In the nearly 40 years since Atari launched Pong, the first commercially available video game, enthusiasts and designers have elevated the theoretical underpinnings of video games into a whole intellectual discipline. For the scholars and theorists who populate this field, “fun” is not an abstraction or a subjective ambiguity, but instead a concrete state achieved through the strategic deployment of structured game elements – and, according to them, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are boring as dirt.
So what is fun? Raph Koster’s "A Theory of Fun for Game Design" argues that fun is ultimately rooted in cognitive psychology – specifically, our ability to learn. The human mind excels at recognizing patterns, gathering and analyzing information and using those inputs to dynamically respond to new situations. Put differently, fun games are “richly interpretable situations” – a phrase from Craig Perko, who himself laundered it from neuroscientists Biedermal and Vessel.
This is where the NFT space falls short. Currently, many of the most popular NFTs projects use the underlying technology to create or sell collectibles. This success is derived in part because NFTs are an ideal collection vehicle – I often think about NFT developer Nate Hart’s haunting and glib motto for his Chainfaces project: “We are ready to watch over you forever ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°).”
NFTs are immutable, immortal, resistant to theft, impossible to forge and come with built-in provenance tracking. Institutional interest in these benefits is evidenced by trials from art behemoths Soetheby’s and Christie’s. Additionally, there’s a half dozen or so blockchain-based marketplaces locked in healthy competition for dominance. Experiments in interactivity and usability, such as Decentraland’s Museum District, are also giving collectors a way to enjoy their pieces beyond sitting in a cold wallet.
Collecting, however, isn’t fun. Psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger studied compulsive collectors and found their tic is a byproduct of material insecurity, childhood trauma or anxiety relating to self-actualization. Upon obtaining a new item, an appeased collector might briefly enter a “self-induced, trancelike state of mind” – until, of course, the need for a new item again creeps to the forefront of their thoughts.
Loonies, weirdos and the occasional prospector looking to mine liquidity premiums: This is the collecting population (myself included). The growing ecosystem and the ever-slicker user interface/user experience (UI/UX) platforms ornamenting NFT-backed art and collectibles are all heartening from a development perspective, but ultimately they won’t lead to widespread adoption. Collectors will always be on the fringe. If NFTs are going to break mainstream, they need a more popular vehicle.
One option proponents put forth are NFT-based video or card games. Like with NFTs-as-collectibles, the benefits are easy to name: NFT game items allow hobbyists to better monetize their time with tradable assets, provide access to larger player pools and markets, and enable cross-game usability through “metaverses.” Significant as these improvements over legacy game items might be, they still center on utility and value – not fun. This alone might be enough to bring the masses in, but I doubt it.
The path forward is paved by embracing a fundamental, but under-appreciated property of NFTs: their underpinning smart contract logic. Like structured game logic, smart contract logic can be used to make NFTs fun.
Consider the hybrid conservation fund and collectibles platform Wildcards. Wildcards is governed by an economic policy known as a Harberger tax. Collectors buy NFTs representative of different endangered animals, and pay a small tax to maintain them (fees that are donated to conservation organizations). But anyone at any time can swipe an NFT from another collector by paying its full price.
A dynamic, gamified NFT asset that can be moved at any time. As a collector, it makes me shudder and clutch my childhood baseball cards to my chest. As a fan of games? Kinda sounds fun!
Tezos co-founder Kathleen Breitman and her team at Coase have brought similar functionality to their trading card game Emergents, which ties popular NFT-backed cards to bonding curves, or algorithms that adjust prices based on demand.
It’s a technological solution to the limits imposed by traditional card markets. In addition to making all cards accessible to all players, Emergents incentivizes clever strategists to theorycraft competitive decks from cheaper cards, which would subsequently increase their price. Similar to how DeFi has been aptly compared to a multi-player game, or MMO, this system would blend the game and the card market into one experience – a highly interpretable, complex and fun game-within-a-game.
Not all NFT projects need to introduce such elegantly designed systems to become more fun. One way to unlock fun experiences (and immense potential economic impact) is by incorporating smart-contract based randomness to determine the distribution, appearance or attributes of an NFT.
Take The Six Dragons, a blockchain-based video game where players gather NFT-backed “ingredients” to forge into more powerful weapons via high-level “blockchain blacksmiths.” The new weapons’ stats, rarity, and even the slight possibility that all components are destroyed are determined by a mixture of player experience and input randomness.
This feature, like those offered by Wildcards and Emergents, goes beyond offering players some extra utility and the possibility of a buck by moving things on-chain. The developers of these projects have used NFTs to create entirely new game dynamics, ones which fundamentally rely on and are enably by the security and transparency of smart contract functionality.
They’re simple, but potentially revolutionary twists that elevate NFTs from static assets to fun, dynamic game elements rooted in smart contract logic.
In the introduction to his book, Koster likens the growth of video games to a toddler learning to walk: slowly, clumsily, sometimes painfully. Right now it seems like NFT adoption faces a similarly long process. Perhaps by tapping into what makes NFTs truly special – their ability to dynamically respond to human inputs via smart contracts – the space might bypass its growing pains and reach a broad audience sooner rather than later.
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