I spent last week in Hong Kong at the Token 2049 conference, where I moderated a panel on cryptocurrency investing and caught up with dozens of entrepreneurs and investors in the industry. While the mood was a tad more somber than last year’s inaugural event (where it literally rained crypto), there was one subject people couldn’t stop buzzing about: gaming.
For all the excitement about using blockchains instead of banks or cryptocurrencies for making money, many attendees seemed to be more focused on games as perhaps the biggest opportunity for the technology at the moment.
Vitalik Buterin, the creator of Ethereum who spoke at the conference, acknowledged that while he assumed the blockchain would revolutionize finance first, it might catch fire faster in gaming. “A lot of people here in the Ethereum community are here because they want to have large-scale social impact, and gaming is—it’s clearly not the only impact a lot of people want to have, but it’s a place where you have a lot of early adopters, and where blockchain can be proven out very quickly,” Buterin said on stage.
Da Hongfei, founder of NEO, a Chinese blockchain project and Ethereum rival, told me he sees gaming as NEO’s main differentiator from other blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum. “We are actively optimizing our product to serve the gaming industry,” he explained. NEO had just announced the first game to use its technology—a Japanese car-racing game called Crypto Fast—and he envisioned possibilities where in-game add-ons like outfits, weapons, ad car upgrades would be digital assets on a blockchain, able to be traded and moved just like cryptocurrencies.
Of course, not everyone who was drawn to the ideals of Bitcoin and Satoshi Nakamoto would be satisfied seeing a crypto-tokenized Mario Kart become the ultimate iteration of that vision. One conference attendee pushed Buterin on his idea of “social impact”—while games might provide mass entertainment, wasn’t there some greater way to really impact society or change the world? Without hesitation, Buterin responded that he was interested in applying the same principles of digital gaming assets to charitable donations, whereby philanthropy could apparently be incentivized by crypto collectibles—”basically selling badges,” Buterin said. Such badges could also be recognized and carry value to other applications, such as messaging apps, he continued.
The concept, Buterin admitted, has yet to be successfully demonstrated. In the meantime, developers throughout the industry are working to apply gaming principles in myriad different ways. Charles Hoskinson, for one, a co-founder of Ethereum who is now CEO of Cardano, told me he’s working with a team at Oxford University to develop a new blockchain governance system that will rely on game theory—in hopes of avoiding the bitter disagreements that have led to splits in the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains.