Colonialism in real time

A whole new level of cheap-ass ugly art that you can sell as NFTs!

Wow. It’s amazing how oblivious the defenders of a colonial system can be, but this article about an NFT/crypto gaming system is revealing, in a horrifying way. Some Western crypto nuts created a modified version of Minecraft in which players, after paying a hefty entry fee, could earn crypto money that could be exchanged for the real thing just by playing. It was called Critterz. At first, people actually did make money playing!

For a while, it worked. Some Critterz players told Rest of World that, at one point, they were earning more than $100 a day playing the game. At its peak, it had around 2,000 daily players, some of whom enlisted other players to help build their in-game empires for a cut of the crypto they earned. One U.S. player, who goes by “Big Chief,” described how his team, composed largely of young people in the Philippines, gathered building materials for him. He then paid professional Minecraft builders around $10,000 in crypto to turn those materials into a lavish casino.

“At first.” Then, like most of these crypto schemes, the grifters took their profits and left the participants hanging. In addition, Minecraft announced that you can’t use their game in these NFT cons. The value is plummeting, and is heading towards zero.

But, as with Axie Infinity, once the game became more popular, the value of its crypto token began to drop. Worth 85 cents at its peak in January, it had decreased to around 3 cents by May. But the depreciation was gradual, and many players continued playing and building.

Then, on July 20, 2022, in a post on the Minecraft website, developer Mojang Studios dropped a bombshell: Minecraft would not support integrations with NFTs. The company laid out its position and stated in bold text that “blockchain technologies are not permitted to be integrated inside our Minecraft client and server applications nor may they be utilized to create NFTs associated with any in-game content, including worlds, skins, personal items, or other mods.”

During its heyday, though, the mechanisms of the game were ripe for exploitation. If you had the capital, you could help poor people buy-in, and then rake in a percentage of their subsequent earnings. Sweet! Then you could sit back and do nothing in your wealthy home country, like the US, while the peons on your Minecraft plantation send you money.

It was clear from the languages used in the Critterz chat log that almost all guild members, also known as “scholars,” came from low-income countries, and, overwhelmingly, the Philippines. Many were also former players of Axie Infinity, and worked for guild owners that ran Axie guilds too.

Charles Franzis, a 19-year-old student at Bulacan State University, just north of Manila, got into Axie Infinity last October. He joined a guild called Big Chief Academy and enrolled as a scholar, hoping to earn some extra money that would support him through his studies.

Big Chief was the owner of the plantation, with a swarm of desperate poor peasants playing for him.

Big Chief, who is based in the U.S., owns around 60 Critterz NFTs, which, at their peak, were worth more than $300,000 (at the time of publication, they had reduced in value to around $5,000). At one point, he managed around 200 guild scholars in Critterz.

But hey, they liked playing the game, and he paid them a cut, so it was OK. It was OK, right? They got more than half of what they earned, the rest going into Big Chief’s pockets, instead of 100%, but that was the cost of his beneficent patronage.

Big Chief said that he split earnings 60/40 in favor of his scholars, and that, unlike other games like Axie Infinity, most of them actually enjoyed playing Minecraft. “These kids are playing Minecraft, a game that they already liked and played, and earning as much as a CPA (certified public accountant) in the Philippines,” he said.

It was a force for good! I’m sure every colonized country has heard these arguments, that being under the thumb of a paymaster has been a civilizing influence. Meanwhile, 40% of the wealth produced in their country is being siphoned off to a rich country, which is making no investment in their homeland.

Big Chief framed guilds in play-to-earn gaming as a force for good, arguing that they provide people in poorer parts of the world with an opportunity to make money. “That’s why it’s really annoying when people talk about exploitation,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you what the hourly rate comes to, but I could tell you that people make very little money and the cost of living is very low in the Philippines.”

Don’t forget the patronizing attitude!

Big Chief said he felt bad for his guild members who were no longer able to make money from Critterz. “I treated a lot of these kids like they’re my kids, so it’s kind of sad now that I can’t really offer them much. Before, I was really helping a lot of these kids, giving them an opportunity to make some extra cash for their families and it just kind of sucks that I can’t really do that right now,” he said.

