On The Value Of Time

Ed Zitron 11 min read

Play-to-earn games are the new way evil people have found to enrich themselves via other people’s labor. In short, you pay into a system that allows you to play a game that earns you tokens - either through tasks or trading in said system. If this sounds good, it’s meant to - you’re imagining you’re playing Warzone or Dark Souls or something else you enjoy, and the side effect is you get paid.

Serena Williams’ Husband and investor in play-to-earn game Axie Infinity has said that "90% of people will not play a game unless they are being properly valued for that time," and added the following:

"In five years, you will actually value your time properly," he said. "And instead of being harvested for advertisements, or being fleeced for dollars to buy stupid hammers you don't actually own, you will be playing some on-chain equivalent game that will be just as fun, but you'll actually earn value and you will be the harvester."

It is difficult to articulate the level at which I hate this - not simply the system, but the intention and the rhetoric around it.

“Instead of being harvested for advertisement, or fleeced to buy stupid hammers you don’t need,” you’re participating in a literal Ponzi scheme, where participation in the system and investment of new money into said system directly enriches both the people who own the game and those who invested in it. When you buy whatever it is you buy in the system, you kick a transaction fee - a 4.25% one in the case of popular play-to-earn scam Axie Infinity - to the company (on top of the transaction fee you’re paying on the network) while also propagating the value of the underlying token, large amount of which is owned by the investors and the company itself.

While microtransactions are entirely for the benefit of the company’s bank account, they are more often than not (at least in AAA games) simply cosmetic rather than requirements to play the game. In the case of Axie Infinity, you’re required to purchase an NFT that’s a few hundred dollars to play, and to start “earning” tokens that you then have to sell to recoup your “investment” to play a game. If you want to talk about fleecing an audience, it’s setting a massive fiscal barrier to entry to a system that naturally fleeces the players - not just in the percentage of transaction fees that Axie takes, but in the requirement of participation in a transaction-based blockchain like Ethereum.

As I’ve said before, these systems masquerade as communities that benefit the players - there’re tons of stories about Axie “giving their player base 95% of the profits” from the game, which it turns out…is sent to holders of the AXS token. And who owns a lot of tokens? That’s right - Axie Infinity developers Sky Mavis, who owns 20% of AXS tokens, and I would wager that Alexis Ohanian and other investors own a large amount too, thus reaping the benefits of the generated profits from the game, which are generated by players who play the game under the belief that they will maybe earn more than they invested.

There is no deception when it comes to a cosmetic in Fortnite - you are buying it from a company and the company’s service is that you can, while playing their game, look different in some way. It costs $1, or $5, or whatever the price is, and that money goes to Epic Games. Ironically, it sucks for a similar reason to Axie Infinity, but not the one Ohanian brings up - it is quietly trying to monetize the leisure time of children (and, yes, adults too). Where the two diverge is that Fortnite does not promise anything - this is not an investment, and stops being a financial transaction the moment you’ve paid Epic money.

In the case of Axie, your first participation in the system requires an actual investment of money - hundreds of dollars is a lot! - and then a further investment in transaction fees and money to breed and trade the not-remotely-like-pokemon monsters you get in the game. Nobody is joining this game under the auspices of simply enjoying themselves - they are being made to invest to participate, which makes it both an oligarchal (and deeply unfair) system, but one that only exists to extract capital from the users under the guise of the users extracting capital from the company. “Play-to-earn” is a complete lie - it’s pay-to-play-to-earn.

Now, if you’re an insufferable little goblin, you’re going to say that games do, in fact, cost money. You’d be right! They cost $20 to $70, and then you play them and it’s a video game or a PC game. The times when companies have attempted to heavily monetize their player bases have been met with abject horror in the case of NBA 2K22, treating the companies like the scumbags they are for trying to turn someone’s leisure time into a continual act of wealth extraction. I imagine Ohanian has likely not mentioned this, despite clearly liking the NBA, because while NBA 2k22 may have made a pay-to-win game where stat upgrades cost actual money or endless grinding, it is still less evil than a system that requires money upfront and a continual stream of money to operate. It also shows how utterly furious gamers get when they feel like they’re turned into a transaction - when their time is made “valuable” only in as much as it can directly and continually fund a company.

