Kit Wilson

Will our future lives be like a video game?

Will our future lives be like a video game?
(Photo: iStock)
Text settings

A few years ago, the software company Owlchemy Labs released a computer game called Job Simulator. Its premise was simple. Players find themselves in a future world, roughly 30 years from now, in which super-efficient robots have snaffled up all the jobs. No longer needed for work, humans entertain themselves instead by donning virtual reality headsets and reenacting 'the glory days' — simulating what it was once like to be an office clerk, chef, or shopkeeper. The gameplay, therefore, consists entirely of, well, yeah… carrying out endless mundane tasks: virtual photocopying, virtual cooking, virtual newspaper sales.

Job Simulator is pretty tongue-in-cheek, crammed full of dry, self-referential jokes. In the game, our robot overlords turn out to be comically literal-minded (one of the chef’s ways of 'succeeding' is to bribe food critics). Players are goaded by floating screens boasting about the failed human uprising of 2027, and given the option to hurl doughnuts back in protest. All the same, the game’s remarkable, and somewhat unexpected, success — to date selling over a million copies — reveals something very strange about our changing relationship with gaming. Or rather, about the extent to which gaming is starting to merge with every other aspect of our lives.

The big buzzword in the tech world in recent years has been 'gamification' — essentially, the steady incorporation of elements of gaming into pretty much everything: work, education, shopping, travel. Evangelists cite, as early working examples, the language learning app Duolingo, which uses levels, achievements, and 'winning streaks' to keep students motivated, and the startup Lyft, which every week sets its drivers algorithmically-generated 'challenges'. Think also of the fitness goals on your Peloton and Fitbit, or the likes and follower counts on social media — even Twitter’s 'swipe-to-refresh' function, which emulates the 'one-more-game' lever pull on a slot machine. Still, at first glance, gamification appears to be little more than the application of basic psychological tricks to create pleasurable feedback loops in our brains. Big deal.

But the real revolution, enthusiasts claim, is still to come. As the digital scaffold of the metaverse continues to shoot up all around us, and as virtual reality continues to merge with, and augment, our physical surroundings, computer games will become an increasingly present, increasingly seamless feature of our everyday lives.

Imagine being rewarded for picking up litter with, say, one crypto-token for each item binned — crypto-tokens with which you could then purchase Nike shoes for your metaverse avatar: a true sign of status. Imagine every time you went jogging you could 'collect' levitating gold rings, a la Sonic the Hedgehog, snaked along the pavement in front of you thanks to your augmented reality goggles — and could see, in real-time, a league table of how many your friends had gathered that week. Imagine being able to monetise everything you produced by minting it as an NFT, thereby being able to trade your funniest tweets, your cutest dog videos, or your hottest memes, for cryptocurrency.

If the more idealistic of 'gamification' enthusiasts are correct, all of this will then eventually lead, in the much longer term, to a completely reimagined economy. The traditional incentives around which our ambitions once danced — money, a high-powered job, beauty — will be wiped and replaced with those of gaming: leaderboards, challenges, digital currencies, virtual fashion. The hyper-competitive, globalised system we currently find ourselves in — in which only the very best of the best feel like they actually matter — will give way to a vast ecosystem of gaming worlds, each one offering individuals a place to find their own structure and sense of purpose.

If that sounds crazy, reflect for a moment on the ludicrously rich sense of meaning games can give us. Most of us have at least one game, whether it’s tennis, poker, or Monopoly, that, for as long as we’re playing it, genuinely eclipses everything else in our lives. For those few druggy moments, doing well is really all that matters. Now imagine that feeling somehow extended over the course of a year, or a decade, or a lifetime — with all the narrative peaks and troughs of a football season or stock market cycle, but determined by your performances in whichever never-ending game you’d decided to pursue. And imagine, critically, that everyone else was doing the same thing. Would you really still miss the office job?

