What really happens when playing video games is outsourced
It’s a cutthroat business, this new economy: technology-driven outsourcing, Asian sweatshops, currency speculation, ethnic strife and nationalism.... And that’s just in the online video games. For a while, it looked as if the most fascinating aspect of our emerging online existence would be on the existential side of things. Recall the caption on that famous New Yorker cartoon: “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog,” which deftly parodied some of the more overheated claims being made about the fragmenting of the modern identity. Instead, “virtual economics” has taken centre stage, especially the extent to which it reproduces the most unpleasant aspects of the real world: the violence, the money-grubbing, and the glory-seeking.
Consider the growing phenomenon of
In China’s Internet-café-style sweatshops, kids play games all day to boost their clients’ assets
“gold farming”—the “Asian sweatshops” end of things, in which the playing of online games is actually outsourced. This virtual economy—in case you need a primer on how video games have changed since you broke the joystick on your ColecoVision in 1989—exists largely in the realm of massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Remember that crowd of weirdos, back in university, who spent every Friday night playing Dungeons and Dragons? Well, today there are some 100 million of them, and they regularly go online to play games with names like World of Warcraft and EverQuest. It is still very swords and sorcerers, but it is also Big Business.
Players in these games earn gold or points or some other faux currency. They can use this money to buy weapons or spells, and in some games, property in the form of huts, castles or islands. This has in turn given rise to a secondary market, where people too busy or lazy or impatient to do things the hard way can use real-world cash to buy goods— in-game real estate, currency, even whole characters— from other players. By some estimates, the entire aftermarket for these goods is worth as much as US$1 billion, which largely changes hands on sites such as eBay.
Of course, where there is real money to be made, there are people to be exploited. And
recent reports describe the latest development in the virtual economy: the emergence in China of “gold farms,” Internet-café-style sweatshops where dozens of kids sit at computers and play MMORPGs all day, collecting in-game booty that their bosses then harvest and sell to the highest bidder.
Gold farming has had some predictable economic effects. Inflation is becoming a problem in some games, while in others the quality of play is degraded. When as much as 40 per cent of all players are gold farmers, a variation of Gresham’s Law kicks in, with bad gamers driving out good ones. Intriguingly, nationalism is also showing its face: South Koreans are the biggest online gamers in the world, while the Chinese are the world’s biggest gold farmers. Red Herring, a technology and business magazine, reports that virtual Korean vigilante groups are massacring Chinese users under orders from the local lord. Is this just nerdy, or is it nerdy and scary? Perhaps,
as Mao might have said, it is too soon to tell.
Either way, it is remarkable how familiar the problem of gold farming is. Online gamers may believe they are taking their characters on epic quests to unlock ancient secrets or rescue virtual babes, but in reality they are engaged in the oldest quest of all: the search for status. When a society gets rich, status becomes the only good worth pursuing. Once we have provided everyone with the material basics (cars, houses, plumbing, televisions, and so on) we tend to seek out goods that are intrinsically scarce and which, no matter how rich we get, we cannot create more of. No amount of economic growth can create more
lakeffont property or more Old Masters paintings. These are positional goods, in that access to them goes to the richest person around— regardless of how much or little wealth he or she has.
The internal economy of an MMORPG is entirely status-based. And its status hierarchy is peculiar, in that what matters is not the having, but the conditions or circumstances in which the having takes place. Success, and thereby status, in a game like Lineage requires a great deal of time, effort, and skill, and owning your own castle is a sign that you’ve arrived.
Gold farming undermines this by interfering with the normal status signals, since you can’t tell whether the king of the castle is an extremely competent or dedicated player or just some rich guy. Sound familiar? Strip away the trappings of Tolkienism, and what you have are variations on the ancient positional joust of original inhabitants versus the nouveau riche, who in this case, are violating the virtual social code by buying their way in, rather than getting there through hard work— a criticism that’s heard less in the real world.
So what? you might think; these are just games. Except they aren’t. Any place where thousands of people can move about trad-
ing goods and building property and killing people and so on is not a game, it is a world, and its residents are not players but members of a community. It is probably no longer terribly useful to divide the world into “virtual” and “real” aspects, as the realm of atoms and the realm of bits become drawn into an integrated system of technologies, institutions, and cultural products. We don’t yet have a good name for this new world—the “metaverse” and the “technium” are two attempted coinages—but if gold farming is any indication, we have a good sense of what it will be like. For better and for worse, it will be just like the old world, but more so. M
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