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Why We Must Be Careful with the Power of Play To Earn in Gaming

With blockchain games exploding in popularity in recent weeks, Robert Baggs gives us his perspective on the integration of blockchain technology within gaming, and gives us his hopes for the future!

NOVEMBER 12, 2021. OPINION. WRITTEN BY ROBERT BAGGS.

Tectonic shifts in gaming are usually closer to evolution than revolution.

Turn-based games became split-screen, which became LAN, which became the internet we know today, for example. Graphics have travelled from relying almost entirely on the player’s imagination, to photo-realism, with a great many steps in between. That is what makes the advent of blockchain in gaming all the more interesting: it’s been sudden and explosive by comparison.

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When I first realized the potential of blockchain technology for the gaming industry, it was early 2018. I felt decidedly late to the party, and yet there were precious few games even in development.

Despite my best efforts to write previews on upcoming blockchain games, I only managed to play one indie game, in pre-alpha, and it was such early days that reviewing it was akin to having a conversation with a foetus. There was almost no game to test, let alone any blockchain integration, and so like a bewildered nomad, I was left to gaze at roadmaps.

By 2020, there had been noteworthy rumblings of things to come. A smattering of playable games with NFT integration were available, and while playerbases were thin, it felt as if the mighty oak was starting to emerge from the seed.

Fast-forward to the latter half of 2021 – blockchain gaming has exploded, with billions of dollars of transactions fizzing through a variety of blockchains. The term on everyone’s lips is Play To Earn (P2E) and there’s an insatiable appetite for it.

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Play To Earn: The Gateway Between Gaming and Crypto

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There is no use in false modesty, the overriding attraction to crypto was — and still is — financial gain.

Prior to 2021, crypto and gaming were merely flirting with each other behind the bike sheds, far from the radar of the masses. What we needed was a bridge between the two.

There are a great many benefits to cryptocurrencies and blockchain that transcend personal gain, but it’s the collective eyes rolling back with imagined riches that has acted as the greatest on-ramp to the sector. It was logical, therefore, that P2E would be the perfect gateway between these two worlds.

P2E games combine the familiar attractiveness of gaming, the opportunity to make money, and the collectability of NFTs. It’s the ideal progression from crypto as a passive investment, to a more involved and immersive experience.

While P2E is the buzzword and the concept responsible for putting blockchain gaming on the map, it’s far from a flash in the pan. Rather, it’s one of the foundational building blocks on which blockchain gaming will grow into just “gaming”.

So why must we be careful with it?

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Playing and Earning, Not Just Playing To Earn

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There’s a circular nature to most popular blockchain games: the most successful projects make the most money for their players, and therefore more players flock to them. This raises the price of that games’ NFTs and tokens, ad infinitum.

These games are the epitome of “P2E”, in that people are playing these games to earn – rather than for the gameplay experience. In other words, if these popular blockchain games did not have crypto, NFTs or token earning potential, they wouldn’t have the sizable playbases that they do.

This isn’t a criticism per se – I play P2E games and I enjoy them for what they are – however, blockchain gaming is in its infancy and as more substantial, traditional games are developed – ones you would gravitate towards as a gamer whether you earned money or not – some decisions need to be made. 

P2E isn’t going anywhere; it fits with the growth of gaming as a titanic sector, it aligns with more modern approaches to money, and it legitimizes the grey market that orbits around popular games.

The grey market is underhand trading of in-game items (despite no real ownership) and it’s violated the Terms of Service for almost every title it has appeared in.

This is a key problem in the gaming industry that has been solved by blockchain, and allows everyone involved to make fair and transparent money from these games.

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So, why must developers and players be careful with P2E in gaming?

It could easily take an invasive role in the industry.

With developers and players having these revenue streams, there could be numerous entailments. Firstly, I can foresee a stripping away of enjoyment. With money to be made, us gamers may feel obligated to forego our relaxation to be more “productive”. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that on occasion I feel guilty for playing games purely for fun when I could be grinding character levels, achievements, in-game currency, skins, ranks, MMR, and so on in my “main” game.

Secondly, with this monetary motivator being implemented into our favourite games, we may be more vulnerable to publisher and developer manipulation. We can be herded like cattle into the gameplay loops the game’s creators or publishers want us in, by making them the most lucrative.

At the moment there is a nice dichotomy where I have the games I love to play and then the P2E games I enjoy or see as having potential. As blockchain gaming becomes more prevalent in the games industry, these lines will begin to blur.

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This is where the crux of the issue lies. I have no doubt there will always be browser-based P2E games, but blockchain gaming will merge into just “gaming”. It is then that I want P2E mechanics at the heart of blockchain gaming to be a foundational and supportive feature.

When playing the greatest games five or ten years from now, I want us to be playing and earning, not just playing to earn.

The addition of earning crypto and NFTs from gaming must be just that: an addition – a new feature added to the fabric of the gaming industry.

In Closing

Blockchain technology is already in transit to become the biggest revolution in gaming history, solving myriad problems the industry has had no choice but to put up with. Issues like a lack of true ownership, grey market trading, and the absence of true rewards for airdropping thousands of hours into a game.

P2E games have now proven that they can bring about entire economies, beneficial for everyone from publisher to player, and that gaming can make a real difference in people’s lives with the potential to earn whilst doing what you love.

It’s essential, however, that this blockchain gaming revolution keeps P2E as an incredible, supportive feature of modern gaming, not the core of every future game, a tool for exploitation, and both the carrot and the stick.

The role of blockchains in gaming will be profound, and we must ensure that it remains profoundly positive.

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Robert Baggs
Full-time professional crypto writer and Editor of Token Gamer. Obsessed with MMOs. London based. Once ate lobster with Lionel Richie.
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