Aww, he was so helpful to these people he saw remotely as percentages on a spreadsheet.

Critterz is doomed, it’s already collapsing in value, and once Mojang shuts them down, it’ll be a worthless game. Poor Big Chief. He won’t be able to milk this grift for profit. But don’t you worry, the designers are dreaming big of future horizons in game development. Look at this nightmare fantasy:

But he also envisions NFT games that could exploit the wealth gap between players to deliver a different experience. “With the cheap labor of a developing country, you could use people in the Philippines as NPCs (“non-playable characters”), real-life NPCs in your game,” said Kossar. They could “just populate the world, maybe do a random job or just walk back and forth, fishing, telling stories, a shopkeeper, anything is really possible.”

The big triple-A gaming companies are probably already drooling at the prospect. They could sell games at a premium to American and European customers, and then use monthly fees to buy the labor of some hungry bunch of Filipinos for a pittance, and have them do all the menial stuff of serving the valued players. Until the day the NPCs rise up in a Westworld scenario and start slaughtering the privileged players.

Nah, won’t happen. You’ve gotta keep the NPCs weak and relatively unarmed so they are helpless.

Man, this is just going to replay all the sins of the colonial powers, isn’t it?


  1. IX-103, the ■■■■ing idiot says

    Use people to just “just populate the world, maybe do a random job or just walk back and forth, fishing”

  2. billmcd says

    The big triple-A gaming companies were drooling at the prospect, until players in basically every market told them point blank ‘do not put NFTs into our game, you morons. Keep the crypto crap out.’ That’s why Mojang made the statement they did. It’s why even Hilmar Pétursson of Iceland’s CCP Games, despite himself being a massive crypto-bro, felt compelled to issue a boilerplate ‘there will be no NFTs in the game, ever’ statement.

    And it’s not exactly surprising, either. The game companies can only lose value with NFTs. NFTs, by design, denote ownership. Game companies of the large, persistent worlds that triple-A studios make aren’t going to give anyone else any right to claim ownership of something on their servers. It’s right in the Terms of Service on most of them: Anything you build on our server, we own. Including your character. Including any stories about what your character’s done in this game. All ours! (Part of this is boilerplate to protect their IP, but it’s one of the parts that makes them like to settle disputes in arbitration. They don’t want any part of their ToS/EULA to go in front of a judge, because it’ll quickly get EULAs in general rendered unenforceable.)

    Minecraft’s different, because it allows privately-owned servers. (And yes, Mojang’s owned by Microsoft these days, but Redmond’s been pretty hands-off so as not to upset the cash-cow.) But for most triple-A companies (including, shockingly, EA), NFTs might be fine for freemium mobile trash, but they won’t be getting anywhere near the big money-makers. Too likely to kill the golden goose.

  3. cvoinescu says

    We’re already exploiting the pay difference between countries by outsourcing what we can, from manufacturing to customer service. Especially in call centers, workers are essentially NPCs, made to read off inane scripts devised by consultants paid ridiculous amounts to bypass human thought. It’s the Mechanical Turk version of Alexa.

    The argument that “they’re playing” is about as valid as, say, telling a worker in the clothing industry that performing the same operation hundreds of time a day in a cramped, unsafe factory is a hobby.

  4. tacitus says

    I would have been shocked if Mojang/Microsoft had allowed Minecraft to include anything to do with crypto or NFTs. Microsoft bought Mojang for $6 billion because of its enduring popularity with children and the fact that it’s one of those rare titles that’s equally as popular with adults (especially approving parents), ensuring a shelf live that will eventually be measured in decades.

  5. Walter Solomon says

    There is a game-oriented YouTuber who has a running joke that NPCs on online games are actually controlled by kids in developing countries. It seems he wasn’t too far off from reality.

    This all just goes to show human nature doesn’t change just the technology. We have now witnessed the emergence of e-Lord Jim.

  6. mcfrank0 says

    Neal Stephenson predicted the role of “ractors” in video games in his 1995 novel “The Diamond Age”.