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Tokens of appreciation

We take a look at the current debate raging about non-fungible tokens, and present you with some good ideas for their use in games.

Young woman looking towards camera

Non-fungible tokens are here! But a token for what? An arcade machine? An Overwatch loot crate? The jetwash at the BP garage? Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, will already be familiar to many of you, but for anyone who hasn’t yet wandered into the latest ‘under-construction’ intersection of art and technology, they’re tokens on a blockchain.

Where bitcoin is fungible, like paper money (if I lend you a tenner you don’t give me the exact same tenner back), non-fungibles are … well you get it. They’re unique. So in theory, when they’re applied to a piece of digital content (let’s say, an artwork, or a tweet), they create a way of securing ownership. Digital artists in particular are now selling artwork as NFTs, and lots of people are having Big Opinions about it.

This is good. The art world is comically old-fashioned, elitist and stubborn at times, and anything to shake it up pleases me. I’ve long worked at the aforementioned intersection of art and technology, and have seen firsthand how the old guard first reject, then oppose, then finally embrace new technologies once they become profitable.

I don’t like Banksy’s art, but I do love watching hypocritical millionaires sneer at street art while simultaneously hoovering up Banksies. There are questions about NFTs. Is their production devastating for the environment? Is it a scam and no actual money has changed hands? Is it a silly fad that will blow over as soon as it’s begun? Will everyone wake up and find all their NFTs deleted like the end of Fight Club? But while the NFT debate rages its cultural impact is here to stay. Once you acknowledge the concept of an ‘original’ digital item, it sticks, and nowhere is that idea more exciting to me than video games.

But first, I have to add the caveat that if a solution to the enormous environmental impact of NFTs can’t be found, all this is moot. There’s enough potential profit flying around that lots of people are very motivated to solve it , but also some people are equally motivated to play down the emissions problem with NFTs, so beware of bias.

Anyway, NFTs in video games. The most obvious application is collectibles. NFTs have already been applied to digital basketball ‘moments’ via NBA Topshot, which has revenues into the hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re basically, trading cards, a concept on which many blockbuster video games are based. If rare cards are desirable, imagine unique cards.

NFTs could also be worn as in-game clothing – you maybe couldn’t stop another player duplicating the visuals, but you could have a way to indicate that you own the original. Indeed, they’re already being applied to real-world, physical fashion. You could one day buy an NFT hat and wear it both in-game and in-chair. Nice.

Games could offer NFTs as unique prizes or achievements too. These would have to be skill-based rather than random drops though. Any in-game token that could be traded out for regular currency could put the developer into ‘this is gambling and therefore must be regulated’ territory, as I’ve covered in previous columns about loot crates.

There are also problems around character and logo design copyright to solve, as major publishers are going to have to figure out what exactly they’ll be giving away for somebody else to own.

However, with enough imagination and the potential for motivating profit, and with the assumption that (admittedly large, multiple) problems can be solved, the applications of NFTs in gaming are endless.