Infinite Games: How Crypto Is ‘LARPing’

Crypto communities are playing a big series of “live action role playing games,” and they’re changing how we organize and interact across digital and physical spaces. This post is part of Crypto 2022: Culture Week.

Dec 13, 2021
CoinDesk Insights

At the 2018 “Devcon” Ethereum Developers Conference in Prague, internet guru and self-proclaimed “culture hacker” Stewart Brand shared the book that changed his life: “Finite and Infinite Games” by philosophy scholar James Carse.

“Infinite players look forward, not to a victory … but towards ongoing play,” states the book as an analogy to pushing cultural boundaries and hacking society to pursue serious goals, with a playful approach. Crypto communities are doing just this, and changing economics, policy and culture as they go.

Culture Week is part of CoinDesk’s Crypto 2022 series, which also includes Policy Week and Future of Money Week.

The global cryptocurrency market cap is $2.3 trillion. El Salvador has made bitcoin legal tender, challenging the role of traditional international money lending banks. Meanwhile, it’s all a big live action role-playing (LARP) game for high-profile crypto engineers, such as the Ethereum Foundation core developer team, which has opened multiple conferences by dancing and rapping, to remind the community to not take themselves too seriously and just keep on playing the game.

In crypto, we know that life and death are in the power of the meme. Memes are fragments of culture that stick in your head to propagate ideas. Memes are a communication device, they are signals that can move markets, and they can also be the life or death of a project. The latest meme in crypto is “LARPing.”

LARPing as participatory, playful learning

LARP refers to games where participants physically portray their characters, by wearing costumes, assuming personas and pursuing goals within real-world environments while interacting with other players in character. LARPing is the avatar we wear in the metaverse. It’s the ways in which we present ourselves as who we want to be.

Games can be designed to pursue educational or political goals to awaken or shape thinking. LARPs can range in size from a few participants to large public events with thousands of people. LARPs are a distinct category of role-playing game because players physically embody their characters, and the game takes place in a physical frame. LARPing is an essential part of participatory role-playing culture.

A scene from LootLARP. (LootLARP)

Blockchain communities are epic LARPs

Participating in blockchain communities is just like LARPing.

Blockchains have been referred to as knowledge clubs, meaning they are communities that pool information to make coordination decisions, such as shared investment or software development. Just like game masters in a LARP decide the rules of the game to facilitate play, crypto software developers have been referred to as important protagonists in the making of blockchain economies (or “hacker-engineers”).

Crypto communities have always been good at LARPs, with a full annual calendar of conferences and meetups in different locations coming and going around the world, and the issuance of “proof-of-personhood” protocols such as “POAP” non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

Now, crypto communities are obsessed with crossing the barrier between digital and physical spaces with “the metaverse,” and have created the tools to do so with blockchain-based virtual worlds and NFTs. NFTs offer provable ownership over data, such as property rights, to cross between a digital representation of a physical asset, and vice versa.

Crypto communities are also demonstrating what it looks like to play virtual games in physical spaces. A16z’s Balaji Srinivasan predicts that these decentralized “network states” will collectively negotiate with existing jurisdictions and crowdfund territory in the real world. Crypto communities are already doing this.

On a small scale, some communities are using NFT-embedded clothing to prove permissions or access rights to side parties at crypto conferences. More significantly, crypto community Decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) now have the wealth and purchasing power to buy up plots of land.

Next, NFTs could provide verifiable credentials for people who own digital land to access houses, islands or entire territories in physical “meatspace.”

Crypto LARPs are having real-world impact. Now, governments are spending real money (in the millions of dollars) to acquire virtual land and create “metaverse embassies.”

LARP all you want

LARPing is the new meme in crypto to describe boundary pushing experimentation and next-level social and political gaming. A recent LARPing initiative launched by the GitcoinDAO community, humbly named “the greatest LARP,” is an “alternative reality game” and exercise in “networked storytelling.”

The point is to play a coordination game to learn about coordination games (which is cryptocurrency), as well as raising money for the Gitcoin mission of funding public goods in the in-game NFT auctions. The game espouses the Ethereum community ethos of replacing existing social institutions with peer-to-peer coordination games.

The game Killing Moloch, the god of coordination failures, purports the message that all around us in society there are coordination failures, and yet people so often fall into the tragedy of the commons by optimizing for extractive, self-benefiting outcomes, instead of win-win games.

Another expression of a recent crypto LARP is Loot Larp, a live action role-playing game in a castle in Barcelona. Loot Larp is enabled by digital-physical wearable gear that has “Kong” microchips embedded so people can scan each other’s items with a mobile phone and read data off them. These “new interactions unlock in a variety of smart contract games that play out simultaneously IRL and on the blockchain” stated the Loot Larp website. Limited edition items create limited edition realities.

LARPing is ad hoc networks at work

After Steward Brand but before the “memes” of modern crypto communities were “the Cypherpunks”: countercultural software developers and thinkers whose discussions and innovations in decentralized communication systems led to the invention of bitcoin.

Cryptocurrency is predicated on self-determination over communication networks. Now, crypto communities are manifesting the next instantiation of these self-governed coordination infrastructures by combining the tools of cryptocurrency, NFTs, DAOs and decentralized finance (DeFi) to re-claim not just digital but physical spaces.

LARPing is s an extension of ad hoc communication networks and the next iteration of the crypto economy. A LARP is like an ad hoc network that is here one moment for a gathering, a community and a shared experience, and gone the next. Mobile crypto wallets brought us the “pop up economy,” where people could come together, interact and disappear. Now, assets are digitized, owned, staked, claimed and the crypto economy has graduated to the full blown cryptoverse, leveraging the “collaterize everything” ethos of the “DeFi degens,” along with the hype of NFT ownership and reputation by showing it via your latest Twitter dp.

This time, community networks are not “immutable” and permanent but temporary and ephemeral. Cryptocurrency communities are fulfilling original Cypherpunk thinkers’ ideations of “temporary autonomous zones” with their ability to establish coordination networks, pool capital and mobilize. The question remains, what will they do with it?

A series game

From humble beginnings in a niche mailing list on the internet, to Bitcoin as the first fully functioning public, decentralized blockchain, to Ethereum, to micro DAOs who don’t even know what Ethereum is, cryptocurrency has matured to a point where crypto communities can really do whatever they want. With a loosely articulated political vision of providing infrastructure to the provision of public goods (in place of the state), crypto LARPs are a serious game.

What remains not so clear is the guiding vision in crypto. We like memes. We dig the metaverse. Is there a grand plan or is that dictatorial? And are we better playing numerous games to build multipolar worlds?

Executive Director of Ethereum Foundation Aya Myaguchi recently drew on the idea of “infinite games” to describe Ethereum as “growing the infinite garden.” What is most important is “how you play the game” and “playing together” states Myaguchi. It’s not just about technology, it’s about people.

As crypto tools evolve in the context of a series of infinite participatory learning games and community play, we are changing economics, policy and culture.

What this means is to LARP responsibly, and LARP on.

(Kevin Ross/CoinDesk)

DISCLOSURE

The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Kelsie Nabben is a PhD Candidate and researcher at RMIT University's Centre for Automated Decision-Making & Society.