“Levels” as an experiment for increasing participation in TCRs

How can we ensure that new, not-as-wealthy users have an active participation in token-curated registries, when whales tend to be over-represented?

As a game designer and systems thinker, I’ve approached my recent work in the Cryptosystems Productization Lab (part of ConsenSys), as one where I incorporate a plethora of game concepts into my practice, like rules, balance, win conditions, and player types, among others. I am writing a series about each concept as it becomes relevant to our work, and I want to focus first on the concept of “levels”, or “leveling up”.

The Lab’s recent forays into token-curated registries (AdChain, Delphi) have surfaced the particular importance of levels in our work. As we move forward with our mission to move beyond theory and discover the limits and real properties of novel cryptosystems by observing them in production, we’ve encountered a question: how can we ensure that new, not-as-wealthy users have an active participation in token-curated registries, when whales tend to be over-represented?

Whales alone cannot keep TCRs alive

When we talk about decentralization of cryptosystems, it is quite clear that power still exists in the form of whales, even if the barrier of entry for new users is lower than it currently is in society’s legacy centralized systems. Since the overarching mission of ConsenSys is to bring decentralization to the world, we must question this “decentralization” if it demands that users already have enough money to buy their way into any cryptosystem we form.

In the case of TCRs, we constantly have to deal with problems of token distribution. Initially this did not concern us as much, as we figured that this just meant that some users saw more value in TCRs, and would, in theory, act accordingly by participating actively. In reality, this is the pattern of behavior we have noticed:

  1. Our token sales have ended up giving huge token advantages to early investors/whales.
  2. Not all whales have participated actively in TCRs; despite having more “skin in the game” -wanting a better curated list- because of their size, these whales are simply HODLing.
  3. HODLing leads to the token slowly becoming less valuable to the TCR curators, since the economy comes to a stand-still.
  4. As a result, the community of the TCR slowly dies.

So, how could we ensure a level playing field for all users, whales or not? How could we enable a path towards more participation in the system for non-whales, without transforming them into security concerns?


Note: Before going into the solution I am proposing, I want to remind readers that this, in itself, is but a small experiment in TCRs. We need to do more profound and rigorous poking into the question of how to level the playing field for users, FOR ALL CRYPTOSYSTEMS. This is simple good design since it leads to self-sustaining, long-term, happy crypto-communities.*


Thinking of “flow” and “levels” can be a way to a solution

“Flow” is one concept that has begun framing our design discussions while developing the TCR for Delphi. Introduced in 1975 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept talks about “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

Flow is achieved by pairing up the user’s proficiency at a task (skill) with a challenge that is just above skill, in reach but still demanding for the user. In game design, this is often translated into “skill levels”, quite commonly called just “levels”.

As a user “levels up”, the challenges that are presented to them are higher too, therefore maintaining this virtuous participatory cycle of skill/challenge going in an ever upwards direction.

We like the concept of flow when thinking about TCRs for several reasons. First, it implies that all users can be presented with challenges commensurate to their skill level. It invites the reader to imagine what a challenge that keeps a whale interested in the TCR community’s participation and well-being would look like. Secondly, because of that invitation to imagining challenges for whales, it was easy for us to mentally jump to asking why a non-whale user would keep participating if their decisions could be easily reverted by a whale.

An example: imagining what levels in TCRs could look like

What would levels actually look like in a TCR? Let’s do a thought experiment.

Imagine that you hear about a TCR for which you’d be an excellent curator. You have the skills, the expertise, and the community-skills: you know that if you enter this TCR, your input would be valuable and you’d help the community. Plus, you’d probably be able to make some pretty good winnings!

Unfortunately, the initial token sale happened a couple of months ago, but good news: you can still buy some and curate along with everyone else!

In all honesty, you’re a bit hesitant to buy tokens now, because you’ve been burnt in the past. One time, you tried to participate in another TCR, but every vote you cast was almost useless — a whale would come in and make whatever decisions you made useless. Sure, you learned to team up with other voters to try to win over whales, but it was a hefty process that drained you intellectually and emotionally.

But, you really think you can become a big player in this TCR. So you buy some anyway, and are greeted by an interesting surprise: in your profile, there’s a piece of text that says that you’re at Level 1: Force Sensitive. Curious to know more, you click on the level, and are taken to a Help page explaining that this TCR users Levels, and explains what each level means.

  • LVL 1 Force Sensitive: 0–1000 tokens earned through voting
  • LVL 2 Youngling I: 1000–2000 tokens earned
  • LVL 3 Youngling II: 2000–3000 tokens earned + 5 Discussion Contributions
  • LVL 4 Initiate: 3000–3500 tokens earned + 10 Discussion Contributions
  • LVL 5 Padawan: 3000–3500 tokens earned + 10 Discussion Contributions

This piques your interest. Why does the tokens necessary to advance from one level to the next become less as you go higher in the level progression? Why are the discussion contributions so important? And, most importantly, if Padawan is just the beginning of a Jedi’s journey, when can you become Master? Surely there must be some other levels hidden here.

You decide to poke around and go to other profiles. You notice a very active user and click on their profile — lo and behold, they’re a level 9 Master! Their token earnings are not as many as you thought they would be (around 8000), but they have a great winning rate (92%), meaning they tend to be on the right side of votes. Also, they are verified community discussion moderators.

