Howey in the Axie-Era: Regulating NFTs in Gaming and Metaverse Economies
If nothing else, Facebook’s recent announcement that it plans to change its name to “Meta” is a sign that the metaverse is coming and that our legal system must be prepared for it. As the metaverse, the concept of a virtual version of the physical world, gains increased popularity, individuals will engage in more transactions involving non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, to purchase the virtual items that will inhabit metaverse worlds. Accordingly, the United States will need more robust regulatory frameworks to deal with NFT transactions, especially in the gaming industry, where NFT use will likely rise significantly.
In most other areas of digital media and entertainment, NFTs are often associated with niche items, such as high-priced autographs and limited-edition collectibles. However, in the video gaming sector, existing consumer spending habits on rewards such as loot boxes, cosmetic items, and gameplay advantages provide fertile ground for explosive growth in NFT use. This article will explore the outlook for NFTs in gaming, why gaming NFT creators should consider the potential impact of financial regulations on their tokens, and how current U.S. financial regulations could apply to this ownership model.
A. Current State of Virtual Currencies and Items in Gaming
Gaming has long been the gateway for consumers to explore immersive digital experiences, thus explaining why virtual currencies and collectible items have such strong roots in this sector. Further, given the popularity of virtual currencies and collectibles in gaming, it is no surprise that cryptocurrencies and NFTs have similarly experienced success in this space.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are unique digital assets that consumers may purchase with fiat currency or cryptocurrency. NFTs can be “minted” for and linked to almost any digital asset (e.g., video game items, music, social media posts), and even many physical assets. While NFTs are blockchain-based just like cryptocurrencies, the key difference between the two is that a NFT is not mutually interchangeable with any other NFT (i.e. they are non-fungible). So why are they so special? As digital experiences continue to move to the metaverse, NFTs will serve as a primary means for consumers to connect with companies, celebrities, and, eventually, each other.
In the simplest explanation, metaverse is the concept of a digital twin of the physical world, featuring fully interconnected spaces, digital ownership, virtual possessions, and extensive virtual economies. Mainstream media has already given significant coverage to metaverse activities that have appeared in popular games, such as concerts in Fortnite and weddings in Animal Crossing. However, more futuristic examples of how NFTs and metaverse could transform our daily lives exist in the Philippines with Axie Infinity and Decentraland, a blockchain-based virtual world.
In Axie Infinity, players breed, raise, battle, and trade digital animals called Axies. The game was launched in 2018, but it took off in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as many families used it to supplement their income or make several times their usual salary. To date, the game has generated $2.05 billion in sales. Meanwhile, plots of virtual land in Decentraland, a 3D virtual world where consumers may use the Etheruem blockchain to purchase virtual plots of lands as NFTs, are already selling for prices similar to those offered in the physical world. For example, in June 2021, a plot of land in the blockchain-based virtual world sold for $900,000.
The growth in popularity of Axie Infinity has already caught the eye of the Philippine Bureau of Internal Revenue, which has announced that Axie Infinity players must register to pay taxes. As financial regulation of NFTs looms, it will be imperative for U.S. gaming companies to consider how federal courts and the government will recognize the status of NFTs.
B. Financial Regulation and NFTs
As NFT transaction volume grows, there will undoubtedly be greater scrutiny over these transactions by financial regulators. While the current legal and regulatory environment does not easily accommodate virtual assets, there are a two primary ways NFTs may be regulated.
1. Securities Regulation
One of the most hotly discussed legal issues concerning NFTs involves whether these tokens should be recognized as securities. Under SEC v. W.J. Howey Co., a transaction is deemed an investment contract under the Securities Act where all of the following four factors are satisfied: (1) an investment of money; (2) in a common enterprise; (3) with a reasonable expectation of profits; (4) to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others.
Intuitively, NFTs, in the form of virtual collectible items, don’t seem like traditional tradable securities as they are unique, non-fungible items. Indeed, they do not appear to demonstrate the type of “horizontal commonality” that federal courts have held to be necessary to satisfy the “common enterprise” aspect of the Howey test. “Horizontal commonality” is generally understood to involve the pooling of money or assets from multiple investors where the investors share in the profits and risk.
However, the Securities Exchange Commission has stated that it “does not require vertical or horizontal commonality per se, nor does it view a ‘common enterprise’ as a distinct element of the term ‘investment contract.’” Therefore, the fungibility aspect of the token alone may not preclude it from inclusion under securities regulation.
A more interesting inquiry might involve assessing whether the reasonable expectation of profits associated with an NFT is based on the “efforts of [others],” as outlined in Howey. In evaluating this element of the Howey test, the SEC considers whether a purchaser reasonably expects to rely on the efforts of active participants and whether those efforts are “undeniably significant” and “affect the failure or success of the enterprise.” Under this lens, how an NFT is offered and sold is critical to consider.
For example, if one mints (i.e., creates a NFT for) a piece of graphic art that sits and passively accumulates value, the failure or success of purchasing such a NFT would likely not be highly reliant on the activities of others. As the SEC has noted, price appreciation resulting solely from external market forces (such as general inflationary trends or the economy) impacting the supply and demand for an underlying asset generally is not considered ‘profit’ under the Howey test. Similarly, if a consumer purchases a digital pet, like those in Axie Infinity, that actively accumulates value through winning a series of battles, the success or failure of this digital pet would also not be highly reliant on the activities of others. However, this analysis becomes more complex when considering the recent increased interest in “fractional NFTs,” or “f-NFTs”, where an investor shares a partial interest in an NFT with others. Since these fractional interests are more accessible to a larger number of smaller investors, they may be more likely to drive market trading and, as such, be recognized as securities.
2. Federal Anti-Money Laundering Statutes
Under the Bank Secrecy Act, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or “FinCEN,” is the U.S. Department of Treasury bureau that has the authority to regulate financial systems to fight money laundering. Although it has yet to comment directly on NFTs, FinCEN has released guidance suggesting that the movement of monetary value through virtual currencies could trigger money transmission regulations.
A critical factor determining whether the transfer of an NFT is a money transmission service will be whether FinCEN recognizes the NFT as “value that substitutes for currency.” If the NFT’s value may be substituted for currency then the transfer of such a NFT would likely trigger money transmission regulations. If players can purchase NFTs using a virtual currency that can cash out for fiat currency, then this transfer may be subject to FinCEN regulation. Alternatively, based on FinCEN’s recent guidance, even if NFTs are purchased with virtual currency that users cannot cash out for fiat currency, money transmission regulation may be triggered. Indeed, depending on how the gaming platform facilitates the transfer of in-game currency, regulatory risks may exist when users purchase third-party goods or make virtual marketplace transactions.
Earlier this year, Congress took a significant step towards making money transmission regulations more inclusive of NFT use cases when it passed the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020. Under the Act, art and antiquities dealers are now subject to the same anti-money laundering regulations that previously applied to financial institutions under the Bank Secrecy Act. This development will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the potential liability that gaming platforms can face as “dealers” of NFTs.
The United States is still a long way away from having laws that adequately regulate the creation, selling, and purchase of NFTs. However, NFT usage continues to increase rapidly. Nearly half of all U.S. adults are interested in participating in the NFT market, and gamers are 2.6x more likely to participate in the NFT market. As regulators move quickly to keep up with the pace of this market, firms will need to stay alert to ensure that they maintain regulatory compliance.
Rohun Reddy is a third-year JD-MBA student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Kellogg School of Management.