It’s also worth considering just how widespread computer gaming already is. Where would you guess the games industry ranks today, economically, relative to, say, the film and music industries? In reality, it’s no contest. The gaming industry rakes in close to $200 billion (£147 billion) a year and is already worth double the other two combined — and growing fast. Last year, nine times as many people watched the Game Awards as watched the Oscars. The Halo franchise is now worth more than the Harry Potter franchise — books, films, and merchandise included. From only a handful thirty years ago, there are now 3 billion regular gamers worldwide — and crucially, many of them are beginning to find ways of turning their lifestyle into a living.

Unless you’re chronically offline (in which case, congratulations), you’ll probably already be familiar with eSports tournaments, where the winners now regularly earn as much as $3 million (£2.2 million) a pop. But the big development over the last few years has been the rise of so-called 'play-to-earn' games — games that don’t necessarily require the absurd reaction times and muscle memory of 'professional' gamers, but allow even average players to make an income just by putting in the hours.

Play-to-earn actually goes back to at least the early noughties, when players discovered they could amass huge amounts of the in-game currencies within games like EVE Online and Runescape, and then sell their earnings to other players for actual, fiat money. In most cases, such trading was technically prohibited, but black markets began to spring up across the internet, many of which continue to flourish today. During their country’s recent economic crisis, some Venezuelans turned to 'mining gold' in Runescape — in some cases reportedly making as much as ten times a doctor’s monthly wage.

Gamers have been arguing for years that 'opening up' in-game markets — that is, allowing players to freely buy and resell in-game items, or buy and exchange in-game currency for actual money — would unleash huge economic opportunities. Take the phenomenally popular game Fortnite, for instance, which, according to the tech entrepreneur Piers Kicks, in 2018 earned '$2.4 billion [£1.8 billion], the vast majority of which was driven by one-way transactions for in-game cosmetics with exactly zero in-game utility beyond aesthetic appeal (and the resulting glory associated with looking cool in front of the squad).' Imagine if players could actually then resell these items to other players, or even exchange them for cryptocurrency — thus ensuring that their purchases retained at least some of their original value. At that point, the argument goes, the market for virtual goods would explode into a sprawling, self-sustaining financial ecosystem.

Traditional software companies, like Fortnite’s owners Epic Games, are understandably reluctant to let that happen. But smaller independent games developers have recently started experimenting with the idea, by allowing in-game tokens to be traded as cryptocurrency — a concept called GameFi, the merging of gaming with 'DeFi' (decentralised finance). The most successful of these ventures so far has been the Vietnamese games studio Sky Mavis, whose big hit Axie Infinity has already racked up two million daily users.

To play Axie Infinity, gamers must first buy in by purchasing at least three 'axies' (the name for the game’s marshmallow-like characters), whose value is determined by the price of the game’s two in-game currencies, Axie Infinity Shards ($AXS) and Smooth Love Potion ($SLP). These two currencies are actually Ethereum-based cryptocurrencies — in other words, they can be bought and sold for real money, and investors can speculate on their value over time. That means the initial — say — $5 you spend on your first axies might end up earning you $500 in a few months’ time, assuming the value of $AXS and $SLP goes up (which so far, they have done, a lot).

Players can also grow, battle, and trade their axies, as well as purchase virtual land, meaning the whole game has developed into a kind of microcosmic cartoon economy. In November, it was reported that an 'extremely rare' plot of land within the game sold for 550 Ethereum — at the time, roughly $2.48 million (£1.8 million).

Sky Mavis says it wants to merge the world of work and play — and to make gaming a sustainable way of living. In some poorer countries, like the Philippines, there are reports of thousands of people making a regular income playing Axie Infinity — some just to pay the weekly bills, others even buying houses with their earnings. One particularly novel development has been the grassroots creation of 'scholarships', where players rent out their axies to players who can’t afford the initial buy-in, and take a portion of the subsequent earnings.

This 'play-to-earn' model is heralded as gaming’s — scratch that, the world’s — next big thing. Gaming, it’s claimed, will evolve into a continuous, self-sustaining economy of its own, based on cryptocurrencies, providing a living for anyone who wishes to invest time into it. 'Play-to-earn is shifting to play-to-own,' says Andrius Miron, the CEO of the tech investment company GameStarter, 'which will evolve to play-to-live'. Play-to-live!

