Zacary Egea works two jobs as a motorcycle taxi driver and courier in economically crippled Venezuela. In his downtime, the 32-year-old plays an online game to earn extra money by amassing so-called non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.
Egea is one of many Venezuelans to have turned to NFT gaming to augment their income as the country confronts its eighth year of recession and fourth of hyperinflation.
NFTs are one-of-a-kind digital collectibles, each with a certificate of authenticity created by the same blockchain technology that underlies cryptocurrency. It cannot be forged or otherwise manipulated.
Egea plays the game Plant vs Undead, in which plants "grown" in an online garden battle zombie-like monsters. Players invest time in "watering" and otherwise caring for their plants -- purchased with cryptocurrency.
Each plant is an NFT that can be sold for real-world money.
The former policeman made an initial investment of $300 earned through his more traditional jobs.
"What do I want to achieve with this? To save up for a house for my family," said Egea, who shares an apartment with his mother in a poor Caracas suburb.
"It is a long-term project," he told AFP.
- Sunflower and cabbages -
Before starting, Egea opened a digital "wallet" with which to transfer his gains into real money.
He spent some money on upgrading his computer, then bought a digital sunflower and some cabbages for $80.
These he will farm until he can sell them to buy a digital tree, which, when mature, will be worth as much as $2,000.
In a notepad, Egea keeps a meticulous record of his farming activities and NFT price movements.
"At 6:00 am, I get up for the game. During work hours, while waiting (for a client), I water the plants, check that there aren't any crows" to eat them, he explained.
One night, he said, he awoke in a panic that his plants had died.
"I got up and connected (to the gaming site), but everything was fine," he laughed.
- Enough to support a family -
Plants vs Undead is currently the 18th most-visited website in Venezuela, according to Amazon's Alexa index.
In 35th place is Axie Infinity, another NFT game that works on a similar principle but requires a higher initial investment of about $1,000.
"These gaming platforms in which participants can earn money have become, in hyperinflationary countries such as Venezuela, options for generating additional income... (by) playing for an hour, three, four a day," said Venezuelan economist Aaron Olmos.
In this alternative economy, NFTs tend to start off at a relatively affordable price that grows at an attractive rate as more and more people get involved, he said, but warned the price can also drop and investments be lost.
One form of gaming that has gained in popularity is an investor paying someone else, often a teenager, to play on their behalf, generating income for a fee.
Axie Infinity, for example, can yield $400 or $500 a month for the hired player, enough "to support a family," said Yerson Rivero, a crypto-investor and NFT gamer.
In Venezuela, the minimum wage for public service is $2.5 per month and the average salary about $50, while a basket of basic groceries for a family of five costs about $220.
Rivero and a group of friends "farm" out of a tiny office in the back of a mechanical workshop, where they water virtual plants day in, day out.
"Cryptocurrency is the future," said Jesus Almerida, one of the group.
"I've decided that as soon as I have enough capital, I will... create a crypto wallet for each of my children... to pay for their university."