This is the second part of a special Forkast series on humorist Joel Stein’s adventures in the blockchain world. The first chapter, on his first-ever crypto wallet, is here.

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Of course I want to play to earn. I want to earn money doing all the things I enjoy. Eat to earn? Sure. Watch TV to earn? I’m in. Sex to earn? Historically that’s had complications, but I’m confident that the blockchain can work those out.  

So I got pretty excited when I learned that you no longer had to be on a pro esports team to make money playing video games. Average players at home can now also case in through “play to earn” games, where instead of getting fake gold coins, you get fake-sounding cryptocurrencies.

The biggest “play to earn” game is Axie Infinity. It’s a digital collectible card game, like Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering, in which teams of three Axies battle each other. Axies are adorable colorful cartoon axolotls, which are endangered salamanders that look like they’re always smiling. Axolotls have been bred as pets ever since they were imported to Paris from Mexico in 1864, they can regenerate cool body parts like their jaws, and their mating rituals involve dancing. I was hoping the way to win the game was to pelt other players with axolotl fun facts until they surrender. 

But that’s not how it works. In Axie Infinity, you make money by being awarded crypto from winning battles. And by breeding new Axies that you can sell as non-fungible tokens. One Axie NFT sold for 300ETH (or about US$130,000 at the time) last November, and an NFT of land in the Axie metaverse, which isn’t even the part of the game most people use, sold for 888.2ETH (more than US$2.5 million) last February. In the Philippines, so many Filipinos were playing Axie as their full-time job that the government tried to tax the Vietnam-based company that makes the game. That firm, Sky Mavis, was valued at US$3 billion, after a US$152 million funding round led by Andreesen Horowitz. Silicon Valley obviously sees a future in which I come home from a long day at work and complain to my wife about how I couldn’t save the princess because a stupid ape kept throwing barrels at me.  

But there’s no play-to-earn Donkey Kong yet — so I signed up at the Axie Infinity website for my first day of play-to-earn work. It turned out that before I could start playing to earn, I had to pay to buy at least three NFT Axies for my team. So it was less “play to earn” than “pay to play to earn.” And these Axies were not cheap. At the height of the game, putting even a minor league team of Axies together was going to cost me more than US$1,000. And I had no idea if I’d be good at it. 

Paying to do a job seemed counterintuitive to me. Then I realized I wasn’t being Web 3.0 entrepreneurial enough. Don’t Uber drivers pay to earn? Don’t strippers pay a house fee to the club to dance for tips? Didn’t I pay for my laptop to start my freelance writing career? Why was I objecting to investing US$1,000 for the potential of a career playing video games? 

Luckily, the Axie community had already figured out a solution to my problem. Gamers who couldn’t, or didn’t want to put in the money for their own Axies could obtain “scholarships” from people who owned Axies. This is not a traditional scholarship in which a benefactor awards a superstar kid money toward school tuition. Instead, it’s a “scholarship” that is more like “hiring.” Someone buys some Axies, loans them to you to play with, and you split the profits, creating a “lend to play to earn” model. It’s the Web3 ideal: You are the owner of the digital item and can sell, rent, or use it to enslave others as you wish. Some of the scholarship recipients had made enough to buy their own Axies and give scholarships to others, creating an Avon ladies-like multi-level marketing business organization inside the game.

My new entrepreneurial spirit led me to devise my own Axie scholarship for myself, structured on the model of playing the game for free at friends’ houses. I asked Jay Schultz if I could come over and play with his Axies. As a young gamer who got an Activision Explorer’s Club patch after sending in a photo proving I’d gotten more than 20,000 points in Pitfall! on my Atari 2600, I was going to be a valuable coworker. I’d help Jay get rich, he’d give me part of the money, and I’d come out way ahead because I’d also have eaten his snacks.

Jay, 38, is a friend of a friend. He manages an IT group at Snap, the company behind Snapchat, and is a long-term gamer. In high school, the only exercise he got was sprinting from the bus to his computer to play Myth II: Soulblighter. These days, he plays Axie, sometimes for intense stretches. “I can play for an inhuman amount of hours. Hours your mind might not find realistic,” he told me. This was the Yoda-like mentor I wanted.

I met Jay at the media room in his apartment complex in Los Angeles. He had a beard, wore a tie-dyed T-shirt and wielded a MacBook Pro. I couldn’t wait for him to show me the way to my play-to-earn enlightenment and our Axie fortune.

The first thing Jay told me was that we weren’t going to make any money playing Axie. “If I’m into this game to make money, I’m doing a bad job,” he said. Instead, Jay has been losing money playing Axie Infinity, which seemed like he exposed a major flaw in the “play to earn” idea.

He explained that there are two kinds of coins a player can earn in Axie Infinity. Smooth Love Potion (SLP) is a coin you earn from winning battles. You can spend SLP to breed new Axie NFTs or you can sell SLP on the open market, where it was once highly coveted and expensive but is now no longer worth very much. SLP went from 36.4 cents in May 2021 to 1.7 cents the day in April when Jay and I met. This was partly because the game kept minting more SLP for battle winners who didn’t have much to spend it on. This breaks the Econ 101 rule of not calling your currency Smooth Love Potion.

