Chinese farmers may be on the cutting-edge of the global economy. But not the Chinese farmers you're probably imagining -- rural agriculturalists in the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese farmers I'm talking about sit in front of computer screens for hours on end, killing video game monsters online, over and over again.
In early May, I wrote about the growth of massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and the real-world market that has arisen for virtual-world goods. People looking for an advantage (or simply pressed for time, and wishing to keep up with peers) will pay surprisingly large amounts of actual money for bits of virtual currency or rare items. And although nearly every MMORPG prohibits such sales, auctions of virtual gear can amount to millions of dollars every year.
Within the games, the act of repeating an action over and over again in order to accumulate the resulting treasure is known semi-derisively as "farming." Each monster killed or treasure chest opened may have a random assortment of loot, but, over time, the rewards are consistent; it's not unusual for players to spend an evening or two every week engaging in "farming" in order to build up sufficient gold to buy rare goods in-game.
Unsurprisingly, game worlds are therefore often home to "players" who game as a job, accumulating online goods to turn into real cash. But some have decided to outsource the efforts, hiring rotating shifts of players in places with cheap labor and decent Internet connections, simply to farm online games. The employees of these "cyber sweatshops" are paid minimal amounts to push a small assortment of buttons over and over (as the tasks most farming entails are extremely repetitive, they're easy to automate, drastically reducing the need for skilled control). For a variety of reasons, many of these companies seem to be in China, and "Chinese farmer" has become a typical in-game reference to those so employed.
Julian Dibbell first wrote about the phenomenon a couple of years ago in Wired, in reference to a company called Black Snow Interactive. Black Snow was said to operate out of Mexico, using low-wage employees as online farmers. Dibbell has come to doubt the veracity of the Black Snow story, but no matter -- it may have served as inspiration for other companies to set up massive farming operations. Most emerged in Asia to take advantage of the extremely popular games Lineage and Lineage II -- little-known in the west, but played by millions of people in Asia. The prevalence of farming in Lineage II led recently to large blocks of IP addresses in China being locked out of the game.
But Chinese farmers can be found in pretty much any MMORPG now. The gamer online zine 1Up took a look at some of these companies -- and even got pictures from a few of the "virtual sweatshop" facilities. With the crowded rooms and rows of PCs set up side-by-side, connected to the games 24/7, they look like a weird amalgam of textiles factory and cybercafé.
"Sell" is a recent graduate from Nanjing University. At 24, he's a manager for Vpgamesell, a large SWG [Star Wars Galaxies] Chinese farming center that wholesales to popular resellers. [...] His many farmers work 10-hour rotations and are paid $121 a month. Sell gets $180 a month and works closer to 14 hours a day because he lives at the office, which is a fairly common practice at farming centers—if you lose your job, you also lose your home. Sell negotiates with resellers online to determine the amount of credits they promise to purchase from Vpgamesell. While chatting with me, he's messaging five different people and making contracts for 5 million credits for each server per day.
Wagner Au, writing for the game Second Life, gives a personal spin to this concept. In "Sweating the Details," he profiles a young woman hired to generate in-game money -- but as Second Life is not a traditional hack & slash RPG, and doesn't have the same built-in mechanisms for accumulating items, she's having some trouble. Giving the concept a fictional spin, Cory Doctorow wrote a short story in November entitled "Anda's Game." The story was published in Salon, so you'll have to click through an ad if you're not a subscriber; it's actually my favorite Doctorow story yet.
It's not surprising that these companies have sprung up: take away the video game sheen, and it's just another repetitive task that meets growing demand, doable across the globe via the Internet. From this perspective, it differs little from outsourced help desks or customer service providers. And as long as there is demand, there will be people trying to meet it. But is the "sweatshop" model the only choice?
It will be tricky to legitimize this operation. As noted, the practice is generally forbidden by the game rules, so that farmers can be banned from the game, if discovered. Moreover, the practice tends to distort the relatively fragile game economies, thereby reducing the overall enjoyment for players.
There may not be an easy answer here. It is, however, a remarkable example of the intersection of gaming culture, the Internet, and the globalized economy. The concept of developing world sweatshops filled with people playing video games to accumulate virtual items to sell to impatient players in richer nations would have sounded too surreal to be plausible a decade ago; a decade from now, it may be a topic for international trade regimes.
It's interesting to me that you can design a game with rules, and the rules themselves create a real world black market economy. That is, if the desirable in-game items were cheaper, or if they couldn't be given to other players, this whole market would cease to exist. The game designers could simply add a line of code or two, and the problem would vanish, ya know? (Whether they want to do that, or whether it would be desirable, is another matter.) And on the flip side: One argument against adding that code is that thousands of people will be out of work as a result.
Allow items to be bought for real money. Give money to Chinese. Same effect. Let them do something productive instead.
See Google: Page rank can be bought (as Andrew Clausen will tell you...). So Google sets up a whitemarket auction. Problem... reduced, at least.
If you build walls, blackmarkets form. Walls don't work. Everything can be bought. *Especially* status can be bought. Is what you are really buying when you buy virtual goods.
Only solution is system to distribute all forms of wealth fairly. Communism failed. Democratic capitalism not so good either. What we try next?
I don't know about Chinese (or any other) virtual sweatshops, but can speak from personal experience about a one-man operation. For a couple of years my only source of income was real-life selling of online credits gained playing Everquest. One aspect not mentioned in the farming was that of timed drops, where an in-game target appeared on a set schedule, and frequently yielded (dropped, as it's called) a marketable item. At times I would plan my daily activities around these times.
When it reached a point that could no longer economically justify this pursuit, I quit, although I still played the game for pleasure for much shorter periods. The real-life economy of this is also fragile. Real prices dropped with increasing competition for players' dollars, becoming a buyers market. In retrospection, maybe I was an unknowing victim of outsourcing. Go figure!