Former Greek Finance Minister and one-time in-house economist at Valve, Yanis Varoufakis, gave a long and freewheeling interview to the website, the Crypto Syllabus, focusing on the blockchain, its potential and disappointments, and where it sits in the larger context of politics, surveillance, and economics.
Of particular note to PC Gamer readers is his description of his time with Valve. Varoufakis had access to Valve’s data on Steam’s nascent player-to-player marketplace in the early 2010s, which he used to advise the company and his own economics research. Describing Valve’s initial pitch to him, Varoufakis said:
“Ten years ago, the metaverse was already up and running within gaming communities. Valve’s games had already spawned economies so large that Valve was both excited and spooked. Some digital assets that had previously been distributed for free (via the game’s drops) began to trade for tens of thousands of dollars on eBay, well before anyone had thought of NFTs.
What if the prices of these spontaneously lucrative items and activities were to crash? That was what kept the people at Valve awake at night.”
You get the sense of higher-ups at Valve realizing they’ve stumbled into uncharted territory with their digital economies, and wanting to control them before they got out-of-hand. Like PC Gamer’s Natalie Clayton, Varoufakis sees the connection between these nascent digital marketplaces and the current bustle around NFTs. He went on in the interview:
“Today, a decade later, it is clear that gaming communities like the one I studied at Valve have been operating as fully-fledged metaverses (to use Zuckerberg’s term). Gamers were drawn to them by the game but, once ‘inside’, they stayed to live out a large part of their life, making friends, producing goods for sale, consuming entertainment, debating, etc. Zuckerberg’s ambition is to insert his billions of Facebook non-gamer users into a Steam-like digital social economy – complete with a top-down platform currency that he controls. How can I resist the parallelism with a digital fiefdom in which Zuckerberg dreams of being the techno-lord?”
I enjoyed Varoufakis’ refreshing perspective on NFTs and cryptocurrency. He combines an expert’s knowledge of their origin and the potential use of blockchain technology with an understandable and bracing contempt for their current function as speculative assets and vectors for fraud and exploitation. I particularly enjoyed his statement later in the interview that “…the idea that people must now play like robots to earn a living so as to be human in their spare time is, indeed, the apotheosis of misanthropy,” an absolutely blistering critique of the “pay-to-earn” concept currently being pushed by gaming companies like Square Enix and Ubisoft.
The entire interview is well-worth reading. Varoufakis’ discussion of his time with Valve and comments on games in particular give way to thought-provoking ruminations on the nature of our economy and exploitation. Either way, we appreciate another expert joining the chorus that the metaverse is bullshit.