

In addition, ancillary ‘scholarship platforms’ like Yield Guild Games, which enable and educate players in emerging economies to participate in play-to-earn games, have attracted major investment and themselves become billion-dollar companies in a matter of months—eclipsing many of the most popular video games in value. By globalizing the market for game based NFTs in this way, play-to-earn games and their surrounding platforms are examples of frictionless economic opportunity and meritocratic participation across geographies. It’s 2021, and it seems that the world has never been flatter.

For now, it is worth noting that play-to-earn games do not inherently and fully eliminate the centralization found in games: they still require the authority of the publisher to define, issue and constrain the asset that eventually is traded as an NFT. Rather, the greatest promise of play-to-earn games is in their potential to decentralize marketplaces for the creation, ownership and exchange of digital assets, as well as the potential created when these marketplaces are connected to the traditional economy and fiat currencies—allowing players to transfer their digital time, effort and earnings into disposable income in the physical world.

Owning and participating in core pieces of these new worlds brings great financial returns to those who believed; many of whom will be from emerging markets who were quick to move on the opportunities available.

For the players themselves, the play-to-earn model may represent a new and flexible way to make money. But beyond questions around financial reporting and taxation, it also reflects some of the perils associated with the digital economy, which risks creating “humans as a service”: limited job security, precarious relationships between firms and employers, and a lack of social safety nets. Given that freelancers are already overrepresented in the creative economy, these will all be considerations that policymakers will have to take into account.

This is just the beginning: Play-to-earn gaming as the job board for the ‘metaverse’

While play-to-earn is still an emerging niche, it could redefine more than just the gaming landscape. In fact, we make the case that it has the potential to change how people interact with and perceive traditional socioeconomic structures like financial institutions, marketplaces, and governments. This is because play-to-earn games provide a proof of concept for a self-sovereign financial system, an open creator economy, and universal digital representation and ownership that lend themselves to a wide variety of emerging digital environments and forms of value creation.

In fact, it seems that play-to-earn games are spearheading a larger trend at play: the increasing convergence of the physical and digital worlds. And with that, the emergence of the legendary ‘metaverse’—which has been as much at the center to the recent academic debates as it has been the stuff of rejuvenated corporate agendas, most prominently that of Meta (née Facebook). Enticed by visual impressions drawn from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel ‘Snow Crash’ or movies like ‘Ready Player One’, most discussions of the metaverse center around technical details, functional attributes, or end user implementations in the form of high fidelity 3D and extended reality headsets.

But instead, the metaverse may quite simply be the point in time for human society in which digital identity and assets are more meaningful than their physical counterparts. As metaverse startup Koji quick-wittedly points out, through this lens, our transition to the metaverse becomes a socioeconomic shift as a consequence of technology and connectedness. As humans, we value objects and experiences we live in a world and a moment in time in which those objects have been assigned value by society. The metaverse marks the moment in time in which digital assets, experiences and relationships are assigned an even bigger value than our physical surroundings.

And for many people—from the United States to Venezuela and the Philippines—this transition may have just begun.