The Guardian today has an article on gold-farming in China about gold farming in Chinese labour camps, which claims that prisoners in labour camps in China were (are?) forced to play computer games at night after they had spent the day at hard physical labour. The prison then sold the products of their labour to free[1] computer gamers, but of course the camp workers saw none of the profits. If they failed to produce sufficient gold, or slacked off in their virtual world, they were beaten and punished in other ways. The article presents some interesting information about the way gold farming is conducted in labour camps and also in IT sweatshops. The latter represent “voluntary” labour and those doing it seem to think it pays better than factory work (it’s probably safer too), while the former are involuntary work.

These gold farmers in labour camps are being essentially forced to go and work in another world for 7 to 10 hours a day, and beaten if they don’t produce the goods they’re sent there to get. Not only is this process surreal (literally!) but it’s a model of human trafficking, enacted virtually. Are we witnessing the development of an industry based on trafficking in virtual people?

fn1: if you can define WoW players as “free” by the standard definition of the term…

The issue of gender inclusivity in gaming has been around the traps for as long as gaming, and is something I’ve discussed on this blog before. One of the main reasons for this in both the computer and table-top gaming world is the images that are used, which signify gaming as a man’s world where women are not wanted; but another problem in the physical world has been the reception that women get, physically, when they enter a stuffy room full of fat, beardy men who haven’t had sex since they broke their blow-up doll a year ago. They tend to get stared at like freaks, and suffer a lot of unwanted attention related to their gender. One would think, though, that in a world where the player’s real gender isn’t visible, this wouldn’t be a problem, and that in fact online gaming would offer a way out of this problem.

Now, gay men and women in the military in the US are advised (in fact, forced) to get around this by means of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which enables everyone to keep pretending that there are no gay men in a largely male organization, and thus avoids requiring the majority of the group to avoid changing their behaviour (in this case, largely “worrying,” one imagines) to fit the minority’s presence. It’s good for morale, apparently, but has come under attack from Lady Gaga, who is apparently more powerful than Nancy Pelosi, presumably because she has nicer breasts.

But perhaps Lady Gaga should be turning her enormous temporal power to a much greater injustice – the exclusion of women from World of Warcraft. The Border House blog has a report on advice to a female gamer who has joined a guild with a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – about gender. That’s right, she’s meant to keep her gender secret from the other players. Apparently she’s lucky – according to commenters on the post, a lot of top flight raiding guilds are male-only. The presumed reason is that the male players start “thinking with their sack” (to quote a commenter) when they hear a woman’s voice. Which sounds a lot like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to me (and like all the previous eras’ unfounded concerns about women in the military, to boot). So this woman has to decide if she can hide her gender (which must be a little difficult, when you have to talk over a microphone – I’m not sure how that works), or tone down her raiding / move to a different guild – or be blamed for all the petty morale problems and fuck ups that affect the guild she’s in.

I’ve observed before that World of Warcraft seems to reproduce all the pettiest and most unpleasant parts of our normal world, and that its fantastic and escapist elements don’t seem to transfer to either the political, class or economic relations within the game. Gender, of course, can never hope to escape the constrictions of the real world in such an environment. Is this because of the conservatism of high fantasy, is it inevitable when a large number of ordinary men do a hobby, or is the attitude in the gaming world actually a notch more exclusionary than in the real world, because men are fragile about women intruding on their club – just as they were in the workplace 30 years ago? And can we as pen-and-paper gamers do better than this?

In reading this report I also discovered that there is a a semi-official “out” server for gay, lesbian and transgender players, “Proudmoore.”

I found this through Monsters and Manuals, a website devoted to people kicking their World of Warcraft Habit. Nothing special! I hear you say – but it has a number for a suicide help line, and check out the comments. 2250 pages of them. Here’s a sample:

It’s no game anymore it’s like a gigantic dating service for ugly people.

That’s like what happened to the whole internet 10 years ago, but with less porn.

Some of the comments are priceless. I’m so glad I didn’t get sucked into that…

I have complained previously about the injection of banal meat-world activities into computer games which occurs in MMORPGs, particularly the need to “work” to make money and items. I play computer games to escape from my ordinary reality, not to go to work after I have finished work, so the importance of “grinding” and trading in games like World of Warcraft gives me the shits (a little). Obviously it’s good from a technical point of view that the designers have set up whole functioning economies, and it’s good that you can make and buy specialist stuff. I also accept that trade in one’s creative efforts is a fundamental part of human interaction, and that is largely what MMORPGs are all about. But it also seems like a kind of seedy under-achievement, that the best these teams of super-creative designers could come up with was real life.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that another of the real world’s great mundanities – sexism – has crept into these games. via Terra Nova, I discovered this claim that Age of Conan has penalised the combat ability of female characters (“by accident” of course). Discussion of this sexism at Terra Nova, incidentally, has been strangely muted, with a wierd example of men giving birth as some kind of counter-factual. The topic reminded me of an experience my good friend Ms. B (in Amsterdam) had while playing WoW. Her Warlock went on a quest to gain a new and powerful demon pet, and came back with this stupid succubus in high heels and a bikini. Ms. B’s reaction to this creature was quite visceral – she almost physically shuddered every time it cracked its whip and snickered. If a game could sexually harass a female player without actually pinching her arse, this is the way a game would do it. Sure, we know most players of these games are probably men but that doesn’t mean we have to reproduce the boys’ club rules quite so explicitly, do we? 

