The question at the heart of this week’s incessant NFT debate is one of ownership: How, in the digital age, can one really own anything? And when somebody purchases a glorified gif or jpg for mind-boggling amounts of money, what do they even own? Not rights. Not the sole copy of the image. So what? Now indie developer Jason Rohrer has added a new wrinkle by creating an NFT auction using artwork he commissioned from other people in 2012—long before NFTs were ever created.
NFT is short for “non-fungible token,” a cryptographic token that is, unto itself, one of a kind. NFTs have been tied to images, videos, and even basketball collectibles, with some selling for millions of dollars. The images and videos can exist anywhere—on Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, or what have you—and their original creators can still maintain rights to those works. So what people are really paying for is a token that they verifiably own, via blockchain technology. The value of these tokens is derived entirely from artificial scarcity. While NFTs have been around since 2017, they’ve skyrocketed in popularity in recent months, with (mostly) prominent, established artists cashing in on an unregulated speculative market that has attracted wealthy buyers in droves. It is also, as with many things related to the blockchain, an environmental catastrophe that is riddled with scams.
This week, Rohrer, creator of indie standout games like Passage, The Castle Doctrine, and One Hour One Life, debuted an NFT auction called “The Crypto Doctrine.” It’s a Dutch auction, meaning that prices start high and fall over time. It launched with 155 paintings that Rohrer originally commissioned in 2012 for use in The Castle Doctrine, a controversial game about home defense.
“Inside the game world, only one player can own each painting, but paintings can be stolen by other players through in-game burglaries, which are completely legal,” reads The Crypto Doctrine’s description. “In the real world, only one person can own each non-fungible painting token, but tokens can be stolen by other people through real-life burglaries, which are completely illegal. Please acquire your tokens responsibly.”
As of today, there are 145 paintings in the auction. This, Rohrer told Kotaku, is because three artists have gotten in touch with him asking to have their paintings removed, and he has complied.
Artists were surprised to see their works appear in The Crypto Doctrine, and others took umbrage on their behalf in the responses to Rohrer’s tweet about the auction. In an email, Rohrer told Kotaku that he did not ask permission to sell people’s works as NFTs “mostly because having email conversations with 50+ people would exceed my bandwidth as a solo creator.” Rohrer does not believe many of the paintings will sell, though he did say that people have placed bids on two of them. He added that if any works do sell, he will share the resulting windfall with their creators.
Originally, Rohrer obtained these works in 2012 from creators he characterizes as “personal friends and relatives.” For this reason, he says, there were “no written contracts” involved. The page he made requesting artwork at the time informed creators that “your artwork will be auctioned, bought, prized, collected, coveted, stolen, re-stolen, reclaimed by the state, and auctioned again. Over and over, for the effective life of my game.” Granted, this was in reference to in-game actions and auctions—not real-life ones.
When word reached voice actress and writer Ashly Burch, whose work is part of the auction, she had yet to hear of NFTs. After doing some research, however, she was not pleased to learn that her art was being sold in that form.
“I definitely did not consent to him selling the art as an NFT,” she told Kotaku in a DM. “I mean, it was years ago. And the understanding was that it would be a piece of art in the game. That’s it...Definitely did not foresee this particular development.”
Game creator and scholar Andy Nealen also took issue with his art being included with the NFT auction and said as much publicly.
“I am not a fan, to put it mildly, but am deeply opposed to the current trend towards artificial scarcity of digital objects, for numerous reasons,” Nealen told Kotaku in an email. “The fact that this selfish, techno-anarchist move is also causing unprecedented environmental damage-in a time when we need the opposite-just solidifies my stance...I couldn’t care less whether Jason ‘claims ownership’ over my (infinitely replicable) digital art. But you can see that, for me, being at all involved with the enormous scam and betrayal of humanity that the blockchain represents, that’s simply a step too far.”
Nealen is one of the three creators who requested to have his pieces removed from the auction. Artist and creator of “weird internet stuff” Darius Kazemi is another.
