People in the Philippines are earning cryptocurrency during the pandemic by playing a video game – CNBC

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Philippines, people in Cabanatuan City north of Manila have found a unique way to ease the hardship brought on by lockdowns — playing video games.

The gameplay, however, isn’t just for fun. Axie Infinity, created by SkyMavis, allows players to earn income through nonfungible tokens, or NFTS, and cryptocurrencies by breeding, battling and trading digital pets called Axies.

A new mini documentary, released Thursday on YouTube by crypto consulting firm Emfarsis called “Play-to-Earn,” follows several Filipino people who play the game — a mother, three young entrepreneurs, a recent college graduate, a pedicab driver, an elderly married couple and one of the first people in Cabanatuan City to discover Axie Infinity.

The phenomenon that first began last summer exploded after a Coindesk article published in August significantly boosted the player base, according to the documentary. Nearly 60,000 people are now playing Axie Infinity, Axie’s head of growth Jeffrey Zirlin told CNBC.

While the digital game knows no borders, it has really taken off in the Philippines, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. GDP contracted 9.6% in 2020, the largest annual decline ever recorded since data collection began in 1946, according to IHS Markit. Several cities saw a spike in cases toward the end of March, which resulted in new mandatory lockdowns. The same research found around 26 million people — nearly one quarter of the population — were impacted by those latest lockdowns.

“At first I’m not convinced that this game is actually earning by playing, but I tried it,” said one gamer in the documentary named Art Art. “Due to the pandemic, we have no means of earning money. That’s why it spread here in Cabanatuan City.”

An elderly married couple of store owners also plays even while working. “While I am in the store, I’m playing,” said husband Lolo, who is 75. “Even when I’m losing, I’ll just play.”

Axie Infinity uses NFTs for the rights to each pet that is purchased. To grow these pets, you purchase or farm SLPs, or small-love potions. You can sell these pets or SLPs for cryptocurrency, then swap into your respective currency.

“When you’re in the game, it’s like playing chess. It’s a strategic game,” recent college graduate Howard said in the documentary.

Axie Infinity drew on inspiration from Pokémon and CryptoKitties. The latter was one of the first games to popularize crypto video games.

“As long as you have phone and internet access, you can play,” Zirlin told CNBC.

A common criticism of the game is the volatility of cryptocurrencies. Since players “sync and swap” their money through Ethereum, the price action makes some players angsty. Ethereum is up nearly 65% in the last month, but was down 7% during Thursday’s trading day. Tesla CEO Elon Musk made an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” which triggered a 30% plunge in Dogecoin’s trading price.

“Axie is its own economy. It might have swings like any emerging market based on macro factors, but long long term we believe that our digital nation will experience high GDP growth which will spur our in-game economy,” Zirlin said.

Zirlin predicts more games being added in concert with Axie Infinity, creating a sort of metaverse, as well as wider access through computers instead of only mobile phones.

“What matters is having money so we can eat, avoid debts and get through every day. It [Axie Infinity] sustained our daily needs, paid our bills, and debts,” said a mother of three in the documentary. “I was thankful to Axie because somehow it helped us.”

The Tagalog, Spanish, Portuguese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese versions of this documentary are available here.

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