Julian Dibbell describes, in the Sunday Times Magazine, the strange new economy of on-line gaming, featuring out-sourcing of tedious game tasks required for advancement of one’s avatar. The author tries to tell it as a suffering sweat shop workers story, and to milk all the sympathy he can, but I think those Chinese fellows have a job a lot of high school kids in America would envy.
It was an hour before midnight, three hours into the night shift with nine more to go. At his workstation in a small, fluorescent-lighted office space in Nanjing, China, Li Qiwen sat shirtless and chain-smoking, gazing purposefully at the online computer game in front of him. The screen showed a lightly wooded mountain terrain, studded with castle ruins and grazing deer, in which warrior monks milled about. Li, or rather his staff-wielding wizard character, had been slaying the enemy monks since 8 p.m., mouse-clicking on one corpse after another, each time gathering a few dozen virtual coins â€” and maybe a magic weapon or two â€” into an increasingly laden backpack.
Twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three nights off per month, this is what Li does â€” for a living. On this summer night in 2006, the game on his screen was, as always, World of Warcraft, an online fantasy title in which players, in the guise of self-created avatars â€” night-elf wizards, warrior orcs and other Tolkienesque characters â€” battle their way through the mythical realm of Azeroth, earning points for every monster slain and rising, over many months, from the gameâ€™s lowest level of death-dealing power (1) to the highest (70). More than eight million people around the world play World of Warcraft â€” approximately one in every thousand on the planet â€” and whenever Li is logged on, thousands of other players are, too. They share the gameâ€™s vast, virtual world with him, converging in its towns to trade their loot or turning up from time to time in Liâ€™s own wooded corner of it, looking for enemies to kill and coins to gather. Every World of Warcraft player needs those coins, and mostly for one reason: to pay for the virtual gear to fight the monsters to earn the points to reach the next level. And there are only two ways players can get as much of this virtual money as the game requires: they can spend hours collecting it or they can pay someone real money to do it for them.
At the end of each shift, Li reports the nightâ€™s haul to his supervisor, and at the end of the week, he, like his nine co-workers, will be paid in full. For every 100 gold coins he gathers, Li makes 10 yuan, or about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20. The small commercial space Li and his colleagues work in â€” two rooms, one for the workers and another for the supervisor â€” along with a rudimentary workersâ€™ dorm, a half-hourâ€™s bus ride away, are the entire physical plant of this modest $80,000-a-year business. It is estimated that there are thousands of businesses like it all over China, neither owned nor operated by the game companies from which they make their money. Collectively they employ an estimated 100,000 workers, who produce the bulk of all the goods in what has become a $1.8 billion worldwide trade in virtual items. The polite name for these operations is youxi gongzuoshi, or gaming workshops, but to gamers throughout the world, they are better known as gold farms. While the Internet has produced some strange new job descriptions over the years, it is hard to think of any more surreal than that of the Chinese gold farmer.