“It was couched as ‘help me out, make some art for my game,’” Kazemi, who has been critical of NFTs on Twitter, told Kotaku in a DM shortly after he found out about the auction. “Personally I’m annoyed about having my name attached to it, but also it seems to me he’s within his rights to resell work that was given to him for use in his own intellectual property.”
Other responses ran the gamut. Canabalt and Overland developer Adam Saltsman described the NFT auction as a “a lose-lose proposition for me in the short term.”
“Either Jason does more gross public shit using my art, or else I have to like...talk to Jason, and spend some of my life doing that, which also sucks,” Saltsman told Kotaku in an email.
NYU Game Center director Frank Lantz has more complicated feelings about his art’s surprise reincarnation as an NFT. He described Rohrer as “a complicated and problematic person” who nonetheless remains his friend, which “means I have to take some responsibility for his mistakes, which I do.”
“This whole thing would have been better if it were actually integrated into Castle Doctrine as a game,” Lantz told Kotaku in an email. “As it exists, it feels more like a standard NFT thing, which is not that interesting. As for NFTs in general, I don’t have a strong opinion about them. I get that there’s a raging storm of controversy around them, and I understand why; I’m just not that interested, personally. I have the feeling that this whole topic will settle down into something more ordinary and seem less urgent and important. I’m interested in the practical issues around designing alternatives to the inefficient proof of work mechanism underlying existing blockchain systems. We’ll have to see what develops there. In the meantime, it just feels hot and temporary, like a meme.”
Speaking to Kotaku, Rohrer acknowledged the “the inherent wastefulness of NFTs” as well as “their abject scammy nature,” but said that he decided to do this because he likes “working in moral gray areas, and I love crackpot ideas, pyramid schemes, etc.”
He also lauded NFTs as “a mechanism to exchange unforgeable monetary value electronically that literally no one controls,” meaning that companies like PayPal do not have outsized power over transactions or the accounts participating in them. He went on to talk about the difficulty of proving the authenticity of anything real or digital, and how to him, NFTs seem to be useful for that.
“So NFTs are a half-scam, because though you don’t own anything physical, you do own something real: A unforgeable deed that was created for sure by Beeple and signed over, with a verifiable provenance chain that ended with you,” Rohrer said.
He then addressed NFTs’ ruinous environmental impact: “As for ‘wastefulness,’ who’s to say? One person’s trash is another’s treasure,” he said, noting that baseball cards, for example, have built an entire, tree-destroying industry for small pieces of cardboard. “What a waste! But who’s to say that it’s not worth it?”
But this is a false equivalency. The environmental cost of blockchain “proof of work” systems—which task increasingly large numbers of increasingly power-drawing computers with solving more and more complex puzzles—is truly staggering. As a Medium post by drawing, game, and software artist Everest Pipkin points out, “A recent study out of the University of New Mexico estimated that in 2018 every $1 of Bitcoin value was responsible for $0.49 in health and climate damages in the US, costs that are borne by those who will, for the most part, never see any return from cryptocurrency mining whatsoever.”
NFTs are part of that ecosystem, and though a single Ethereum transaction—the basis of NFT—is not as bad as Bitcoin, it is still, according to artist and creative technologist Memo Akten “roughly equivalent to an EU resident’s electric power consumption for 4 days.” A single NFT can involve many transactions, with one example coming out to “a EU resident’s total electric power consumption for more than a month, with emissions equivalent to driving for [1,000 km], or flying for 2 hours.” If you have a large number of people doing that, during a time when climate crises regularly erupt in places like California, Texas, and Australia, you quickly have a problem on your hands.
Rohrer, however, remains interested in the technology.
“Is it worth it to spend ‘an Iceland-worth of electricity’ to have an unforgeable monetary system that no one controls? Is it worth it to have verifiable provenance of unique items?” he said. “I don’t think we need to decide this collectively. I’m not personally into baseball cards, but some people live for them. But I love the thorny philosophical debate, and want to make projects that operate in the thick of it.”
But when a project carries potential to cause measurable real-world impact, is it still merely a philosophical debate? Or is it something more pernicious that, at the very least, should be approached with an abundance of caution and care, in a way that considers how it might affect others—including those who contributed the art that made it possible in the first place?