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There is probably no piece of entertainment that has best captured our present and future dystopian times than Charlie Brooker’s television series Black Mirror, and there may be no better (and more cynical) vision of what the current future of gaming could look like than in the series’ second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits.” If you don’t recall, in that episode, society was driven by a “merits”-based currency, which people earned by riding stationary bicycles. They could then use these credits to buy food, virtual accessories, and virtual avatars, or as a way to skip through the mandatory advertising present in the giant video spaces that dominated their living spaces. 

Sound familiar? Ever since going online at about the same time payment processing itself went online, gaming has walked hand-in-hand with similar virtual currencies and rewards. MMOs in the mid-2000s had virtual treasure chests that would soon give way to often divisive loot boxes in games like World of Warcraft. It didn’t take long for loot farmers to game the virtual rewards systems of these MMOs in a scheme that resembled a digital sweatshop.

There now exists a bridge between fiat currency and the items and currency of gaming and virtual worlds that makes the digital sweatshops of the MMO boom look like child’s play and brings us closer to that world of Black Mirror where gamers are pushed into accruing as many “merits” as possible rather than, well, gaming. That is a very dangerous crossroads.

Meeting gamers where they live

The potential for such shenanigans has only grown with the implementation of gaming tokens and NFTs that can be sold for popular cryptocurrencies or “real” currencies on secondary markets, giving way to a “play to earn” model where gamers can accrue income for scooping up virtual rewards and game tokens. When a game publicly implements NFT and tokens under the “play to earn model,” it is usually portrayed negatively, from Ubisoft’s unpopular Ghost Recon NFT to the scammers who were hawking fake Outerverse NFTs

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While “play to earn” has perhaps had a rocky start, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, among others, thinks this new dynamic is an inevitability, and it is difficult to argue with his logic: 

“In five years, you will actually value your time properly. And instead of being harvested for advertisements, or being fleeced for dollars to buy stupid hammers you don’t actually own, you will be playing some on-chain equivalent game that will be just as fun, but you’ll actually earn value and you will be the harvester.”

The numbers back him up. According to Juniper Research, 230 million gamers are expected to buy loot boxes by 2025, generating $20 billion in revenue. Particularly passionate players are also willing to pay high sums for rare items, and are eager to pay real-world money for in-game items when it makes sense.

It is incumbent on the gaming industry to find a way to implement this new wrinkle, a wrinkle not likely to go away, in a manner that is not only fundamentally ethical, but also heightens gameplay instead of distracting from it. The genie is now out of the bottle when it comes to the new economics of gaming backed by virtual goods, in-game tokens, and NFTs, and the industry needs to develop a plan to make sure this new dynamic isn’t overrun by scammers. 

Gaming-first and gamer-first models

One way game producers can integrate this new business model in a way that will make sense to their gaming audience is by adopting “play and earn” instead of “play to earn.” What that means is making virtual items tied to tokens and NFTs a nice bonus instead of the objective. Fundamentally, gamers want to complete a game, not collect loot boxes or become day traders.

As Ohanian pointed out, the integration of tokens and NFTs is only replacing the old monetization paradigms of advertising and in-game items, not the games themselves. Game producers should not let the thirst for these potentially lucrative new channels of monetization undermine the fundamental value proposition, which is delivering a diverting, delighting, and compelling game experience. 

Like any land rush, digital or otherwise, you will always have your fair share of scammers. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that as long as NFTs and tokens are an aspect that enhances gameplay rather than a total profit-seeking replacement of that gameplay, these things can actually be embraced by gamers. For that to happen, the gaming industry has to come together to formulate best practices for both integrating virtual currencies inside and outside games, while being proactive about the anti-fraud measures that will protect gamers. That could mean the industry outlining a set of principles and self-regulations already utilized by crypto institutions, such as Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Know Your Customer (KYC).

Gaming shouldn’t feel like a job or a rewards scheme out of dark science fiction. To avoid a gaming landscape that looks like “Fifteen Million Merits” or a dystopia like it, the industry needs to do whatever it can to stamp out fraud and build out models where earning is an additive game strength, not its sole purpose for being. 

Anthony Charlton is the co-founder and CEO of Utopian Game Labs. He has 30 years as a marketing professional and business strategist across multiple sectors including sport, leisure, and hospitality, and more recently, with specialist knowledge of information technology, the blockchain and the video games industry. Anthony has senior leadership experience in these sectors and has taken a number of businesses from inception to growth and profitability, and ultimately to financial exit. For ten years, Anthony has also been a personal business coach and mentor, and has worked with individuals and organizations to advise on future strategy and C-level planning.

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