Enthusiasts like to cite the huge sums of money being pumped into digital assets by companies like Nike and Gucci — or Microsoft’s acquisition this week of the gaming company Activision for an unprecedented $70 billion (£52 billion), widely considered to be a 'bet on the metaverse'. According to Piers Kicks, the virtual goods market 'is expected to grow to $190 billion by 2025.' In an article on the World Economic Forum website, Stefan Hall and Moritz Baier-Lentz preach:

While play-to-earn is still an emerging niche, it could redefine more than just the gaming landscape. In fact, we make the case that it has the potential to change how people interact with and perceive traditional socioeconomic structures like financial institutions, marketplaces, and governments…. [This] marks the moment in time in which digital assets, experiences and relationships are assigned an even bigger value than our physical surroundings.

I’m sure you’ve already spotted the problem. Gaming is — and will remain for the foreseeable future — a luxury economy. When people say the industry is growing, all they really mean is that more and more people are willing to spend a greater and greater portion of their disposable income on things like character skins and bonus features — and willing to spend less, therefore, on physical goods like shoes and caviar. There’s no way, though, that gaming can actually 'create' any new wealth of its own — it simply inherits it from elsewhere and then endlessly shuffles it around. For poor farmers in Venezuela or the Philippines, that really does mean, of course, that it genuinely is possible to make a living from gaming, simply by exploiting the huge amounts of money rich Westerners are willing to spend on virtual goods (in much the same way that some people make a living buying and reselling luxury shoes). But in the end, we all still need food, energy, security, and everything else on which luxury economies depend — no doubt it’s an obvious point, but if all the farmers in the world suddenly decided to drop their hoes and start playing Runescape instead, gold in Runescape would become worthless very quickly.

There’s simply no way that gaming can somehow become a self-sustaining economy of its own, hovering free above the physical world. The future of a game like Axie Infinity, as the crypto-tech consultancy Naavik admits, depends entirely on continuing to attract 'significant numbers of players happy to simply play the game for fun and put new money into the system without expecting a return'. Everything, they write, 'hinges on the ability to generate more ongoing revenue from existing players'. Oh. Right.

So no, we are not now assigning more value to digital assets than we are our physical surroundings. The value of digital assets lies downstream from the physical world, in just the same way that the value of Ethereum ultimately depends on the world producing enough food and energy, and being considerate enough not to triple-front-flip itself into a gigantic global nuclear war.

Right now, it still makes good economic sense for big companies to plough money into gaming — the wave is there for the riding! It’s also quite plausible that the digital assets market really will grow — at least a little. Humans spend huge amounts on otherwise worthless branded items, and it’s perfectly reasonable to assume they’ll splash out on otherwise worthless virtual branded items, too. But that’s all this stuff will ever be: an expendable luxury.

Unless, of course, the idea behind Job Simulator is right, and automation really does solve the problem of work. Sure, if nuclear fusion can provide us with unlimited clean energy, and if super-intelligent, automated John Deeres can grow and harvest all our food for us, then yes, perhaps at that point the underlying physical economy really will be able to trot along on its own, doled out to us by universal basic income, and — not knowing what else to do with our endless abundance — we really will just spend our time playing games.

Will that be enough? Maybe. A friend told me recently of an acquaintance, an early employee at Blockchain, back then paid only in Bitcoin. Having now made his millions, this chap has retired in his thirties, and spends most of his time playing the space game EVE Online. Maybe that’s all we really want. We could all be just like the Chinese workers paid to farm gold in Runescape, who carry on playing after their shifts have finished — for fun — or the pensioners who now spend their retirement playing FarmVille.

Maybe, once in a blue moon, we’ll get a little tetchy, and to soothe ourselves we’ll don our VR goggles like the poor saps in Job Simulator and reminisce briefly about the good old days.

In a way, it’d all be a neat conclusion to the so-called 'end of history'. The grand narratives have all been debunked — and still none of us has any idea what 'successor ideology' could fill the void. Maybe the only way out, then, is to busy ourselves with day-to-day micro-adventures, and the never-ending challenge of getting a better score than our friends.