Interestingly enough, they seem to have started curating less than a month ago. “Either they’re incredible, or they had enough money to buy a whale amount of tokens,” you think to yourself. No matter what, though, they have to justify their position as whales by moderating discussion. That’s a lot of responsibility! Who would do that?

Upon reading some threads in the community discussion, you understand that they keep at this because they get a bigger ration of tokens per vote. So, they just have to vote a few times a month to get good returns. Plus, they’re getting a community fee for being good moderators, and they can always get kicked out of the TCR through the parameterizer if they’re not doing a good job. Pretty cool.

There’s also a catch: as you progress levels, you need to “grind” more to get a big token return per vote. That means that you really gotta put some effort in. And, of course, when you’re a lower level curator, you don’t get as much access to the community (your threads are not as easily discoverable and almost never turn up at the top of searches), which means that you can vote and make good earnings, but it’s also more difficult to sway community discussion.

You still find all of this extremely cool, and way better than your last TCR experience, so you start voting away. You do a great job and finally break the earnings threshold for becoming a Level 2 curator. Once that happens, a pop-up gives you notice of the potential level change and asks you if you’d like to proceed or stay a Level 1 curator. That’s interesting — this means you can also create your own strategy for level progression. You start thinking about what you’d like to do, but really enjoy community moderation, and you know the higher you are the more you can compete with whales.

You think for a few minutes. Are you ready? Do you really want to make this TCR better? You remember why you’re here. You remember why you’re a curator: you deeply believe in the fact that the world needs this list, and want to get paid for your contributing to it.

Finally, you click yes and proceed to Level 2, kicking off the beginning of your journey to Jedi Mastery.

Our experiments will break down “levels” more

Of course, many things could go wrong with that example. We don’t know if the progression is fast enough, if people will feel satisfied, and if people will actually go from level to level. But this is exciting, and not daunting. It means we, the token design community, can become better designers and engineers by tackling new challenges.

At CPL, we have some heavy-experimentation months ahead of us (some with partners, some by our own). So far, we will test:

Levels for TCR User Discussions

We will explore what tags are useful to clearly identify users in discussions and voting processes. Say, for example, is showing how much of a whale a user is more useful than showing how much they’ve gained in successful votes? And should we show that through categories or “level names” that are visible to all users? Why, and why not?

Leveling Up/Skill Growth Paths

We are interested in crafting levels that grow a user’s interest and skill in a TCR. This should start happening all the way from on-boarding. We are looking at creating level progression tutorials, simulations with fake tokens as “level 0” (when you first come into the TCR), and even the possibility of unlocking special features or access to parts of the TCR depending on the user’s skill level.

Imagine, for example, that a Level 10 “Expert” can become a data validator for new applications into the TCR, therefore giving that application an extra level of community recognition even before application.

Rewards, Badges, and Trophies

Giving away trophies is one of the most trite ways of getting people interested in levels, but the idea of users being rewarded in visible ways for doing specific actions as they’re progressing from level to level is something we’ll definitely be looking into.

This could look like, for example, a trophy given to a user for being the sole participant in a voting process that wasn’t that popular in the TCR, or, contrary to that, for being the 1000th participant in a voting process. Both have very clear design implications, and both could be useful to a TCRs creator to incentivize token distribution and higher participation.


But, most importantly, no matter the result, thinking of levels has surfaced the importance of incentives that are not exclusively monetary, but are still nonetheless linked to the token engineering of each TCR we build.

Pondering levels and skill growth paths in TCRs is useful because:

  1. It hints at the possibility for users to increase their influence in the community through OTHER ways than just token-ownership.
  2. It caters to both whales and non-whales.
  3. It creates the opportunity for designing features that are unlockable inside the TCR itself (like community moderation), therefore becoming an important part of token engineering.
  4. It shines a light on the problem of token distribution and whale/non-whale equilibrium.

“Levels” are not a perfect solution, but they’re a start

Finally, it’s important to recognize that levels might not work for every TCR. For example, Nguyet Vuong, head of design at Civil, has expressed that Civil’s users recoil at the idea of being quantified into “levels”, since they are journalists that don’t believe levels or skill progression can be so easily delineated.

And those users might not be wrong. There is inherent danger in the over-quantification of humans and their skills and ambitions. Some human traits, like imagination or creativity, cannot (or should not) be easily translated into numbers.

At the Lab, we expect that our experiments will lead us in new and interesting paths. We are open to exploring alternatives to levels, like their elimination altogether, the use of “community projects” as ways of determining that a whole group of users has “advanced”, or any of the other brilliant ways designers and developers have crafted skill growth in games like The Quiet Year and Final Fantasy VIII. I am also on a quest to reading more about alternatives to levels, and will start with Mia Consalvo’s book Players and Their Pets. All these references came from answers to a tweet I sent out a couple of days ago, and I would love to know if you have any other leads to great games/systems that show skill growth or levels in novel ways.

Ultimately, you don’t want your users to reject the idea of skill growth, but to feel it aligned to their wishes and way of seeing the world. Regardless of how your users feel about levels, though, the practice of using game design concepts in cryptosystems is already posing brilliant questions and answers, and getting us closer to solving some of the problems we’ve found in the TCRs we’ve deployed. The problem of whale/non-whale’s ideal equilibrium is just the first of many that we will dive into in the next months.