Anything blockchain requires tokens to transact with the system - Axie uses a sidechain of Ethereum, which means it’s less expensive but requires an income of some sort to afford the tokens in question. This is a unique problem to the blockchain, but also one that explains why these games can never be on anything other than the blockchain - because the legalities of selling a game that lets you earn money, I imagine, would run afoul of numerous child labor laws in multiple countries, and that’s before I have to think too hard about how those payments would be made and taxed.

And if you don’t think all of this is evil, there’s the core problem of how we “value” our time.

The Monetization of Joy

It may not be obvious, but the evilest part of what Ohanian said is that “in five years, you will actually value your time properly.” The problematic word here is “value” - because it is both a moral judgment (time is finite, and you using it wrong) and an intellectual one (you are foolish for not using your time in the correct way). It suggests that if we do not do things at all times that are directly paying us, our time is not being used “valuably.”

This is a core selling point of the play-to-earn industry - that you’re “wasting your time,” which by proxy is considered an “investment,” and any investment (playing another game) that doesn’t accrue interest or a payout is considered a bad investment. This is true in a financial sense, but it incorrectly conflates time as an investment, and gaming as an investment of time that is done entirely for a specific, measurable outcome, versus as a means of enjoying something.

I once read a fascinating quote from last year:

What [people are] understanding is that the greats — the very best people — are all talking about recovery and rest and time away. Whether it provides inspiration or recovery, it’s valuable. And so I think it’ll be a relic of the past.”

This is a quote from Alexis Ohanian, who has warned us about “always-on culture creating broken people,” is now hypocritically shilling the idea that we should be always on and always earning in the things that we do to relax and enjoy ourselves. What’s even worse is that creating a predominantly play-to-earn gaming industry  (which will not happen), you are actively participating in and fueling more broken and sad people, while quite literally empowering the whole hustle culture mindset.

A core tenet of hustle culture is believing that you should be optimizing your day to extract the most value out of it, always hustling, missing sleep and avoiding relationships so that you aren’t distracted from making money. Grinding in gaming has always meant playing the same thing repeatedly to progress - but Ohanian’s money and message create a perfect system where the hustle culture goon can be always grinding, even when they’re “playing a game.”

Ohanian isn’t simply participating in hustle culture, he is funding it and empowering it, turning as many gamers into hustle culture zealots, and turning the idea of gaming into another way to chase riches that are just out of grasp. Play-to-earn gamers are being fleeced both fiscally and emotionally, having their time stolen as a means of enriching others and poisoning the concept of what they consider “leisure.”

I would love to hear what Alexis has to say about this, because I know he gamed at some point, and has been nothing but pleasant to me. But these ideas do not reconcile - if working too much is going to create broken people, how does turning gaming into a job not do so too?

The argument, of course, is that gaming is fun, and thus this is a side benefit. But the problem with that train of thought is that the involvement of money in the transaction emotionally changes the meaning of what you’re doing. If you put $300 into a system that generates you some theoretical gain, are you playing for fun? If you are generating money playing something, how do you separate fun from work? If you do badly at the game, you are not making as much money, and thus you are not losing in the sense you would in a game - there are now table stakes, which vary based on the income or assets of the player in question. The less money you have, the more likely you are to be trapped in the system the moment you participate - you cannot afford to leave (IE: lose the money) until you have got your money out, which means you will put money in as a means of getting it.

There is also something truly malevolent - which is what makes Ohanian’s anti-hustle quotes so upsetting - about “valuing” every second of your time. This isn’t about being flippant with one’s time - far from it - but more about not optimizing every second of your life to get the “most value.” Sometimes you just want to play a game so you can get away from the world and relax. Sometimes you want to play a game with friends because you enjoy playing the game and want to spend time with them. Sometimes you want to play Slay The Spire on the toilet because it makes you happy and your brain likes it.

Is my time not valuable unless I’m earning money? Or is it the recovery or inspiration that Ohanian previously described?

