Blockchain, virtual goods and £80000 cartoon cats: The strange world of CryptoKitties

Blockchain, virtual goods and £80000 cartoon cats: The strange world of CryptoKitties

It is hard to believe that cats existed before the internet. They were the original memes, way back when only Richard Dawkins knew what a meme was.

Cats are internet gold because they resemble the people who spend a lot of time online: you only see them when they want to be fed, they do their own thing, and they are absolutely terrified of cucumbers.

But for some, the appeal does not lie in a real cat, or even a picture of one; a fanciful drawing of a made-up kitten can be enough to send certain corners of the web into cash-splashing overdrive. This is CryptoKitties – the blockchain-based game where people can breed virtual pets that cost up to £80,000.

These cartoon kittens are bought and sold using the cryptocurrency Ethereum, which is the slightly less-hyped cousin of everyone’s favourite millionaire-maker, Bitcoin. Ethereum works as a “decentralized platform that runs smart contracts” – by being both a currency and an executor of digital transactions.

CryptoKitties really took off in November and December of 2017, when everyone and their mother thought they could get rich off Bitcoin. Like any fad, the value of every semi-well-known cryptocurrency sky-rocketed and then plummeted shortly thereafter. Some businesses even changed their names to capitalise on the bubble. One, On-line Plc even saw its shares surge almost 400 per cent after doing nothing more than rebranding as On-line Blockchain Plc.

CryptoKitties was so successful during this time that it slowed down the entire network that it was built on. Though usage has dropped significantly since then, a whopping $25million (£19m) worth of cartoon cats have now been bought and sold through the game. And in March 2018, months after its 20,000 cats being sold each day hey-day, the company behind the game announced that it had raised $12 million in funding to take the kittens to new territories.

The game itself sees you buying and breeding goofy, gender-neutral, kid-friendly feline cartoons. The aim is to bring them together to give life to a brand new genetically unique cartoon cat. Some – “fancy cats” – have special traits which make them more valuable when you sell them on.

Looking after digital pets has been the basis for many video games over the years. An obvious precedent is Petz on the various Nintendo DS consoles, which let you pat and feed digital fur-balls with a stylus (this was before touch screens were dominant in the mobile phone market). There was also the Tamagotchi, an irritating beeping ball that supposedly contained some animal that needed feeding and loving – and which on reflection probably attuned many young souls to the idea of an in-app notification. And this is all without considering the pre-pubescent Master/Slave dichotomies at play in the human-pet world of The Sims.

What’s different with CryptoKitties is that you don’t just pay for the game upfront. Every transaction in the game is paid for with Ethereum (which you can also earn within the game). Sales cost on average just over £45. Even letting your cat breed with another cat costs money.

So why do people even bother playing and paying? There are cheaper and better games out there and far more established trading and collecting ecosystems that aren’t underpinned by such volatile currency.

Crucially, the fact that spending hundreds of pounds on pictures of cats that don’t exist seems really weird is not lost on the game’s players. Evie from Phoenix, Arizona describes her guilt at having sold what she describes as a “s**t-cat, with 0 desirable traits” for $30 to a stranger who had no other cartoon kittens:

“I legit feel like I scammed some 12-year-old girl, who just wanted a kitty, asking Dad how to set up with ether, crying because she can’t get a cute little purple cat because the bots keep auto-buying the cheap cats, and finally settling for my S**t Cat. Tears in her eyes, she spends her hard-earned chore money on him, promising him she’ll love him forever, and proudly naming him Garfield. I know this is probably not what happened. But it’s what I imagine. And it makes me feel bad. This game is a rollercoaster of emotions.”

For those who are looking to make money from crypto but are perhaps too bored or overwhelmed by the currency trading world, the game is a fun/easy opportunity to get rich. CryptoKitties is also one of the few applications where you can actually see cryptocurrencies and a blockchain in action.

The idea of digital ownership was another motivator. As James, a player from Virginia, put it: “My internet cat is now immortalized forever within the blockchain. I find that neat.”

By acting as the guarantor to any transaction in its network, Ethereum effectively takes ownership away from any one developer or provider. Unlike other games where assets ultimately belong to the people who designed the game, your CryptoKitty is no one’s but yours.

One company looking to make the most of this potential radical shift in digital ownership is Rare Bits, who let you buy, sell and own CryptoKitties and other blockchain-based goods. As they put it themselves on their company website: “We are psyched to help bring true ownership of digital goods to the world for the first time.”

Though that statement feels extreme, it makes sense. The fear of a computer crash, the anxiety surrounding being hacked has always meant that our online properties, be they a sword in a video game or a kinky picture stored somewhere in the cloud, have never really felt like they belonged to us. We never felt like we could safely hide anything if it is being stored in a machine.

As one of Rare Bits’ founders, David Pekar, explained to me: The first generation of digital goods lived on the servers of the developer who created them. Even after a user purchased a traditional digital good, the developer retained full control. Users weren’t able to resell the goods if they didn’t want them any longer. They couldn’t take the goods with them somewhere else to use them in a different context… This is what we were talking about when we say true ownership of digital goods. It’s all the rights you take for granted for the things you own in the real world.”

Oh technology, you take away ownership and then you sell it back to us! After centralising music ownership (Spotify/Apple Music), movies (Netflix), cars (Uber) – not to speak of financial market crises caused by high-frequency trading algorithms – we can now own the things we’ve wanted all along: pictures of kittens. This is the sharing economy. Or as CryptoKitties puts it: “The future is meow!”

Except that future may have largely already been. Since the winter’s crypto-boom, CryptoKitties now only hosts around 600 sales a day. Some users remain even though the potential monetary gain has withered.

Aaron is a 23-year-old who unsuccessfully tried day trading on the cryptocurrency exchange Binance. After he burnt out, he wanted to find something to do with his leftover. When he came across CryptoKitties, he really liked the idea that they could be bred and that each one was unique.

Long after the bubble had burst, what kept Aaron engaged was not the decentralised nature of the tokens or the actual kittens (he made some expensive mistakes chasing “fancy cats”) but the other people he met online while trading them.

According to him: “The CryptoKitties community is just all around pawesome. Absolutely the most helpful community I’ve ever been a part of.”

Despite the frantic and uncertain nature of trading cryptocurrencies, and the absurd-virtual-pet form these can take, the fad still hasn’t quite died out. Even at this far frontier of digital space, it’s community that keeps people holding on.

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