In real role-playing, of course, this stuff doesn’t happen so much. Sure the artwork in the games is universally pretty seedy, but generally (Tunnels and Trolls perhaps being a notable exception) there is no representation of inequality in the game rules, which in fact go out of their way to state that there is no barrier to women playing any role. In all my years of playing I have only ever seen one or two instances where the players try to recreate sexist ideas within the game, even though pulp and high fantasy are essentially very sexist milieux. And to the best of my knowledge I’ve never seen any sexual harassment of players, or attempts at belittling sexualisation. 

It’s another one of the great achievements of MMORPGs, I suppose, that they have created this kind of rush to the bottom, as if the only way the designers could envisage an online community is if it reproduces the basic structures of our real lives. I suppose it’s inevitable, but as always I would have hoped for better.

(Terra Nova also has an interesting discussion of whether or not the MMORPG EVE is going to be affected by the credit crunch currently enveloping its real-world company, which is Icelandic).

The Pugnacious Priest has an amusing post comparing rugby (the game, in MeatWorld) with WoW in terms of Tanks, DpS characters and guild behaviour. Perhaps at last the nerds of the world have found an activity to rival team sports. I wonder how long it will be before:

  • There is a worldwide league for guilds to compete in and/or
  • WoW Old Boys’ Clubs become essential membership if you want to get a really plum job in The City

Cruising the canals of Amsterdam over the weekend, I discussed my musings on virtual economies with my good friend (and WoWer) the good Dr. A. His response to my ideas about a virtual economy built on real money was to ask “why”?

Good enough question, I suppose. Why would a company make a risky game where players can lose money when a perfectly good subscription model exists?

One obvious answer is that, well, it works with poker. The company would be gambling that it can make money from low-level players to cover losses to high level players (kind of like insurance).

Another possibility is that, by opening up a world based on real money, the company could license out bits of it to other companies, to design adventures or campaigns or just spaces. This would lead to diversity in role-playing experience, which presumably the consumers are after (sometimes, looking at WoW, this is hard to see – but I play NWN2, so what can I complain?) There could also be the lure of players at high level getting to build their strongholds as a kind of licensed instance.

To this suggestion my friend Dr A replied – “But Blizzard do this perfectly well and people are willing to pay decent money to adventure in a world entirely controlled by Blizzard”.

To which I replied – “So you think players are happy with socialism, and unwilling to try a transition to a market economy?” By socialism I meant, of course, that this is exactly what Blizzard are doing. Everyone pays a fixed amount of monthly money, and in exchange they get everything provided for them – the economy, the environment, their workplace rights, and of course even the price of health care (i.e. potions) is fixed… that’s socialism man. My model is radical free marketeering!

My friend Dr. A’s response? “Of course – look at me, I live in Amsterdam!”

And Amsterdam certainly does seem to be a better place to live than London…

… is described, in video format, here. But no news on the source of the troll’s style. I suspect it’s from a capoeira video.

Terra Nova blog report on the results of an economic experiment they conducted in a virtual world. In essence, this experiment showed that increasing potion prices reduces the amount that players buy, suggesting that at least some commodities in some virtual worlds show price elasticity of demand

Not only does this suggest that economic laws work (inasmuch as economic laws ever do) in virtual worlds, but also suggests that virtual worlds could represent excellent places to test economic interventions. I would have thought that these experiments can be done pretty easily in World of Warcraft – the good Dr. A, for example, has a WoW add-on which analyses the sale price of all his possessions in auction. Presumably add-ons like this could be used to build up economic time series (even high-frequency trading data!) It would be interesting to see the results of a server-wide experiment in which Blizzard shut down access to all raw materials for a potion, and withdrew them from all stores…

I wonder how long it will be before we see economics departments negotiating with Blizzard for the delivery of experimental data. De-identified and anonymized, of course. Would such a negotiation have to go through an ethics committee? And if so, would the ethics committee be in the virtual or the real world? And if it was in the virtual world, would the Lich King get a seat?

In discussion with the good Dr. A and Miss B. in Amsterdam (and we weren’t stoned) I conceived randomly of a kind of alternative or next stage business model for WoW gold farmers. I don’t know if the model itself is viable, but were it to become so it would represent a huge contribution of the gold farming business to the online economy of world of warcraft, though not necessarily for the better. 

