I already tapped Ethereum as the favorite for CryptoTulip of the Year, but the goofiness goes on. Not content with complete breakdowns and hundred million dollar oopsies, Ethereum is now plagued by a successful fad – CryptoKitties.
I learned about CryptoKitties from the BBC, which goes to show you that the mania is so manic it’s visible in the wider culture.
The idea of the game is slightly clever, though nothing that wasn’t done on a PDP 8 circa 1977. You can buy digital kitties, and, more interestingly, you can breed them. I’m assuming you could trade or sell them.
The news is that this very simple artificial life game is implemented on the Ethereum blockchain, and financed via Ether. Of course, you could have implemented this game in any number of ways. It’s hard to say that the blockchain per se adds anything other than novelty.
There have been efforts to implement games using a blockchain before, but CryptoKitties has really caught on. And that’s a problem.
Ethereum executable contracts are Turing Complete, which means that you can implement any computer program on the Ethereum blockchain. However, these scripts are going to be really, really slow, and there isn’t much storage available. So most programs are going to suck badly on the blockchain.
In this case, the storage used by CryptoKitties has become a significant fraction of all the records in the entire Ethereum universe. Recapitulating the history of campus mainframes, game playing is pushing out all other uses of the shared blockchain.
Of course, unlike University computing facilities, there is no authority to shut down the game on Ethererum. So who knows what will happen?
Philosophically, we see that this episode illustrates that the classis Nakamotoan blockchain is vulnerable to a tragedy of the commons. In fact, it seems designed to be a demonstration of this phenomenon. And, by the way, there will certainly be attempts to clone the success of CryptoKitties. So there could be multiple games, all sucking down the common resources.
This game shines an interesting light on the “value” of digital currency. CryptoKitties are fundamentally no different than any other tokens traded on a blockchain. But these are dressed up with a concrete, human-visible representation, and a bit of human-oriented gameplay. So these cryptographically secured digital tokens are selling like hotcakes, unlike most Ehtereum based apps. Value depends on people.
It is also interesting to observe the cognitive dissonance produced by this challenge to the system. A lot of users are surely feeling that playing this pointless game a waste of blockchain resources, and taking away from the important, serious things they want to do. On the other hand, CryptoKitties is becoming one of the most successful businesses ever to use Ethereum. And if playing a game isn’t “serious”, it’s at least as reasonable a use as the endless variations on EBay or PayPal. So, CryptoKitties is dumb, but people want it enough to actually pay for it.
Now, criticizing all the other users of the shared blockchain is just not done. I mean, the whole Nakamotoan design requires a libertarian tolerance for what all those transactions you help with are really about. Did I just help implement an extortion payment? Tax evasion? Human trafficking? Don’t ask.
It will be interesting to see if CryptoKitties continues to grow, and if so, what will happen to the whole system. Aside from the performance issues (at some point, CryptoKitties and clones could exceed the total capacity of the network protocols), crowding out other uses threatens the underlying logic of the consensus mechanism. I don’t think I’ve seen a design where a blockchain is dominated by a single massive application, while maintained by many independent nodes voluntarily participating in the verification and consensus protocols.
If one game is using all the resources and sucking much of the revenue, will that drive away everyone else? If so, will there be a feedback effect, as fewer nodes lead others to drop out? Will developers walk away? Or just be hired by the game company?
- BBC News, CryptoKitties craze slows down transactions on Ethereum, in BBC News – Technology. 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-42237162