Play-to-Earn Gaming Is Here: Why That's a Good Thing For All of Us

As debates about privacy and the future of the internet rage, play-to-earn is a shining example of an alternate and more equitable path forward. 

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Imagine all those hours you spent as a kid playing Super Mario Bros. — collecting coins, slaying Bowser and saving Princess Peach over, and over and over again. If you're like me, memories like that are a huge part of your childhood or adolescent years.

Now, what if you could have been paid for all that time?

That's the premise behind the new big thing in gaming. It's called play-to-earn and it's quickly moving from a futuristic idea to an everyday reality. On platforms around the world, players are earning rewards that can be bought and traded on real markets for real money. The chance to earn liquid assets is turning heads and converting rookies and longtime gamers alike to this disruptive model of play. But the implications go far beyond just extra pocket money.

These virtual economies are a harbinger of a bigger shift — toward a decentralized web where users control their data and share in the fruits of their digital labor. As debates about privacy and the future of the internet rage, play-to-earn is a shining example of an alternate and more equitable path forward.

Play-to-Earn 101

One of the biggest figures in play-to-earn gaming right now is Axie Infinity — a Pokemon-type game where people can collect, battle and trade these strange little pets called Axies. The game, which has more than a million users, hit $1 billion in transactions back in August. The Philippines has become an epicenter of popularity, where people have been trading and selling Axies to supplement income after losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So how does it all work? The game illustrates many of the fundamentals that make play-to-earn gaming so powerful. First, it runs on scarcity. Just as Bitcoin's value system stems from the fact that only so many bitcoins will ever be minted, the same idea applies to the characters and resources players are trying to collect in Axie Infinity. Second, as the "play-to-earn" name suggests, players are rewarded for their participation. You earn tokens from battling your characters, and the tokens are used to "breed" Axies — the more you battle and breed, the more value you create. And unlike popular games such as Fortnite or World of Warcraft, characters and resources accrued in-game are liquid assets that can be bought and sold on sanctioned marketplaces.

Last, but most importantly, the whole game is built on blockchain. This provides an immutable digital ledger where all transactions are documented — safeguarding value and preempting outside manipulation. Just as important, the money-changing hands is a borderless cryptocurrency, which radically levels the playing field. Think of it this way — one Philippine peso is equal to about two cents in U.S. dollars, but in these virtual economies, every ether or bitcoin is equal to every user. When those are sold and converted into local currency, people in developing countries have the most to gain.

Harbinger of What's to Come

For futurists, this is just the start. While the concept of play-to-earn gaming might seem straightforward enough, these platforms actually anticipate a radical reconception of the Internet, the economy and even our shared reality.

Consider how the Internet started. What we now dub Web 1.0 was a basic interface where anyone could access information on rudimentary websites. That evolved to Web 2.0, where we could participate in creating and sharing content. Monolithic platforms like Facebook quickly found ways to capture and monetize our data — effectively turning users into the commodity. Inside these walled gardens, the platforms set the ground rules and reaped the profits, growing to trillion-dollar valuations, while users got little in return.

What we're seeing now is a major shift to Web 3.0, where concepts like play-to-earn gaming deliberately invert these models. Users own the fruit of their digital labor and are free to sell it for real money. Exactly how they do that depends on the game — some, like Sandbox and Decentraland, see users dealing in virtual real estate. They earn money the same way you can in real life — selling or leasing it to other players.

In other words, what might look like a game is actually a new and more equitable means of participating in our shared digital universe. Ground rules are transparent. Authority is decentralized. Commodities are liquid and finite. Unlike all those hours spent scrolling through Facebook, participation in these games benefits not just the platform but the users themselves.

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