‘Play-to-Earn’ and Bullshit Jobs

Speaking of "play-to-earn" games, Paul Butler, writing in a blog post: 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. [...] 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. [...] 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.

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