The model I envisage is one in which a gold farming company establishes a kind of value-added process for producing gold. Instead of sending lowly warriors out to grind weak beasts for small amounts of gold, this farmer employs moderate level characters, and buys in-world large amounts of raw materials – gold, herbs, essences etc. – and all day has his employees use their secondary talents to turn these materials into product –  swords, potions, etc. – which are then sold in bulk to guilds (or individuals) for real money. They could also be sold in-world for gold, and the gold sold to players for real money in the usual way.

For example, according to thotbot an Insane Strength Potion costs 7 gold 53 silver at auction, while its ingredients (3x terocone and an imbued vial) cost a total of 2 gold 60 silver at a vendor. So by buying these objects in world from a vendor, our enterprising businessman can recover 5 gold. Apparently these things sell at auction in lots of 5, so there is already an option for bulk sales. I imagine before a big guild raid one would need at least 5 of these, and a lot of mana-enhancing stuff, so a guild practicing one of its big raids could easily fork over 30 or 50 or 100 gold in a single night to a suitably equipped business. Maybe this would be a more rapid way of generating money than merely farming it…? By comparison, a mottled boar (again according to Thotbot) drops items in general worth 4 or 5 coppers… so grinding those poor bastards is going to take a while to build up gold.

It occurs to me that there could be a whole vertically-integrated business model for this. One enters Gold Farmers Inc as a level 1 loser, and spends time grinding monsters  for coppers. One will of course ultimately gain levels doing this and become more powerful, capable of killing better monsters faster for more gold. One could also do after-work study (i.e. play a lot) to build up skills, and when one had reached a level with talents, one could apply for a promotion. Then one would be sent around the world gathering raw materials based on one’s talent – e.g., gathering herbs or metals. One might be content to do this, but if one was really career focussed one could aim higher, continuing to play one’s level up in one’s spare time until one could build items oneself, and then apply for a promotion to start making items with the raw materials one’s junior colleagues provided to  the company. And of course there would be a role for middle management, who would collect all the raw materials coming into a mailbox from across the world and send  them on to suitable characters; or one would spend a lot of time going backwards and forwards from the mailbox to the auction room and the vendor… I can see a whole corporate structure building here, with peoples’ position in the office determined by their character’s role in the world… 

… but the whole business would be completely dependent on the economy of the WoW world, since there is a finite rate at which resources replenish, and others might compete for them. Flooding the world with potions would push down their price, etc. And of course players would object to this industry – currently the players occupy a position in-world very similar to the individual artisans before the industrial revolution (though occasionally they gather into … appropriately … guilds), so any industrialisation of the means of production of magical items would of course impact the value and esteem of what they do. They might be tempted to try and pass laws against these industrialists – and if that happened they might scapegoat the workers, attack the looms, or even attack the workers themselves. Economic change is never an uncontested thing…

The idea that I really like behind all this is the possibility that an enterprising company could pay the gaming company for the right to change or manipulate the underlying physics of the world, to make new items or spells. Obviously they would need to make items which were useful for people, which would require some kind of R&D process. And they would need to stay abreast of the plot and quest changes going on in the world, since they would need to know what new markets for their products to target. The best way to do this would be to petition the gaming company for particular quest lines or monsters… a kind of lobbying, if you will.

Lobbying God, effectively. I think the possibilities inherent in this are endless…

Further to my comments on the soullessness of World of Warcraft, the blog Terra Nova have a post about Blizzard’s recent court victory over a Gold Farming company. In their attempt to stop this Gold Farming company, Blizzard state that

WoW is a carefully balanced competitive environment where players compete against each other and the game to advance through the game’s various levels and to acquire game assets.

which sounds like the description of a perfectly operating free market. This is what Blizzard set out to create, of course, for the reasons I mentioned before, and in this court case Blizzard are just trying to protect their unique power to intervene in that market. It’s not as if this is a problem per se, and one certainly cannot criticize Blizzard for managing to mesh their commercial interests with the gamers (virtual) commercial interests.

But I contend that it is soulless. And this particular phenomenon – Gold Farming – has managed to enmesh the world of virtual gaming in the same political dynamic which has overrun the manufacturing industry. Gamers now have the good fortune to be able to choose whether or not to use sweatshop labourers in China so that they can become better equipped with discretionary consumer goods in Kalimdor (or wherever). It’s the classic metaphor of the lazy westerner using cheap labour – now we can’t even be bothered playing our own games.

One cannot fault Blizzard over the efforts to protect and build their business, of course, and obviously they (and the Gold Farmers) are providing a service a lot of people want. But I can’t think of a better example of the creeping insinuation of the everyday into a gaming experience, or a clearer statement of the role of the MMORPG business model in ensuring it, than this.

The Gold Farming model is a fascinating one, and now there is a documentary describing it.