NFTs… why do they have value?

BY COLIN CAMPBELL


The metaverse and the digital revolution of Web3, NFTs, and cryptocurrency is a concept divided between boosters, skeptics, and dreamers. I count myself in the latter camp – I’m excited by the almost unlimited potential of a new digital universe. At the same time, I’m reluctant to be swept up by the current hyperbole. The future of gaming entertainment is, as ever, a work-in-progress.

The metaverse I’m going to speak of here is not the one in which NFT-bros spend thousands of dollars investing in jpgs of dancing frogs, nor is it the one that is destined to crash the global economy and usher in a new Stone Age. It’s a thing, a place that is coming into existence, and that will bring opportunities and disappointments, charlatans and superstars, heroes and villains.

It will also provide opportunities for artists, by which I mean the wonderful people who make things that are mainly designed to give pleasure, whether that be paintings, music, novels, puzzles, sculpture or whatever we can classify as “art”.

But where do game artists fit into this new, borderless, magical metaverse in which the demand for art of all kinds will be high? And in which the appetite for new kinds of art is likely to be intense, and mercurial? And how are artists going to be paid for their work? How will value be assigned to their works of art?

That all depends on who will ultimately be in charge, and it’s an open question.

portrait of A metaverse

If you picture the metaverse in your mind, it may look like an upgraded version of PlayStation Home, or a live concert inside Fortnite, of avatars milling around some kind of foyer or plaza, looking a bit lost. Or maybe you’ve been dismayed by looking at one of those underwhelming demos released by Meta (formerly known as Facebook) or Walmart, in which people do very mundane activities like attend business meetings or shop for groceries via avatars inside dreary environments that simulate the real world.

Perhaps you’ll go further and envision an exciting scene from a movie like Ready Player One, or you have an image in your mind from a great sci-fi novel.

Most of what you’re imagining are the products of corporations (or dystopian fictions about corporations) whose primary ambition is to either own the metaverse, or to have a big part in how it is governed. They see the metaverse in the most rudimentary, capitalistic terms – as a giant mall where residents pay for experiences, as well as digital products, or real goods for delivery. It’s basically Amazon-meets-The Sims.

Oh sure, there will be novelties. People might fly around inside CostCo wearing Superman costumes, as they eye-zap toilet rolls into their digital basket. They’ll teleport from an esports event to the crowd-free franchise gift store where skins and t-shirts are on sale to superfans.

All these things are theoretically good for commerce. They diminish the wasteful constraints of time and space, and maybe they transform consumption into more of a fun, individualized experience, at least for those who want something different than our current model of logging onto Amazon, or taking a drive over to a strip-mall.

THe value of Art in the metaverse

The metaverse also increases the market for goods that have no physical cost, that are entirely made out of code, words or images. The original versions of these goods are arbitrarily given a value (this is the basic definition of an NFT), and in a way, this does make sense. Some people have a copy of the Mona Lisa on a wall in their house, but only the one in the Louvre is the original, and it carries an appropriate value. Why should the same not be true of digital masterpieces, just because copies can easily and cheaply be distributed?

Consumption becomes all-encompassing. What’s more, the metaverse is awash with “money,” not simply in the sense of dollars, but in an array of crypto currencies that can be earned inside the metaverse by making or reselling those digital products including, and perhaps most especially, games.

This is the boring metaverse in which artists are paid salaries to make objects that bosses and algorithms demand, which are then either incorporated into the infrastructure of the world, or are sold as items. In essence, an employed artist working at a game studio right now will be doing pretty much the same sort of role when they work in the metaverse.

The main opportunity from a metaverse that is arguably dull, will come in the form of jobs, possibly many, many jobs for creators, which is all great. But few artists are truly happy (or fairly compensated) working for companies, and fewer still are given the time or freedom to make the things they really want to make. I don’t see this somewhat restrictive scenario changing the lives of artists, or the world or art, very much at all. NFTs will be produced and owned by companies who control their Intellectual Property with fanatical zeal, and who will profit each time an item is resold via blockchain, rather than the artist.

MY METAverse VISION

I prefer to imagine a digital world that looks more like an unfettered, spatially unlimited arts festival, but one that has no unifying look or principle and very few rules and regulations (except for bans on abuse, thievery, grooming, discrimination, indecency etc.). Its main function is to create endless opportunities for soul-enriching delight, novelty, and emotion. The people who provide these artifacts are artists.

A digital world that looks like a game is likely to act as a game, even when the point is to socialize or express or to show-off. But, whereas games today are carefully controlled and monetized by the companies that make and sell them, metaverse games will succeed by doing the opposite, which is to throw the experience open to its players who have the option to create and to profit by their own in-world creations (or to simply enjoy those creations).

Now, I’ve read a lot of critiques about in-game NFTs (costumes, weapons, abilities) being wholly impractical, because of the nature of games and of game design. But, I’m speaking here of games and modes of playing that are not yet imagined or technically feasible.

I’ve also seen (and agree with) arguments that play-to-earn games will become sweatshops that exploit the poor in order to entertain the rich. One case in point is recent stories of Roblox exploiting children who make popular mini-games.

I hope that my metaverse is a world in which the best Roblox is the one in which the most people are free to make fun, to make beauty and to make a living. The ones where corporate lawyers get in the way of the fun are likely to be shunned.

(You could make a good point here, that the world’s most popular “art” is already owned by giant companies who virtually write their own IP laws. Metaverse experiences based on Mario or Star Wars are never going to fit into a utopian model, but tastes change, as do business models.)

What I’m talking about here is a place where art and creative experiences are placed within a context of full artistic and commercial freedom. Tools (a bit like Unity, but with a better revenue share model) and player-creativity games dominate the world of entertainment. Creators, not brands, become the stars.

Entertainment cliques fracture farther and farther so that a lot of people can earn a decent living from their work. If I want to pay someone for the original copy of their painting as an investment, I can do that. Or I can buy a ticket to an amazing VR experience that will only ever be experienced by a few people, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style. Or, I can walk freely among a collection of art, music, games and sculpture and donate small amounts to the whole, or to the creators of those that give me the most delight.

Now, I’m aware that all this sounds a lot like the utopianism of the early Internet, but those folks had no real precedents to guide them, whereas we have lived through the despair of seeing the Internet being owned and controlled by corrupt people and their companies, whose interests are not in art and pleasure, but in money and power. We have the advantage of knowing exactly what these powerful companies truly want, and the immoral methods they will use to manipulate weak governments and gullible regulators to get their way.

The reason why Blockchain, the metaverse, and NFTs draw so much derision right now is because they are all speculative in the worst sense of the word. They are the province of people who want to get rich fast, or who wish to position themselves as natural kings of the new frontier.

I want them to be wrong. I want them to lose. If, or when, the metaverse becomes a canvas for a new world of artistic possibilities, I hope it will become a buzzword for freedom, and for a better way of life for artists, and for those of us who love and value art in and of itself. Perhaps one day it will inform a new way of living in the real world but now, perhaps, my optimism has gone way too far. Still, I take comfort in the belief that dreams are often built on optimism, and that art is often built on dreams.