Friday, December 09, 2005

Video games: Labor or recreation?

OK, I just had to mention this article in the New York Times today ( about a new form of "outsourcing" (and, in this case, "offshoring") of information labor.

One of China's newest factories operates here in the basement of an old warehouse. Posters of World of Warcraft and Magic Land hang above a corps of young people glued to their computer screens, pounding away at their keyboards in the latest hustle for money.

The people working at this clandestine locale are "gold farmers." Every day, in 12-hour shifts, they "play" computer games by killing onscreen monsters and winning battles, harvesting artificial gold coins and other virtual goods as rewards that, as it turns out, can be transformed into real cash.

That is because, from Seoul to San Francisco, affluent online gamers who lack the time and patience to work their way up to the higher levels of gamedom are willing to pay the young Chinese here to play the early rounds for them.

"For 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, my colleagues and I are killing monsters," said a 23-year-old gamer who works here in this makeshift factory and goes by the online code name Wandering. "I make about $250 a month, which is pretty good compared with the other jobs I've had. And I can play games all day."

What amazes me is not so much the idea that this labor is flowing to low-wage, minimal-regulatory areas of broadband connectivity, but that the market for this service is so tied to what is supposed to be a form of recreation. How do videogames and video game access subscriptions make such profit if they are seen as so much drudgery?

It is also interesting to note the ways in which these avatar-builders are portrayed in the article. The stand-in gamers, who "range from 18 to 25 years old," are allegedly "not willing to do hard labor" according to one gaming-labor company owner. "If they didn't work here they'd probably be working as waiters in hot pot restaurants," he said, "or go back to help their parents farm the land - or more likely, hang out on the streets with no job at all." I wonder how other gaming workers beyond the single example quoted in the article -- many of whom apparently sleep and eat at these "gold factories" in order to hold down 12- to 18-hour shifts -- see themselves. Playing videogames for half a day straight, in an officially illegal industry where abuses might go unnoticed, subject to quotas like in any other factory environment and earning only 25 cents an hour, doesn't sound "lazy" to me (as the sources quoted in the article would suggest).

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