Sidenote: One could argue that the existence of card games like Magic The Gathering is a counterpoint - that these are systems where you have to pay to participate, and, to some extent, pay to win. MTG is absolutely an expensive hobby, and one that involves a financial investment to get started in and a further investment to continue in and be good in. The same goes for Heartstone and other Trading Card Games. However, these games aren’t really pay to win - you can be the richest bastard in all the land, have every card, and still be beaten by someone who is a better player.

These games are also not play-to-earn, because the core value proposition is that these are enjoyable games. If you are a machine that must generate a “value” for everything you do, you can call the “output” of the game “fun.”

Someone very annoying could also claim that Twitch incentivizes playing games for money, but they would be very silly to do so. Twitch is entertainment - they play the games and people watch them play the games, but if you removed the person playing the game, they would neither donate nor necessarily watch them play.

Ohanian, as I have publicly said to him and yet to hear back about, is conflating the fiscal valuation of game time by a company and the value of gaming to a gamer. Gamers, in my experience, do not sit down and think “what is the value of this” as they play a game - they play it because they have fun, in the same way that I do not ask “hmm, what is the value of this transaction with this sandwich?” during lunch.

Alexis was extremely responsive until I sent that tweet, and has as of writing not responded. I will update if he does, but the fact he stopped there is annoying and depressing.

Ohanian is - intentionally or not - seeing the world as a series of transactions, where the gamer has been “providing value” for years and not “being compensated” for it. It turns out they have been - for their time in the game, they have been compensated with enjoyment, which is why gamers get so mad when a game is bad.

I hate writing like that, because when you start writing and thinking in these terms, you begin seeing the world as entirely transactional and every second of your life as something to optimize. It’s similar to personal branding, except even more insidious - instead of doing that thing just for fun because you enjoy it, you’re doing it because you will theoretically earn some money.

This also creates a loathsome incentive for the gaming company, in the same way that gacha games do, to create a way to trap the gamer in the game to spend more money. The game doesn’t even have to be that fun - the same sunk cost fallacies as Farmville and its ilk are in play - with an added madness that I more commonly associate with gambling -  you might win back the money you put into the system. This fully moves the burden of the developer away from creating a good game, and entirely toward creating more opportunities for people to “earn” within the system.

The crucial difference between this and gambling is that gambling does not mislead you on the likelihood of winning, nor does gambling attempt to pretend it’s not interested in monetizing you.

Now, the argument might be that a game company might be staffed by wonderful people and great game developers, and that the play-to-earn system is there as an incentive to keep playing on top of the game being fun. The problem with this line of thinking is that the incentive of earning money naturally polarizes the player base, creating those who play to earn and those that play to have fun - and you have to cater to both of them, because otherwise you’re not actually making a game for your players.

Much like the rest of crypto, the involvement of the prospect of making money in something turns it into a form of job. Outputs from a choice usually control the ways in which we value our time - it makes us feel good, or makes us feel whole, or makes us feel something, and the moment we’re paid to do something, the value proposition of the action becomes tainted with the idea that we could make money, changing our decisionmaking. It’s similar to why experience systems in games work so well, but also become an endless grind - we love seeing numbers go up, and we love feeling like we created and earned something. People will do extremely boring, mind-numbing things to efficiently farm content or experience in a game if the possibility of more efficient progression is offered, even if it’s less fun.

I feel extremely bad about what Ohanian is saying, because he is someone that has repeatedly called out the toxicity of turning every moment of your life into an efficient, value-generating event. I can’t think of anything that’s more of an example of hustle porn - which he called “one of the most toxic, dangerous things in tech right now” in 2018 - then intentionally playing a specific game with your time off because it earns you some sort of income.

When I quit MMORPGs like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, one of the main reasons was that I felt like it had become a job rather than something I enjoyed. Had I been paid - and been able to make money off of it - I would have kept playing, because the idea that I was being “productive” with my leisure time would have incentivized me to continue to do something I genuinely hated.

Our moments on this Earth are finite and fleeting, and our deaths are unpredictable. The world is challenging and painful, and the moments we reduce those pains and challenges and relax by enjoying something are wonderful, valid and valuable. We do many things that do not benefit our bank accounts or our career trajectories, and we should meet those who actively seek to turn our joy into labor with the disgust they deserve.

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