Crypto Kitties: the hype around these darling digital cats has reached a height of absurdity that rivals its significantly less innovative predecessors. Virtual pet games Neopets and Chicken Smoothie were one of the biggest distractions for kids of the 2000s; the ultimate cause of playground rivalry. It seems that the exclusivity offered by rare items of questionable ‘real’ value doesn’t seem to have faded in 2018. But first, let’s take a quick look back into the world of virtual pet gaming…
First, we’ll start with the Tamagotchi: the quintessential digital pet of the 1990s. Otherwise known as the godfather of digital animal parenting, these were small handheld devices with dark grey screens, in which lived a tiny, pixellated, digital creature. I never owned one myself, but always relished the chance to squint at one of the non-backlit, tiny screens of my friends’ pink, purple and blue Tamagotchis back in primary school (circa 2004). They beeped incessantly when they were bored or hungry, providing a decent enough incentive for kids to start using them regularly; except they provided no visual stimulation of any kind. They were a novelty, but as display technology was rapidly progressing in the early 2000s, the Tamagotchi lost its fanbase quite quickly. Despite its brief revival at the end of 2017, it looks like this digital toy has had its last turn. But around the same time, a new era was taking hold. Starting in 1999, the Neopet Dynasty had begun.
Ah, Neopets. How does one begin to explain Neopets? The most addictive, yet frustratingly unrewarding Internet game for anyone fortunate enough to enjoy a 2000s childhood. Users can adopt a virtual pet (otherwise known as a disappointingly static, but cute, drawing) and purchase virtual items for it using two forms of currency: Neopoints, earned by playing games within the site, and Neocash, which can be purchased with ‘real-life’ currencies (in this case £, $, €, etc — not BTC or ETH). Neocash can also be used to purchase exclusive items from the ‘NeoCash Mall’. The unfortunate players who could only afford Neopoints had to stick to the Neopian Marketplace’s more inferior options with in order to feed and clothe their virtual animal.
If your parents were too wise to buy you any Neocash, or a premium membership, your activities on Neopets were limited to: 1) playing games to make Neopoints (which were fun, I’ll admit) and 2) trying various hacks to gain free items. I remember scrolling down the NC Mall page, looking longingly at the spectacular starry paintbrush that would make my pet the envy of all, but which remained resolutely out of my reach.
Chicken Smoothie was similarly discouraging; the most of what you could do on the site was click on the Pound page 10,000 times a day in the hope of adopting a ‘rare’ pet, alongside watching your motley group of that month’s pet selection grow, and praying one of them might turn out to be rare. Unless a kind friend gave you your start by gifting you a rare pet that you could use in the trading centre, you couldn’t do much else except share your drawings with others, or engage in boastful forum discussions about how cool your pets were. The game’s only currency was — try not to laugh too hard — Chicken Dollars, which could only be bought with ‘real-world’ money. This made it an even more unsatisfying game than Neopets, yet I’ll admit I was addicted, from about 2009–2011.
These games were created in 1999 (Neopets) and 2008 (Chicken Smoothie) respectively. You’d think we’d have advanced a lot more in the gaming world by now, and you would be right: most of us have moved on. PlayStation has evolved considerably since its inception in 1994, now delving into the limitless possibilities of VR. However, has the virtual pet world of gaming gone the same way, or as it merely stalled? Has the use of blockchain technology successfully innovated the sector, or merely reemphasised its more frustrating points?
CryptoKitties is one of the world’s first games to be built on blockchain technology — the same breakthrough that makes things like Bitcoin and Ethereum possible. Bitcoin and ether are cryptocurrencies but CryptoKitties are cryptocollectibles. You can buy, sell, or trade your CryptoKitty like it was a traditional collectible, secure in the knowledge that blockchain will track ownership securely.
