MANILA—Junior high-school student Vincent Rebese fell a year behind his studies as he did not have enough resources to catch up on online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rebese says his family relies only on cash assistance from government, getting a total of P12,000 ($235), with rice and canned goods.
“Malaki ang epekto ng COVID-19 sa aming pamilya dahil skeletal work ang mother ko. Retain ako ng 1 year sa eskuwela dahil di ako nakahabol. Wala gamit sa online class. Nawalan ng trabaho lola ko. Ayuda lang ang inaasahan namin noon,” he tells ABS-CBN News.
(COVID-19 had a huge effect on our family. My mom was forced to work on a skeleton schedule. At school, I was held back a year. I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t have the resources for online class. My grandmother lost her job. We relied only on cash aid back then.)
With his gaming skills, Rebese took up NFT game Axie Infinity after he had heard of it from a friend nearly a year ago. He is among tens of thousands of Axie players in the Philippines and is part of a “scholarship,” in which he shares the digital tokens he earns with his “manager” who provides his Axie team. A competitive team is estimated to cost P15,000 or $292.
“Nilaro ko ito dahil involved siya sa pera at interested rin ako sa gaming,” he says. (I played it because it involved money and I’m interested in gaming.)
When the violent winds of typhoon Odette (international name: Rai) destroyed his home’s roof, Rebese tried his best to meet his quota despite his Axie manager telling him to take time off as much as needed.
“Naglakad kami papunta sa mga building na may generator para makacharge at naghahanap rin ng WiFi para maka-quota man lang," he says.
(We went to buildings that have generators so we could charge our gadgets and looked for WiFi to meet our quota.)
The game has gained traction in the Philippines, which had one of the longest lockdowns in 2020 to stave off the coronavirus. Some 29,000 Filipinos have downloaded the game or nearly half of the 70,000 global average as of March 2021, according to cryptoexchange platform Binance.
The country has since lifted its strict community quarantine, and has replaced it with granular or localized lockdowns and an alert level system that determines how loose or stern social restrictions are, such as crowd capacities.
As parents are laid off or forced to take on a flexible work schedule, their children taken upon themselves to help provide for their families by playing Axie Infinity, which rewards the winning player in the form of SLP, which has a 7-day moving average of P0.58 or $0.014 in the recent week. It reached as high as P21.25 last April 26.
By playing on a computer or on a mobile phone and completing daily quests, a player can earn 75 SLPs and more if they win against other players in the arena.
“Sa hirap ng buhay ngayon, s’yempre malaking tulong ’to sa mga estudyanteng katulad ko na wala pang trabaho, kasi imagine, maglalaro lang ako ng ilang oras kumikita na agad ako kaya sobrang laking tulong nito para sakin,” says Rica Badilla, a 22-year-old college student in Camarines Norte.
(This is great help for students like me who don’t have a job yet during this trying time. Imagine: I just play a game for a few hours and I get to earn, it’s a big help for me.)
“Nu’ng first time kong mag-cash out, natulungan ko si mama na makabayad ng utang niya. Nakabili ako ng phone and [computer] RAM and also nagbibigyan din ako pambayad ng kuryente namin.”
(When I first cashed out my earnings, I helped my mom pay her debt. I bought a new phone and RAM, and I also had enough to pay our electricity bill.)
Following Odette’s onslaught, Rebese’s manager gave him his entire earnings for the first 2 weeks of December and has since increased his share of SLP to 50-50 from 60-40 when he first started.
He says he used the SLPs he saved to buy cement, sand and gravel to fix his home’s roof.
“Hindi ako umalis sa Axie dahil ito lang nagtulong sakin pambili (ng) pagkain at gastos para sa pamilya,” he says when asked why he continues to play the game even if it gives a low reward.
(I didn’t quit Axie because it’s the only thing that helps me to provide and buy food for my family.)
“Nakatutulong ito pambayad ng kuryente at tubig, mga utang namin noon, at pambayad tuition . . . Nagho-hold ako ng SLPs kasi mababa ang current price ngayon at nag-iipon rin in case may emergency.”
(It gives my family funds to pay for electricity, water, our debts, and my tuition . . . I’m holding on to my SLPs because its current price is low and I’m saving it in case there’s an emergency.)
John Rhinard Ibasan, a senior high school student in Cavite, used his first SLP earnings to subscribe to a WiFi connection for his family after playing the game using only mobile data.
His mother caught COVID-19 just as she was about to leave to work in Singapore last year, Ibasan says. She eventually recovered and flew out of the country last November, he adds.
“Madami po actually, sariling team po unang una para magkaroon ako ng 100 percent na kita,” he says when asked about his plans for his earnings.
