In this short opinion piece, I want to focus on the value of convention video games and how they may explain Play-to-Earn games on the blockchain may struggle. I think some of the current examples of Play-to-Earn games exemplify these issues and may need to think outside the box to come up with an enjoyable gaming model.
The crux is that we don’t play video games to make money. Video games address our other psychological and recreational needs and provide us with a healthy dose of distraction from the real world’s problems.
If you were to ask me what the point of a good game is, a few salient points come to mind:
Recreational escapism: Getting away from the daily grind
Competitive gaming with low real-world stakes: A safe environment to measure how you and your friends stack up against others
Story value: some video games are practically cinematic and act almost like an immersive film
Many current Play-to-Earn games have speculative mechanisms and work more like managing virtual real estate and completing menial tasks. I think that Play-to-Earn games risk recreating the same problems as the outside world. An example is the many whales that begin to snag up potentially valuable real estate in the metaverse. While Axie Infinity has proven financially viable for individuals in some South American and East Asian companies, its pressure on folks to play and earn money is almost antithetical to gaming itself.
To date, most gaming applications in the blockchain ecosystem are underwhelming and do not meaningfully use the blockchain or cryptocurrency. By this, I mean that much of what’s accomplished by playing the game on the blockchain could be more easily facilitated without it. In some cases, when the blockchain is used compellingly, the resultant game ends up bearing many similarities to gambling. There’s this paradox that using the blockchain takes away from the gaming aspect in some situations.
The Psychology of Compelling Gamification
Scott Rigby is an American social psychologist who studied gamers’ underlying needs and how best to incorporate them. He founded a company called Immersyve that helped research and examine what draws people to video games. He’s worked on studies in-house for Sony, Activision, and Warner Bros. Interactive, among other gaming studios.
After conducting so much research, Rigby believes that games need to fulfil certain psychological needs. These boil down to three things: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Our need for competence is the desire to control the world around us. In real life, we are bound by different limitations: Commitments, bosses, and other events which we can’t alter. Video games provide a form of escapism where we can be ourselves to be successful or accomplished. Competence is why some people might go back to school later in life to find a more rewarding career. But for video games, there is a delicate balance for competence.
If a video game is too focused on menial tasks and grinding to level up and upgrade your characters, or if players that pay can get ahead – it takes away from the value. Playing Gods Unchained, one of the annoying mechanisms is that certain players can buy better cards through packs and perform better in tournaments. To get those same cards and build those same decks without spending money requires hours of grinding through menial rounds.
Here, a major challenge for any Play-to-Earn ecosystem is balancing this system, where a player-driven market still exists but allows for players to advance on the merits of their skills alone.
The next psychological need that games need to master is autonomy. This is the ability to feel independent and control our actions. A game series like Grand Theft Auto succeeds because of the large amount of autonomy to its players. You don’t necessarily need to follow through with the in-game missions. You can go off on a side adventure, explore the world and make your own choices in how you interact with non-player characters.
Allowing users to “own” certain game assets through NFTs could create a fake sense of autonomy.
Take, for example, any skins or assets from Decentraland or the SandBox. The intention is that in-game items will be ported into other video games across the metaverse and provide functionality outside of one game. However, in practice, this hasn’t been well implemented. Considering the amount of different metaversal platforms, game developers and game mechanisms, it will require a lot of work and development to implement NFTs from one game as a functional item into another.
I’d argue that there is a loss of autonomy in games that require grinding to reach the next level or menial tasks to earn crypto rather than meaningful objectives. Additionally, there is a lot of speculation by larger whales and richer entities across different metaverses, creating an almost life-like real estate and property management system. This takes away from the autonomy of the average retail gamer, and for those participating in virtual real estate, it transforms a game into a managerial duty.
Given that the blockchain is touted as providing an increased sense of autonomy, it isn’t being put to good creative use.
Wolf Game used the blockchain and smart contracts to enable a risk protocol and create something novel; it veered into gambling territory instead of empowering player actions. It is one of the most creative uses for smart contracts that I’ve seen in gaming but to be fair, it’s not an immersive or interactive game.
A good Play-to-Earn game must provide real autonomy in terms of the player’s choices, rather than the illusion of autonomy related to individual in-game items. These games need to focus on the whole experience.
The final psychological need is relatedness, our desire to connect with others and build meaningful communities. There’s a need to build something that helps others and provides meaning, whether within the game’s storyline or in the outside world. This can also relate to competitive or cooperative gaming mechanisms.
Must the Entire World Become a Transactional Hellscape?
Here in meatspace, everything is transactional. Paying rent, working to earn a salary, and even posting funny content on Reddit to get UpVotes. This transactional nature has already leaked into Free-mium video games which are play-to-win “games” that use casino mechanics to keep users engaged. The fear is that crypto gaming may do the same, offering meagre returns to the users who build up the value of the Play-to-Earn game token itself.
With exciting games where you are a land speculator or clicking to perform some small actions, is it any different from UpWork or Uber? While you do the hard work and menial labour, the valuation of the game and the token increases so that developers that have more of the token in a liquidity pool can earn substantially more than players. Introducing this transactional nature into play-to-earn games threatens to recreate the same transactional landscape that we already live within.
Looking back at the list in the introduction, competence, autonomy, and relatedness play important roles in making games fun and enjoyable. We get to experience the escapism for a few hours while we enter a world where we have substantial control over our actions and aren’t struggling with the stresses or obligations of life. There is autonomy in lending the player the power to make important decisions in gaming and relatedness through competitive and cooperative mechanisms and immersive storytelling.
A compelling Play-to-Earn game needs to tackle these psychological needs while straddling the fine-line between a game, a gambling protocol, or menial virtual work. There is the paradox of having a player-driven ecosystem balanced against competence: You don’t want to turn the game into a Pay-to-Win Scenario. There need to be creative and useful applications to the blockchain because otherwise, it becomes a cynical gimmick. Finally, the game needs to provide something more – whether connections within the virtual world or a real, immersive storyline.
Balance is key. Currently, there’s too much focus on the earning mechanisms and not enough focus on the play. If a game offers players the ability to earn a liveable wage, it becomes a job and infringes on the autonomy aspect of gaming. If developers drift too far away from earning mechanisms, they will face the challenge of adoption within the crypto space. If games focus too much on making NFTs cross-platform, it will be more difficult to develop compelling holistic games without creating a menial, virtual existence.