Are Play-to-Earn Video Games Legal in the United States?

Are play-to-earn games legal? The answer depends on the specifics of the game. For many gaming developers, play-to-earn is a lucrative business model in 2023 and beyond. These games let players compete against other players (PvP) or against the the game itself (PvE) to earn rewards that have real-world value. For example, players may pay real money to buy in-game currency to purchase virtual gear or real estate, but players also have the option to redeem the in-game currency for real-world money. Players can trade resources or earn the in-game currency through gathering, completing tasks or quests, or other gameplay. However, any company looking at play-to-earn should retain an experienced gaming attorney to consult on their game. It may be an attractive business model, but any real-money gaming implicates multiple legal areas, including taxes, securities law, and both state and federal-level anti-gambling prohibitions.

Earning real-world cash for virtual goods or gameplay is not a new concept. In fact, the first generation of massively-multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMOs or MMORPGs) like Ultima Online, Runescape, and Everquest had robust real-money economies for in-game items. Resource “farming” – where one would gather virtual resources and then transfer them to another player for a real-world money payment – became even more popular with World of Warcraft and the next generation of the MMOs like EVE Online. However, the developers did not officially sanction these in-game economies. Anti-RMT (real-money trading) provisions are prevalent in most end-user license agreements. Real money components in video games may be too close to gambling, which is obviously problematic. Developers are generally reluctant to assume additional liability and risk associated with any real-money economic component.

Play-to-Earn is Hot, But Rife With Legal Pitfalls.

However, it is the end of 2022, and making money playing video games is a real and viable career choice. Esports and video game tournaments are mainstream events, with their own ESPN page, multi-million dollar teams, and celebrity-status professionals. Many colleges offer esports scholarships. Casual video game tournaments (Call of Duty, FIFA, Gran Tursimo) are also a thing. For the more casual gamer, there are also real-money skill-based games (timed solitaire, bingo, etc.) available on the web or from the App Store. Daily Fantasy Sports giants like DraftKings and FanDuel also offer skilled players an opportunity to win real money by drafting the best fantasy sports teams.

There are also a number of NFT-based collectible card games, horse racing simulators (like Zed.Run), and countless other permutations of games where players are able to own in-game assets that they can sell and trade like their real-world counterparts. This sector of the gaming economy continues to grow, as the relatively low cost of cryptocurrency makes entry a lot more accessible. Many players also see the current “bear” market as a prime opportunity to enter some of these projects at low cost and potentially see significant growth in their in-game assets as the economy rebounds.

Modern play-to-earn games are simply another variation of the real-money gaming business model. Developers in this space fully embrace the concept of a virtual economy and the ability to earn real-world compensation for game play. The most prominent example is Axie Infinity (a Pokemon-type trading, collecting, and battling game), which has integrated blockchain technology (crypto and NFTs). Investors around the world, including Mark Cuban, quickly embraced the play-to-earn gaming model. Even in the times of the “crypto winter,” Axie is still worth many millions of dollars.

Advertising and Onboarding May Require a Legal Opinion.

Any real-money gaming business (including play-to-earn) needs experienced gaming counsel to guide them through various compliance issues. Advertising a real-money game on social media and getting through Apple’s approval process on the App Store requires a legal opinion that the game is truly skill-based and not illegal gambling. Is your game structured so that they are providing a service to you in exchange for compensation? Depending on the nature of your game, you may have unintended labor law obligations and even tax filing (W-2 or 1099) obligations to the IRS and state tax authorities.

Make Sure Your Game is Not Selling Securities.

Another potential pitfall is with the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). When designing your game and reward system, you must make sure that you are not inadvertently marketing a security and violating federal law. Securities are not just traditional stocks and bonds. An “investment contract” is also a regulated security and broadly includes any scheme where individuals pay money with the expectation that their money will be invested and they will earn a return. In the cryptocurrency world, initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) face heavy SEC scrutiny, especially after several high-profile cryptocurrencies turned out to be pyramid schemes.

The “investment contract” analysis is highly specialized and requires a thorough legal opinion. Each game is different, the laws are quickly changing in this area, and regulatory agencies are especially sensitive to crypto-related businesses in light of the numerous 2022 failings, bankruptcies, and rug pulls – with FTX being only the most recent example.

Beware Tax and Other Regulations If Your Game Uses Cryptocurrency or Other Blockchain Tech.

Speaking of crypto, if you are utilizing cryptocurrencies, tokens, NFTs, or other blockchain technologies as part of your game, there are more legal issues in play. Tax reporting and tracking are essential because the IRS considers cryptocurrencies to be property subject to capital gains tax. Does the game involve any crypto staking? If so, is your company now considered a bank subject to the FDIC’s jurisdiction? Are you involved in the business of money transmission and required to be licensed in each state where you do business?

Despite the slow regulatory change in this area and continued lack of centralized regulation, this area remains in the public eye and something of continued interest to regulators.

The bottom line is whatever your game and whether you are a veteran or just starting out, an experienced gaming attorney is a necessary asset to your business team.

Contact Artaev at Law PLLC to set up your initial consultation. We are Michigan’s gaming law firm and we specialize in the unique concerns that you may encounter as a game developer.

Disclaimer: This guide is for general informational and promotional purposes only. Nothing herein constitutes legal, tax, or investment advice. Every situation is different and has its own unique set of challenges. Do not take any action or sign any contract until you have obtained specific guidance from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Artaev at Law PLLC. All rights reserved.

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