How do you explain the abstract concepts of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies?

With adorable, digital kittens of course.

CryptoKitties, an online game and marketplace featuring virtual kittens, has become an entry point for curious outsiders looking to dabble in cryptocurrencies – decentralized digital monies that rely on blockchain technology to enable peer-to-peer transactions.

Company reps say their main goal is to teach people how to use blockchains; open, distributed ledgers of cryptocurrency transactions. Bitcoin is the most famous cryptocurrency and blockchain protocol, but there are others.

“As part of launching this project, we were really trying to educate people who haven’t perhaps bought Ethereum before, people who aren’t in the crypto space.” said Elsa Wilk, marketing director at Axiom Zen, the Canadian tech consultancy that created CryptoKitties.

That may have been the initial idea. But marry cute kittens and a buzzy, emerging tech phenomenon and kitten chaos ensued.

CryptoKitties’ cheerful, user-friendly interface has caused its popularity to surge among blockchain products and services. To date, there have been over $16 million USD in transactions resulting from the purchase, breeding and sale of digital kittens.

“Using something like cats is a very unintimidating, friendly, cuddly way to be introduced to a very hard, technical subject like the blockchain,” said Wilk. “We really took the approach of making the blockchain more approachable.”

How it works

CryptoKitties is built on the Ethereum blockchain. Purchases are made using the Ether cryptocurrency, which can be purchased with real money through a digital currency exchange like Coinbase. To begin buying and selling CryptoKitties, users first set up a digital wallet with MetaMask, an Ether wallet and browser for applications built on the Ethereum blockchain.

Kittens cost anywhere from .004 ether (about $3 USD) to upwards of 100,000 ether (a whopping $79.3 million USD). Wilk said the objective of the game is to make more kitties, but one of the company’s ultimate goals was to test whether a blockchain platform could support the buying and trading of unique, digital cats – what Wilk calls “crypto collectibles.”

At launch, the company released about 250 “Gen Zero” kittens, that is, those with no “parents.” Thereafter, a new kitten is released every 15 minutes. According to Wilk, the number of original kittens that will ever be released is approximately 50,000.

Critics of CryptoKitties contend that because the game is only partially decentralized, it is not a true representation of an Ethereum “DApp” or decentralized application. Despite being built on the open-source Ethereum platform, CryptoKitties’ interactions exist within a centralized database and are beholden to policies established by Axiom Zen.

“We really wanted to test the technology, to be able to put cats on the blockchain. We had to develop a new protocol in the process of doing this,” said Wilk.

The game’s popularity has also stalled traffic on the Ethereum network and created delays in the rate of Ethereum transactions processed. All blockchain transactions must first be “mined” or processed by a computer within a blockchain’s decentralized network.

“Because we’re building something that has never really been done before, just the sheer volume of traffic that we received initially caused some scaling problems,” said Wilk.

Still, for Wilk and Axiom Zen, CryptoKitties so far has been a success.

“It is one of the first, I would say, tangible use cases for a cryptocurrency project,” said Wilk, “Being able to actually take an action and have something real and tangible, I think is driving a lot of the interest that we’re seeing.”

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