A Mind Forever Grinding
Thoughts on The Gathering Darkness of 'Games and NFTs'
I want to take you briefly down two alleyways then loop back around - gaming underneath the pandemic and the cultural question of NFTs. If you’d like an actually informative primer on NFT, I strongly suggest not going to a big website or video but read something written recently, as you are really asking what shape the dunes of a vast desert are in today. A decent hard-nose primer which captures where things are is Stephen Diehl’s thread from October 7. To hear about the most hilarious recent scams, you can do a lot worse than JR Hennessy’s post from October 8.
Down the next few months and years, where we enter a reality of continuing quasi-lockdowns and spiralling illnesses, the role that computer games have been playing will become clearer and clearer. They’re doing what other social systems are not allowed to, not financed to do anymore. They’re the safety net underneath the hire-wire act of a public sphere balanced on a fishing wire. Hollywood, the western cultural production system and the global finance system are functionally gambling on consolidation fantasies to drive all of this back into ‘channels’ (as in, water channels), breathlessly praying you’ll be into a Facebook Metaverse, or a Twitch-Samsung 65 inch TV with streamers who can watch your movies and games for you. But the storefronts of games - Steam, and even Itch.io, are not behaving like those behemoths. They collapse cultural tastes. The wrong genres stay hot. Good games boil along for decades. We consume weirdly and buy weirder. We seem to enjoy designed things, timely things. Our nostalgias mutate too quickly to make limited edition Funko Pops reliably. Games are more unruly than ever, from the perspective of the convergence economy. Curiously persistent and persistently curious.
As 2020 saw Among Us crackle and explode, and take Discord’s install numbers to new heights with it, an uneasy truce seemed to emerge with social media ecosystems. Games settled into just being many more content channels for Instagram and Tik-Tok. The still-new streaming-focussed marketing ecosystem for games rapidly bloomed outward again.
Crypto’s means to capture your trending topics this year is largely through the chortling outrage of NFT stories and the bland and obvious evil of their design. NFTs keep crypto in front of your eyes. They are a means to generate news about cryptocurrency and get you to engage. We knew as far back as 2015 that trending topics are calculated for maximum engagement, and nothing engages like scorn. The unpaid artists, the obvious scams, the rug-pulls - it’s all so very satisfying. What can you personally confirm, as someone who thinks they’re awful and hilarious, as NFTs’ impact on your life? Cui Bono. Who benefits from your scorn?
When Australian games company The Voxel Agents stepped into the NFT minefield earlier this year, the games community on Twitter roundly thrashed them and sacrificed them in the Wicker Mario of games discourse. That was mid-May. Their press releases were hopeful, explanatory and yet light on the blockchain detail, as they had partnered with local crypto companies. Today, the very same NFT proposition would be organised, designed, promoted and sold entirely differently. Perhaps to avoid the burning discourse, but also because so much has changed.
Vietnamese-made Axle Infinity was designed to be a blockchain fighting game. I won’t explain a thing about it. Look at this screenshot. You can tell a thousand things from it.
It’s collectible. It’s coloured and art directed and scaled and shaded just right. The horrible beasts obviously have swappable features and you can imagine - rarity, levelling, boosts, packs, grinding, auto-battling, etc. Currencies on the blockchain. Selling your little beasts. Your currencies. It unfurls before you like a sombre orgiastic horror. Tokens Wide Shut.
It short, it has a little audience. Maybe this audience is absolutely to the last man (ahem) in it to scale the Ponzi ziggurat. Perhaps they’re all just cockfighting and gambling, as Clifford Geertz would remind us. But even if that were so, it’s also indistinguishable from a game that could retail for 20, be on sale for 10 and having you wondering if you want to buy a little hat for 5 more. That means that the NFT loop here is fully closed - the fantasy has function.
In the darkest future of this sort of design, Ubisoft (or whoever) sail right in with NFT Assassin’s Creed swords with unique traits you can trade up for, meaning they’ll have to be useable game to game. Meaning the games will need to have persistent weapon traits, meaning they’ll be more visually baroque, more RPG-like, etc. Of course, they wouldn’t even need a blockchain component to do this - they could in-line it all. As Blizzard did with the Diablo III Auction House.