(I have a lot of plans actually but first and foremost I want to build my own team so that my earnings will be 100 percent mine.)
“Wala po akong alam pa noon pero na-curious ako kung pa’no gumalaw ang trading system kaya nag-search ako nang nag-search. Knowledge is free naman na po these days kaya tinuruan ko na po mismo sarili ko.”
(I didn’t know anything back then but I was curious how the trading system works so I searched and searched. Knowledge is free these days so I taught myself.)
BECOMING YOUR OWN MANAGER
Team Arbo, a family of gamers who stream on Facebook, offers their “scholars” an opportunity to build their own Axie Infinity teams by allotting a portion of their earnings. Half of their 40 scholars have so far built their own teams, says Ginger Arboleda.
Scholars who create their own teams have the option to keep it for themselves or get a scholar of their own, she adds.
“We were thinking that instead of the usual program where SLPs are given to the scholar, we wanted to push for systemic change where opportunities would be created continuously,” Arboleda says.
“The additional funds will help them a lot in building their savings and investment portfolio.”
Team Arbo also “invites guest speakers to teach our scholars about financial literacy, investing and game play,” Arboleda adds.
“All of our scholars are required to attend the learning sessions. We think it’s important since when you play NFT games, there are other things that you should naturally be aware of like how cryptocurrency works or how you're being taxed for the income generated,” she says.
“These learning sessions help them learn about the fundamentals so that they know what they are getting into and so that they are wiser when it comes to handling money.”
The rise in crypto traders and NFT players in the Philippines is apparent as the COVID-19 pandemic has persisted. UnionBank’s new clients rose to 3,000 per day versus 2,000 daily pre-pandemic, says its chief technology and operations officer Henry Aguda.
The bank, which aims to be the first of its kind in the Philippines to join the Metaverse, also conducts webinars on cryptocurrency, Aguda says.
“There are schools that reach out to us and there are schools we select, and the schools we select are usually schools outside of Metro Manila so we can have a broader reach,” he says. “There’s no hard and fast curriculum around it. (It) depends also on how the schools want it done.”
NFT games such as Axie Infinity result in financial inclusion by providing those in need “a mechanism to accumulate savings/wealth by sharing both time and skill, and consequently provide them with better options and opportunities,” Aguda says.
“(They) also earn enough to open a bank account and have access to other investment possibilities,” he adds.
“In a time where unemployment and underemployment rates are high, these NFT games provide an alternative profession for people. The probable barrier to entry is just the cost but as long as other people get into it and continuously look for ‘scholars,’ then jobs will be generated,” according to Arboleda.
Rebese agrees, saying it is easy for those in need to earn using cryptocurrency.
“Dito mas madali makakita ng pera kung sisikapin at diskartehan mo lang. Dito sa crypto/NFT ’pag nag-invest ka ay madali mo lang mabawi kung hindi ka lang tamad,” he says.
(It’s easier to earn if you work hard enough. In crypto/NFT, you can gain back what you invest if you’re not lazy.)
Ibasan, however, said the disparity between the rich and poor remains in the world of digital and non-fungible tokens.
“Mahirap i-explain basta hindi po sa ngayon kasi may mga diskarte ’yung mayayaman kung paano palaguin ’yung meron sila sa crypto eh,” he says.
(It’s hard to explain but the rich have their own ways of how to make more of what they have in crypto.)
The Bureau of Internal Revenue had faced backlash after it told players that the NFT game was subject to taxes. The BIR has yet to respond to ABS-CBN News when sought for comment.
The Central Bank, meanwhile, said it would be monitoring Axie Infinity even if it were not yet requiring developer Sky Mavis to register with Philippine securities and monetary regulators.
The Vietnamese game developer has said it would cooperate with “governments on a path forward that encourages innovation and empowers gamers.” The NFT game is backed by Samsung, HTC, gaming giant Ubisoft, and Binance among others, according to its whitepaper.
Philippine authorities have also warned the public that the game might be a vehicle for “illicit financial activities” and a “borderless and wider playing field for fraudsters or cybercriminals.”
The game developers in an update earlier this month said they have improved the in-app verification process for players, while Ronin wallets, where SLP is stored, have a unique passphrase or a series of random words which only the account owner has access to. The owner cannot retrieve their account if they lose their passphrase.
“I-regulate man o hindi, bahala na sila doon kung ano desisyon nila. Ang mahalaga may kinikita kaming mga mahihirap ngayong pandemic,” Ibasan says.
(Whether government regulates it or not, whatever its decision maybe, what’s important is those of us who are in need are earning during the pandemic.)
This story was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.