By Timothy Agius
The NFT story isn’t working. Certainly new projects appear to be announced nearly every day with plenty of money in backing, but the grander PR campaign to get the gaming press and public excited about discussing, sharing, and consuming NFTs (and the broader Web3-enabled metaverse envisioned with them) seems to be hitting a wall (as has the larger discussion of NFTs outside of gaming).
It’s not for lack of trying — there’s a lot of coverage of NFTs available now, driven in part by the amount of money being transacted, the involvement of some of gaming’s largest companies, the sheer novelty of the premise, and the ties to other stories of cryptocurrencies and blockchains in the overall worlds of tech and finance.
But the tone of that coverage seems overwhelmingly skeptical and dismissive. I keep seeing the claim that once people become more educated about NFTs, the conversation will change. But it seems like an increasing share of the press has become reasonably educated about this subject now, and they’ve by and large rejected the core premises of NFTs. Rather than an overreaction to something simply not understood, this rejection instead feels rooted in experience. NFTs may be new, but nearly every element of the NFT pitch is something the press has already heard.
This starts with the vision. The “imagine…” pitch is routine now: Imagine… own and trade in-game assets, take them into other games, access exclusive events and perks, show off your uniqueness, support artists and creators directly without middlemen interfering, etc. This is a lofty vision, but it’s also vague and unrealistically aspirational when one tries to put it into practice. The potential applications frequently either already exist (sometimes with their own negative impact), seem unlikely to materialize, or appear hollow and underdeveloped. It’s not a great sign of confidence when many NFT game pitches seem to go out of their way to avoid showing the actual games themselves, while others appear driven by investors and celebrities.
Even where the NFT vision is offered the benefit of the doubt, there are still glaring compromises. NFT advocates often acknowledge the negative environmental impact of blockchain tech and promise to reduce their carbon footprint at some point in the future. But “it will be less harmful later” just doesn’t cut it as a defense when we’ve seen these pledges swept away before.
The other big element of this vision is “play to earn”: why play and generate no profit when your leisure time could be working for you? While “farming” for real-world profit has existed in games like MMOs for a long time, I think this is the part of the pitch that does feel relatively new, especially in how it challenges the act of simply playing for fun when you could be gaining from your gaming.
The selling point of “play to earn,” though, is a familiar one for press, an amalgamation of “hustle” culture and the gig economy, where everyone is maximizing their own personal utility in all facets of life, and anything that can be for sale should be for sale, including your own recreation time. I think NFT advocates understand that this is challenging a fundamental aspect of our relationship with games — I just don’t think they grasp the degree of fatigue it faces in a world where seemingly every tech product has already tried to gamify every part of your day, from your coffee order to your sleep and diet.
But don’t some people benefit from those systems? A lot of people do work hustle jobs, they do tailor their habits and consumption choices to rewards — so why not here? How can you deny or ignore stories of marginalized people, of artists and other creators, making money off NFTs just because you personally aren’t comfortable with how they threaten your relationship with your choice of leisure?
But here, too, the story hits skepticism from a press who have seen too many times that money doesn’t automatically confer legitimacy, competency or solvency. Every new story of speculation, volatility, mismanagement, and fraud in the crypto space calls to mind the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the more recent meme-ification of stocks like GameStop, of the risks that often come with decentralization and deregulation. And with those memories comes the reminder that fast money can be manipulated to benefit some at the expense of others.
So I think these promises of how NFTs will offer players and artists more power, more agency through ownership of gaming perks and assets, through disrupting and shifting the balance of your relationship with the product and its developers, all for the benefit of the “community” — they all generally fail to move the needle with press because very few of these revolutions ever end up materializing what they promise for the greater welfare, especially when they come from people who clearly stand to profit. There’s simply little faith left to be mined.
Those considerations matter. NFTs (and the currencies they trade in) represent a scale of potential risk we’re not often accustomed to seeing in video games. Because every NFT “success” story, every influencer promo, press release and interview hyping the positives of these products potentially feeds into a cycle of volatility and speculation, raising the value of what some people own and putting them in a greater position of power to exploit newcomers entering the market hoping to get what they’ve been promised. And I think part of the backlash from the press is the knowledge from past experience that their work can be used to fuel that fire and a refusal to play along.
I don’t know where all this goes. I’d expect companies to become better prepared for these public backlashes (or at least try harder to stay under the radar). How do you run a PR campaign when the people covering it have rejected almost every part of your pitch? How many times can you see an announcement go out and watch the Twitter walk back/clarification hours later? Even if you were inclined to entertain such a pitch, how do you distinguish supposedly legitimate products between vaporware or outright scams? How do you take this trend seriously when it seems so frivolous?
But perhaps NFTs don’t need to convince the larger press and public to be successful. Microtransactions also generated significant opposition (and continue to do so), and they also represented a change in your relationship with the product, sometimes in harmful ways. Yet today they’re a core component of the games industry.
If NFTs have their core audience, and new investors willing to cover the next transaction, does it matter what the critics think? Do you ever really have to grapple with the issues raised against your product? Perhaps not. But I think this outcome would ultimately be an admission that the vision being promised was never really there, and that the doubters were right not to bite on the story.