Taken directly from the CryptoKitties website, the above quote states nothing but the truth: CryptoKitties are, like the ‘very rare’ pet category on Chicken Smoothie, a unique, cute, collectible virtual item that makes you cool by association if you have it in your possession. Like on Chicken Smoothie, you can breed these virtual cats and create interesting ‘genetic’ combinations, producing more rare CryptoKitties that you can either proudly add to your collection, or trade for significant amounts of cryptocurrency (ETH) which can then be traded out for thousands of pounds.
What sets CryptoKitties apart from other virtual pet games, is, of course, the technology that it is built on: blockchain, specifically the Ethereum network. The Kitties are bred through the blockchain, which, as the above statement declares, ensures that ownership is ‘tracked securely’: no duplicates, and no hacks. This is, without a doubt, a great USP for CryptoKitties. Back in the long-ago days of the 2000s, there was little recompense available if your Neopets account had been hacked, your precious Neocash spent on expensive, flashy items in the mall, and promptly sold to an unknown account for 1 Neopoint. The most enviable, popular pet accounts on Neopets had to live with the risk of this happening to them. But the reduction of this risk isn’t the only thing that makes CryptoKitties a godsend for virtual pet fans.
The pull of breeding these digital cats isn’t just for the potential financial gain. Even the most hardened 2000s virtual game survivors amongst us will admit that being able to ‘breed’ digital animals is refreshing, to say the least. However, you always ran the risk of getting several duplicates of one pet on games like Chicken Smoothie. With CryptoKitties, each Kitty is unique: they possess a distinct genetic structure. Even without the pull of breeding a rare Kitty, this is exciting in and of itself. In the virtual pet games of the 2000s, the longevity of the ‘age’ of the pet in question also added to its prestige, and this is the same with CryptoKitties: the older your Kitty, the more valuable it can be: ‘Generation 0’ CryptoKitties are being released every 15 minutes until November 2018, to ensure that only 50,000 remain in circulation. This enticing exclusivity will bring in yet more people, who don’t want to miss the bandwagon. But where is the real value here?
According to the CryptoKitties whitepaper, what makes CryptoKitties innovative is that they prove how digital assets can be traded through the blockchain, and above all, provide a way for the ‘average’ consumer to interact with blockchain technology. The intention is to “‘gamify’ the features that leverage the blockchain’s unique characteristics”, which produces “an open platform to all regardless of technical knowledge”. Technically, they aim to ‘normalise’ the practical application of smart contracts and cryptocurrency transactions, which will allegedly ‘empower the everyday consumer with a basic fluency in distributed ledger technology’.
I’d beg to differ on that one. It looks like any technical knowledge that a complete blockchain beginner will gain from CryptoKitties will be extremely abbreviated, and therefore not particularly empowering. A quick look at the FAQ section shows an aesthetically pleasing, minimalist page that is notably devoid of sufficient technical explanation. Without perusing the whitepaper, the average consumer had better be hoodwinked by the cuteness of the Kitties and the thrill of producing one that is enticingly rare, so they can promptly sell it and trade their Ethereum on one of the many cryptocurrency exchanges, for a sizeable amount of USD, GBP or any other ‘mainstream’ currency. This outcome is not one that will improve the public’s grasp of what blockchain is actually capable of.
So, the final question that I pose to the creators of CryptoKitties: how do you intend to sufficiently educate the public? I would argue that it’s not particularly necessary for people to understand how blockchain powers games — believe it or not, not everyone is a gamer! It is, however, integral for the public to understand how blockchain is set to impact industries such as healthcare. In my next post, I’ll be exploring the technology behind CryptoKitties — 256-bit genomes, ‘cool down’ periods, and non-fungible tokens — in further detail. No doubt, it is worthy of congratulation. But will it be the catalyst for widespread public understanding of blockchain, or merely another Internet gaming fad strapped to this decade’s trending technology?
Part 2 to this post, ‘CryptoKitties: Tantalising Tech or Misplaced Modernisation?’ will be out later this week. Follow @digitaldoppelgangers for updates!