A VICE documentary sheds some unflattering light on play-to-earn games, particularly Axie Infinity, and how they can be exploitative.

In 2021, many people earned a lot of money from play-to-earn games. Leading in this landscape is the title Axie Infinity, developed by Sky Mavis, and many who took part in the NFT game earlier than others made fortunes as they sold the SLP they made in the game for real money for thousands of dollars. However, for a vast majority of players, the story isn’t the same. With Bill Gates calling crypto and NFT “100% based on the greater fool theory,” attention from mainstream media has arrived on the NFT gaming space. This Vice documentary (aired on Showtime but also summarized in this Field Notes episode) explored the darker side of NFT games through their case study of Axie Infinity, interviews with its CEO The Jihoz, and their insights on how the NFT gaming and cryptocurrency economy in general works, and how it could be used to exploit unassuming actors.

The journalists in the video admitted that they did meet people who earned fortunes from the game, becoming overnight millionaires in some cases. But the game’s ecosystem has also been compared to a pyramid scheme, where people who adopted the game earlier are the ones who earned a lot, but those who joined late and are doing the brunt of the work are the most exploited, as they do not earn as much as they’ve invested into the game.

The VICE reporting also noted how NFT Gaming is just regurgitating Capitalism, but this time in the digital space, promulgated by organized groups called Guilds. In Guilds, proprietors organize rental systems where they lend NFTs to their “scholars”, who are usually people with less capital investment capabilities, in exchange for the cryptocurrency they earn from playing the game. Guilds also facilitate tutorials and learning sessions to help their scholars learn the ins and outs of the game in order to earn even more cryptocurrency.

While some proponents of NFT Gaming portrayed the game as an alternative to the 8-5 day job, VICE noted how the game’s economy actually reflects real-life capitalism in how there are landowners, lendors, lessees, and lessors, with the power ultimately being concentrated on the top – on those who have the monetary capital to invest into the space. There’s also the concept of governance tokens – cyrptocurrencies that are earned by those who own “land,” pieces of digital space that usually cost a fortune. These governance tokens are separate from the cryptocurrency earned from playing the games and are used as a voting stick when it comes to community decisions made about the future of the NFT game. The VICE documentary noted how this concentrates power away from the gamers and puts the power in the hands of the landowners, i.e., the people who can afford to buy lands and earn governance tokens.

Anyone financially secured who invested in NFT games could still get out and live another day – investors who could move on from the bearish market that plagues the NFT space right now. But for the scholars and other smaller-time investors who entered the scene when the prices are already going down – they are losing more than just the money they invested into the game. The players did not only lose the money they invested in buying NFT but also the time they spent playing the NFT games.

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The documentary also noted how NFT games are much more popular in the Global South, highlighting how NFT Gaming could end up preying on the financially vulnerable, putting people in precarious financial situations because of the games they play to earn.

Over the past year, SLP, the cryptocurrency of the game Axie Infinity, lost over 98% of its value. As experts have correctly projected, cryptocurrencies will only gain value as more people adopt the currency. With the game winding down, it looks like SLP will never recover its former value. Introducing people into the ecosystem for the gain of the people who joined the community earlier than them led to some of the people in the documentary comparing NFT gaming to Ponzi schemes. Since not everyone can win in the game, there are definitely big losers who ended up losing a ton of real money in NFT games. This is not just FUD – fear, uncertainty, and doubt – holding unto your SLP will not lead to gains later on. Economics says that SLP will continue losing value and that spending your time on Axie Infinity to earn money isn’t profitable.

The lesson? Playing games you enjoy will bring you happiness even if you don’t earn money from them. But when you play games to earn money, and it stops giving you money, and you don’t even enjoy the game, then you not only lose the money you invested into the game, but you’ve also ended up wasting your time.