In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, David Graeber makes the case that a sizable chunk of the labour economy is essentially people performing useless work, as a sort of subconscious self-preservation instinct of the economic status quo. The book cites ample anecdotal evidence that people perceive their own jobs as completely disconnected from any sort of value creation, and makes the case that the ruling class stands to lose from the proletariat having extra free time on their hands. It’s a thoughtfully presented case, but when I read the book a few years back, I was skeptical that any mechanism to create bullshit jobs could arise from a system as inherently Darwinian as capitalism.
I’ve recently been exploring the themes around web3 to see if there’s a “there” there, and Graeber’s book has been on my mind again. One of the most apparently successful examples of web3 that people point to, aside from art NFTs, is so-called play-to-earn games. The most successful of these is Axie Infinity, a trade-and-battle game reminiscent of Pokemon.
In a crypto economy crowded with vapourware and alpha-stage software, Axie Infinity stands out. Not only has it amassed a large base of users, the in-game economy has actually provided a real-world income stream to working-class Filipinos impacted by the pandemic. Some spend hours each day playing the game, and then sell the in-game currency they earn to pay their real-world bills. That’s obviously a good thing for them, but it also appears to be a near-Platonic example of Graeber’s definition of a bullshit job.
Gamers have a word, grinding, to describe repetitive tasks undertaken to gain some desired in-game goal, but are not fun in themselves. This seems to sum up players’ experience with Axie Infinity, which is often described as work or a chore. For example, reddit user
It still is work if you think about, at least that’s how I treat it. I don’t look forward to doing it, I don’t enjoy it, but work is work. The only thing I Iook forward to is cashing out and that’s it. 1-2hrs of my days to get some money is fine by me
In fact, in spite of the game being heralded as an example of how play-to-earn is the future of gaming (a message received by giants EA and Ubisoft), it’s hard to find any reviews on Axie Infinity as a game rather than as an income stream or speculative investment, for which there are plenty. Arianna Simpson (of a16z, one of Axie Infinity’s most prominent backers) says:
[It’s] actually not at all dissimilar to the real-world economy. I might be wealthier and I might pay someone to do something I don’t want to do and somebody might, in exchange, pay me to do something they don’t want to do.
But it is dissimilar in an important way: the “thing I don’t want to do” is completing tasks contrived by a game designer. The very existence of these tasks, and people willing to pay for them, might be the purest example of a Graeber-esque Bullshit Job I’ve encountered. It’s worth understanding who is ultimately paying for this labour, and why.
People have made money by selling virtual goods acquired in-game at least as far back as Second Life in 2005. Axie Infinity is novel in two ways, which are worth exploring separately.
- It elevated the ability to earn an income stream through the game to a core feature, coining play-to-earn as a new game genre.
- It uses NFTs to represent in-game items, so the economy is (ostensibly) decentralized.
In contrast to other games in which in-game economies have developed, Axie Infinity puts players’ opportunity to make an income and transfer it to the real world at the forefront. As they put it in their FAQ, what sets Axie Infinity apart is an ethos:
We believe in a future where work and play become one.
We believe in empowering our players and giving them economic opportunities.
These “economic opportunities” are essentially a wealth transfer from new players to established ones. Gameplay requires the purchase of three Axies, which currently cost in the hundreds of US dollars each. Players who buy in treat this as an investment, since it’s a necessary buy-in in order to work in the game. This naturally raises questions about sustainability, a question which the game’s creators have addressed:
Jeff [Zirlin, co-founder of of Sky Mavis]: So one of the ways to look at it is right now, Axie is a little bit of a growth-dependent economy, just like any emerging market nation. It is a little bit dependent on capital inflows. But long term, it’s really important for us to have players that are in the economy spending because they think that the game is really fun or that they see ways to trade, like, money for power or respect.
There is some logic to the idea that the game could sustain a mix of players, some of whom are net recipients of capital and some of whom are net contributors who are in it for a good time. This is how other in-game economies have sustained themselves. I’m wholly unconvinced that Axie Infinity is headed in that direction, frankly, because it just doesn’t look fun enough that people will pony up upwards of $1,000 to play it for its own sake. Informal polls, unscientific as they are, seem to bear this out.
(As for power and respect, well. I’m old enough to remember the momentary schoolyard respect associated with earning a rare Pokemon in the original GameBoy game, but it’s not a kind of respect that can be bought and sold.)
By blurring the line between “player” and “worker”, the game has effectively built a Ponzi scheme with built-in deniability. Sure, some users will be net gainers and other users will be net losers, but who am I to say the net losers aren’t in it for the joy of the game? The same could be said about online poker or sports betting, to be sure, but we would rightfully recoil if those were positioned as a way to lift people out of poverty.
