Video games are about power fantasies, the conventional wisdom goes: Fight enough dragons to reach level 99, sell enough wolf skins to buy a gaudy gold cape, and become rich or strong or accomplished in the world of the game—even if you aren’t in real life. For Catdicax, a Finnish woman now in her 30s, the online fantasy role-playing game Runescape was a place where she could obtain more and more in-game items through hard work and time. And it paid off: After 10 years of playing, she had amassed a menagerie of high-end relics.

Eventually, though, Catdicax became restless. It felt like a waste of labor, a fruitless grind, to work so hard for Runescape’s digital axes or cloaks. Then in 2019 Catdicax chanced upon Axie Infinity, a blockchain-based video game where players collect and level up collectible Pokémon-like virtual pets, called Axies. Represented by NFTs, players’ Axies battle to win cryptocurrency tokens, which can in turn be used to breed new critters. The game isn’t about the game, though; it’s about the economy. Like holographic Charizards on steroids, rarer Axies sell for eye-watering figures: In 2020, someone shelled out $130,000 in cryptocurrency to secure the ownership of a portly, winged angel Axie. The tokens earned by vanquishing opponents in Axie-fights—called Smooth Love Potion, or SLP—can be traded for cryptocurrency on online exchanges, and then for legal tender.

Catdicax describes herself as having been “poor [her] whole life.”(Catdicax goes by her screen name, declining to disclose her real name out of fear that she could be “targeted” because of her money and worries about sexist trolling.) Now she watched the value of her digital pets grow from a few dollars to as much as $500 per Axie. Suddenly, Catdicax wasn’t just a player. She was an asset-owner. And after Axie Infinity exploded in popularity in late 2020, she realized that a lot of aspiring players who couldn’t afford their own Axies would leap at the opportunity to earn money off hers. Catdicax started outsourcing the video game grind to people she met online, mostly based in the Philippines. Those gamers could take a cut of her earnings as part of a program of Axie lending—in Axie-speak, a scholarship. A new video game power fantasy absorbed Catdicax: being a manager.

“I thought, this is amazing. People in the Philippines are earning double what they could in a regular job just from playing this game,” she says. “I wanted to do that too. I wanted to help people too.” (In fact, an analysis by insights company Naavik found that as of August 2021, only the most proficient players were making more than the Philippines’ average wage of $41.49 per day, while most simply earned a bit over the $7.03 daily minimum wage, or less. And that’s before taking into account the fees paid to scholarship managers.)

A new buzzword is haunting the cryptocurrency world: play-to-earn. The term designates a category of increasingly popular games that leverage blockchain technology to reward players with digital objects of real-world—or at least crypto-world—financial value. Other titles include Alien Worlds, Splinterlands, and Uplands. Axie Infinity, the brainchild of Vietnam-based outfit Sky Mavis, is the most illustrious of the bunch. The sector is booming: Cryptocurrency analytics platform DappRadar reported that in the third quarter of 2021, gamers forked over $2.32 billion for unique gaming objects on the blockchain. The venture capital grantees at Andreessen Horowitz have doled out millions to companies in the space, including leading a $152 million investment round in Sky Mavis in October. And, importantly, hundreds of thousands of people are playing at any given moment: Axie Infinity says that as of August 2021 it had 1.8 million daily users.

When the game launched in 2018, Axie Infinity’s only crypto element boiled down to linking Axies to NFTs—unique pieces of cryptocurrency that can be minted on the Ethereum blockchain. Then, in late 2019, Sky Mavis introduced the SLP tokens and decided that rather than selling them to users, it would let players harvest them in-game. Sky Mavis cofounder and COO Aleksander Leonard Larsen says his company is trying to turn the economic paradigm of online gaming on its head, courtesy of cryptocurrency technology. “Other game studios, they always want to extract as much money as they can from players,” Larsen says, referencing games with business models predicated on selling special objects or extra features to players. In contrast, his argument goes, Axie Infinity and other play-to-earn games reward competent players with valuable digital assets.