Playing, Earning, Working, and Learning

Play-to-earn games as an interface for work and learning

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Video games have long been seen as an addictive pastime that diverts people from more productive activities like work and learning. 

There’s evidence to support this perception. On average, 21-30 year-old males worked 200 fewer hours in 2015 than they did in the year 2000. This 12% decrease in working hours exactly mirrors the increase in time this group spent playing video games. 

The Chinese government is so concerned about the addictive nature of gaming that they restricted the amount of time that citizens could spend playing to three hours per week.

While these restrictions seem sensible today, new developments in crypto have made it easier than ever for people to earn a living wage playing video games. If these trends continue, games may transform from an unproductive distraction into a vital interface people use for work and learning. 

The Rise of Play-to-Earn Gaming

COVID-19 exacted a heavy economic toll on low-income workers across the globe. In the Philippines, shopkeepers and frontline workers saw their incomes dry up overnight and had to scramble to pay the bills.

Some Filipinos found a solution to their financial problems in an unlikely place – a video game called Axie Infinity. Unlike most games that charge players to participate, Axie rewards gamers for their time with a cryptocurrency token that has real-world value. Many players found that Axie allowed them to take home 3-4x more income than they earned in their former, minimum wage jobs.

This business model—known as play-to-earn (P2E)—has taken the developing world by storm. Along with Axie, games like Zed Run, Star Atlas, and The Sandbox are launching every month and offering people the opportunity to earn a living by playing.

While it’s unclear which games will win, the implications of the play-to-earn business model are staggering. If anyone across the world with an internet connection and a smartphone can earn $300-1000/month, low-income workers in developing countries will gain a staggering amount of leverage to turn down undesirable jobs. 

In a world where workers can earn money by playing a game, how will low-paying jobs attract talent?

Play as Work

Since play-to-earn games are near-universally accessible, whichever game can support the largest payouts has the potential to set an international minimum wage. This will leave low-wage employers two choices – offer more money than the highest-paying game, or make work feel more like play.

The gamification of work is not new. In the mid-late 2000s, a crop of enterprise gamification startups with names like Bunchball and Badgeville attempted to influence employee behavior with mechanics like badges, points, and leaderboards. A quick scroll through Bunchball’s website should give you a sense of how “fun” these products turned out to be.

To compete with P2E games, the next generation of gamification platforms will need to be significantly more engaging. The best ones will find ways to completely mask work and turn it into a byproduct of play. This might look like augmented reality glasses that turn shelf-stocking into a thrilling RPG game or a lottery that allows call center reps to earn prizes for answering support tickets.

In a world where companies are competing with games for talent, the best HR leaders will be those who can figure out how to save money by gamifying ordinary jobs.

Play to Learn to Earn

Play-to-earn mechanics will not only shake up labor markets but also disrupt traditional education models.

Building expertise in any game is inherently a learning process. To master Axie Infinity, players need to understand game theory (to win battles) and genetics (to breed new creatures). Navigating the game also gives players exposure to new web3 technologies and blockchain mechanics. While Axie is not specifically built to provide an educational experience, it’s not hard to imagine what a learn-to-earn game would look like.

Rabbithole lets users earn cryptocurrency in exchange for learning how to navigate new web3 applications like OpenSea or Uniswap. Because, these apps are incentivized to boost awareness, many are happy to supply tokens to learners on Rabbithole in exchange for exposure. Even with minimal game mechanics, over 10,000 unique users have managed to complete a task on Rabbithole.

In any educational environment, the scarcest resource is student motivation. Both play and earning are powerful ways to capture student attention by stimulating the brain with dopamine-inducing rewards.

One platform that used the incentives of learning and play to drive value creation is Duolingo. Founded by Luis von Ahn, the inventor of the CAPTCHA, Duolingo harnesses the collective intelligence of the internet to translate the web into every major language for free. How? The company launched a free game that allows people to simultaneously learn a language and work to translating the web. Imagine if users of the platform could earn money for their translation services.

The Future of Work is the Future of Play

While P2E gaming is still in its infancy, games like Axie Infinity have proven that hundreds of thousands of people can earn money and create monetizable value through play. Assuming this model holds up, we will likely see gaming transform from an activity that distracts players from being productive into one that allows people to earn a livelihood in the economy of the future.

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Until next time,


Thanks to those who provided feedback on early drafts like: Aki Taha, Alberto Arenaza, Araminta Robertson, David Phelps, Justin Mares, Mario Gabriele, Stacey King Gordon, and Tom White