In a CoinDesk op-ed, Leah Callon-Butler takes on people who point out the suspiciously Ponzi-like economic structure of the game:
I’ve seen a few Twitter-based armchair critics label the pursuit of SLP, Axie’s battle reward token, as meaningless grinding. It’s understandable how they’d arrive at this conclusion, where people are familiar only with the exploitative business models of the traditional gaming industry and haven’t yet grasped how decentralized gaming is different. But it also reveals a lack of consideration for those who have found real value and purpose in these games. Many Axie players have been grinding much harder in their day jobs and getting much less for it.
You wouldn’t know it from the article, but Callon-Butler is the director of Emfarsis, the same agency hired months prior to make a feel-good documentary about Axie Infinity’s growth in the Philippines, by Yield Guild Games, a major player in Axie’s rise in the Philippines. In fact, between the documentary and a series of CoinDesk pieces (one of which at least does disclose the conflict), Emfarsis’ telling of the story has largely been the one repeated (rather uncritically) by mainstream Western media like CNBC.
This polished narrative ignores the other side of the equation. Since Filipinos are the largest growth market for Axie Infinity, they must also be a major source of money flowing into the system. Instead of being a net provider of jobs and capital, it appears to just be redistributing the same wealth between Filipinos, and collecting a 4.25% cut for the service.
Axies, the tradable characters at the center of Axie Infinity, are tradable as NFTs outside of the official Axie Infinity game. In theory, this creates a sense of ownership that doesn’t exist in other games, since nobody can take away your Axie.
Kind of. The thing is, Axies are valued as they are because they can be used to play the game. Axie Infinity’s creator, Sky Mavis, can block individual Axies from the game, thereby making them useless for their primary purpose. You can still look at them, and even trade them on platforms like OpenSea, but at a diminished value since without the game they’re basically just an NFT of a picture of an Axie.
Not only can Axies be banned, the rules of battle that govern the value of their skills can change. As co-creator Aleksander Leonard Larsen told Odd Lots:
“[…] right now a lot of the game logic is off-chain, so that means that we already as a game studio can make many many changes, right. We can also, let’s say if we want to buff certain skills, make them stronger, weaker, we can do that of course. And we’re very transparent [about it]”
In fact, the trajectory of the game has been to become less decentralized over time:
“When we created Axie, pretty much everything was on-chain […] and we were following that decentralized ethos. Over time what we realized is that building a product based on these very heavy constraints is almost impossible, especially if you want to reach the masses. […] We had to sacrifice parts of decentralization.”
This is worth noting, because it is in direct contradiction to the narrative around why web3 games are special. As the World Economic Forum put it:
The true innovation lies in the decentralized integrity and security of these digital items, which—for the first time—can transcend the traditional proprietary, custodial ownership and discretion of a company or even government. As an example, instead of relying on the permission or rules of publishers or other third parties, in game resources from play-to-earn games can be sold freely on marketplaces both inside and outside of the game.
Recently, countless examples of communities have sprung up, highlighting the potential of play-to-earn games in building a new economy. Most notably, a video game called ‘Axie Infinity’ shows that this is more than just a pipe dream.
Or as Chris Dixon more concisely puts it:
Web Two was don’t be evil. Web Three is can’t be evil. You bake it into the code that you can’t be evil.
But underneath a coat of web3 paint, users are still subject to Sky Mavis’ whims, and deal with the same “web2” problems, like getting swept up arbitrarily in ban waves and having to appeal to customer service.
I’ve focused on Axie Infinity because it’s the prominent, genre-defining play-to-earn game. I fully suspect that the pitfalls that it has encountered are ones that all play-to-earn games will eventually encounter. Any sufficiently complex game will come to realize, as Axie Infinity has, that immutable property rights are at odds with the ability to counter abuse. Games that maximize property rights (as Axie Infinity wisely hasn’t) are bound to be overrun with cheaters and bots, which in turn will just bring down the value of in-game assets anyway.
Ultimately, in-game labour is just a re-branding of gameplay designed to be dull enough that rich players will pay to outsource it to poor players. In spite of being presented as the future of work by some venture capitalists, the incentives just don’t make sense. Floors don’t have to be swept in the metaverse unless they’re designed to need sweeping.
Sadly, David Graeber died suddenly last year, and isn’t around to see his theory manifest in so pure a form. But I encourage those championing play-to-earn as the future of work to read his book and ask themselves whether they’re just building his dystopia.