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Blockchain will turn gaming into a career, and give power to the players

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Spells of Genesis

Video games are more than a game. They are, at different times for different people, a challenge, a business, a lifestyle, or all the above. While professional gamers fight for titles, and the money that goes with them, millions of others are buying, selling, gathering, grouping, chatting, and organizing. While not everyone has realized it, humanity has long passed the point of projecting real value only on tangible objects. Virtual goods can command staggering sums.

Many games, like Fortnite and League of Legends, have built themselves on top of paid transactions for characters, items, and currency. Yet the details of how these purchases interact are often unclear.  What should players own? How should goods be traded? Who should dictate pricing? The answers depend on the game you play and can vary wildly from one game to the next, sowing distrust and confusion. Players want consistency, flexibility, transparency, and privacy. They’re not getting it.

Blockchain might be the answer – and more. The promise of ownership may be what lures gamers towards it, but they’ll get more than they bargained for.

Virtual items, real ownership

Seeing the potential for profit, companies soon appeared to ‘farm’ in-game gold and items. By the mid-2000s, gold farming was in full swing, complete with digital sweatshops that saw workers spend 12-hour days grinding away in games. Free-to-play games turned that reality into a business model, selling official virtual goods for real cash. Today, gamers find themselves hurdling down the rabbit hole. Star Citizen has raked in millions of dollars selling virtual goods for a game that’s not even complete.

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Despite that, the rules surrounding these transactions, and the items themselves, are nebulous. Most games prohibit selling or purchasing in-game items, pushing transactions to the black market. Middle-man businesses like PlayerAuctions have risen in response, promising a risk-free transaction between buyer and seller.

Players often take advantage of these, feeling that they own the items they’ve earned. Scams are common – these are black market transactions, after all. Even purchases that seem to go smoothly aren’t guaranteed safe. Game developers often intervene, issuing temporary suspensions, or outright bans, to anyone discovered. Most people aren’t discovered, though, so some players are willing to take the risk. In fact, it’s not uncommon for players to feel cheated when caught. They’ve spent real money, or many hours, to earn what they’ve acquired. Why shouldn’t they feel a sense of ownership?

While players take pride in the in-game wealth they’ve gathered, they rarely have legal ownership.

That cuts to the core problem. While players take pride in the in-game wealth they’ve gathered, they rarely have legal ownership of virtual goods, no matter how they’re acquired. Blizzard Entertainment’s End User License Agreement makes that clear, declaring itself “the owner and license of all right, title, and interest […]” That includes all currency, virtual goods, even entire player accounts. Pay Blizzard $25 for a mount, or spend that same money on black market gold through ZamGold – either way, your don’t own a thing.

Blockchain turns that on its head. It’s effectively a digital ledger without a master copy. Transactions aren’t stored on any on computer, but instead stored on a network of computers, and they’re verified the same way. Transactions are recorded across the entire network through a shared record that no single computer holds. Transactions remain valid even when a PC goes offline – called ‘cold storage’ in the world of Bitcoin – making always-online game clients obsolete.

Strangely, it’s decentralization that makes true ownership possible. The database exists independent of any single person or organization, which makes its records objective, fair, and true. In blockchain circles, this is counter-intuitively labelled as “trust-less.” The implication isn’t that the blockchain can’t be trusted but, instead, that blockchain makes trust unnecessary. It doesn’t matter if you trust everyone else one the blockchain, because fraud is impossible – on the blockchain itself, at least. It’s a clever, and realistic, implementation.