In one particularly hilarious future, games companies merely copy the system aesthetics of NFT and don’t use crypto at all but say they do. They have everything else - the layered currencies, the value proposition, the shifting economic framework. Valve’s various Lament Configuration-scale seasonal events already point the way with cards, hats, achievements and dinosaur-vaporising tchotchkes of all kinds.
I write, though, to sound a warning. None of this is fading away. There is no grand bargain or agreement on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ burning of fossil fuels coming within many lifetimes, and even if there was, videogames would survive the last moral judgement even as the solar flares licked the last of the oceans dry.
Young people who have grown up on the speedy sarcasm and aesthetic salad spinner effect of Tumblr have long since acclimatised to the idea of ‘adoptables’; drawings of characters which are sold onto buyers not as artwork of images but as little conceptual platforms. For example, a character’s clothing, genetic makeup, gender and sex markers, even biographical information are set by the artist, and the adopter can now re-draw them, use them as an avatar, write fiction about them, and so on. If it sounds ridiculous to you, it is partially because if this were true - that furries have developed a functional art cryptocurrency framework that predates Bitcoin by something like 20 years at least AND reifies the relationship between artist and patron to a functional social contract - well then it would just be too much. For the adoptable environment to work, there needs to be functional community value in the images. No Jackson Pollacks, thanks. They are freeform, elegant, highly finished. There is also a shadow knowledge set of how to draw these characters. What abstractions. What fantasies. They need to be - that’s right - fungible.
Taken this way, the doors that NFTs are failing to kick open might be kicked open by something else. Something that can draw on the actual and real social energies and forces. There might be culture in there somewhere. The blockchain may or may not be involved - and that seems laughably incongruent now but any number of games companies can go into their archives and show trading economy systems that are one trailer away from making every cryptobro on the planet have an aneurysm.
Also, for every hungry NFT grifter hoping to make a quick translation into games to give their project value, there’s older and hungrier and wiser sharks in the games waters who have got decades of experience ready to feed on them.
One of the funniest parts of game history was just after the Diablo III Auction House launched, and everybody knew someone who claimed to be farming high level items to sell at a profit. It was a perfect soup of machismo bullshit and little sprinklings of tulipmania. It was ceremoniously dumped to great collective relief as the game evolved, of course. But the economic environment is so bad that it or something like it is going to be tried again and again and again. You can hear it, can’t you? It’s laughing. The little cage of numbers and green up arrows and down red arrows.
I haven’t spoken about the environmental impact of NFTs because it is the most important and obvious thing and if you’ve got this far, you know about it. I don’t need to perform my moral objection to the planet dying. But I am not playing Devil’s Advocate. What NFTs are now in October 2021 is an objectionable little farce. But the social forces they draw on are real, and deep. A thirst for reclaiming ownership in a world that doesn’t let you own anything shouldn’t be underestimated.
While it’s true that these terrible crypto virtual worlds and sad little weed-smoking lion avatars give off very strong ‘officers seized 3 hard drives’ energy today, you only need to scan your eyes over Skinport and the CS:Go / Dust / DOTA2 item economy on Steam to have your devout anti-NFT faith challenged. You can see something coming.
That’s why my bet is that it’s more likely games eat NFTs rather than the other way around.
The fast and brutal game ecology (namely game keys, Steam returns, sales, bundles, updates, balancing passes, and any form of in-game sharing, socialising or trading) are the ingredients for that future. It may be that crypto has no role to play if crypto can’t exist without speculative economies or burning one watt more than the alternative. So be it.
EDIT: A week later, Steam has banned crypto and NFTs from the platform, and Epic nosily stand up moments later to say their door is open. Steam don’t need crypto the same way HSBC doesn’t need to give you Bitcoin as your account interest. To me, this confirms they see it as a competitor force. All of these stores will have had meetings months ago to decide whether selling game licenses themselves as ‘NFTs’ (once again, blockchain optional) is worth looking at. All the social media discourse in the world only acts to raise the stakes. It was only a short few years ago that a social media furore buried the business model of the Xbox One’s all-digital format and inability to lend disc games to friends. But you wouldn’t say we live in a sharing-focussed games economy today, right? Other forces played out in time. What we’re setting the stage for is really ‘what is it like to play games on PC in 2025’, ‘how closed off are the consoles’, and so on.