You also need the AXS token to buy your Axie NFT players. AXS was priced at US$164.90 on Nov. 6, 2021, but was now down to less than US$40. If the crashing of Axie’s internal economics wasn’t bad enough, the company’s real economics took a gut punch in March, when North Korea created a mightier “steal to earn” game, hacking into Sky Mavis and grabbing about US$620 million from the sidechain it linked to Ethereum. 

Jay had lost a bunch of money buying two Axies that he thought would be a great investment since the creatures had superpowers for attacking that also allowed them to generate a nearly endless number of extra cards, thanks to the fact that they had both Ivory Chop and Overgrown Keratin. “I was beating everyone consistently, which didn’t make sense because I wasn’t very good,” he said sheepishly, explaining that what he did was considered to be “cheese” in the gaming community. He rose to a ranking of nearly 10,000 out of about 2 million Axie Infinity players. 

Then the company changed the rules and the Axies Jay bought lost their special powers. And all the value he assumed they’d accrue as rare and collectible NFTs. “In my head, this was the Black Lotus from Magic: The Gathering. It was a false analogy I made,” he said. 

When I asked how much money he had lost, Jay said he didn’t know. Really? “That’s a difficult math question,” he said. “How much did the AXS cost? How much did the SLP cost for breeding the two Axies? It’s all in Ethereum and I don’t pay attention to what Ethereum is worth. There are also a lot of fees involved. Should I spend my time to calculate how much money I lost? That seems like spending more money.”

I was not going to let all this bad economic news get in the way of my play-to-earn dream. We fired up Axie Infinity and picked three adorable Axies — a pink one with a balloon tail, a lime green one carrying a beach sandal for squashing bugs, and a grey one with fangs — from Jay’s army to take into battle against other players. 

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There are nine different classes of Axies, and there’s a rock/paper/scissors dynamic to how they fight. For instance, beasts, birds and mechs (mechanicals) beat reptiles, plants and dusks. The Axies also have genetic differences, such as a radish tail that lets them play certain cards. This all makes sense if you’re playing the game and are very stoned.

If you have two Axies, and they love each other very much, you can breed them like the Parisians once did. There are breeding simulators, which I assumed were some kind of axolotl anime porn that I would pretend to be grossed out by, but then give it another chance at home later. But breeding simulators are not like that at all. Jay showed me Freak’s Axie Extension, which can calculate the odds of 10 possible Axies you might spawn based on the dominant and recessive genes listed on the Axies you intend to force into an arranged marriage. To actually breed them in the game, you have to spend SLP, which right now could cost you hundreds of cents.

In our first battle of the Axies, Jay’s bird, mech and plant took on a team with a beast, a reptile and another plant. We took care to monitor our health, our energy and speed, all while listening to background music that sounded a lot like what they play on repeat at the pirate section of Legoland. We each took turns attacking, which looks like a smiling cartoon blob turning angry and smacking into another cartoon blob. We slammed our tails into our foes, popping their balloon extremities. At one point we took a critical hit, called a “crit” — which is like a normal hit, but more critical. Then we returned volley. “We got a crit that time!” Jay yells. “What goes around comes around, punk!”

After five minutes of choosing which cards to play, we dispense with our opponent, winning 5 SLP, or 8.5 cents. Which goes into an Axie-specific wallet called the Ronin Wallet. 

After a few training sessions, Jay staked me in a game, putting many U.S. cents on the line. In my first game, I somehow won. Jay beamed with a teacher’s pride. “You used hare dagger as your first move to draw an extra card,” Jay said. “You got early value out of your tank. That’s good fundamentals.” Jay’s approval felt so good that I didn’t even care about the 8.5 cents I won that Jay wasn’t offering to split with me.

After two hours of playing Axie, I subtly asked to look at our earnings. But Jay had trouble remembering where his SLP was kept and what wrapped Ethereum was. He had only bought crypto to play Axie and doesn’t use it for anything else, which isn’t uncommon: About half of the crypto wallets created toward the end of last year and early this year were opened to play games like Axie Infinity. 

Jay played because he liked it. Owning the Axies was fun, and making money wasn’t his goal at all. Axie Infinity was the type of game Jay’d been waiting for since he bought a first-generation iPhone in 2007. He assumed that as soon as people got smartphones we’d build creatures and wield the devices like weapons to battle each other in person. Axie Infinity was the closest thing he’d found.

We had earned 118 SLP, or US$2. It wasn’t the play-to-earn riches I had hoped for (though it might not be so bad if I were in the Philippines, where the minimum wage can be as little as US$6.57 a day). But I had a really nice afternoon with Jay, exchanging childhood video game memories and talking about the grease trucks outside Rutgers that we both ate at as teens growing up in New Jersey. I’m going to stick with “play to friend.”