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If you want a glimpse of the future of work in the broadband age, you can find it, of all places, on MTV’s website. To my knowledge, their recent gaming news segment, “Is Mining Virtual Gold Exploitative?” features the first video footage shot inside Chinese gold farms, those gray market companies which collect and sell virtual gold (primarily from World of Warcraft) to wealthier gamers in the developed world. (The New York Times filed a story on the phenomenon last year, but company managers were considerably more leery to speak on record with that reporter.)
Drawing from an fascinating upcoming documentary by UC San Diego grad student Ge Jin (YouTube clip from his film here), the MTV segment features interviews with workers and managers of several gold farms, which resemble a cross between a 24 hour LAN party and a very shabby college dorm. By the segment’s estimate, an astounding half million Chinese now make a living – about $100 a month – from the acquisition and sale of WoW gold to US and EU gamers.
Why is this is the future of work online? Consider the numbers, youth, and low wages of the gold farmers, and the growing interest in outsourcing tasks online. Amazon recently launched a non-game application for this, known as the Amazon Mechanical Turk.
In Second Life, a Hollywood production company is outsourcing its Second Life projects to its Vietnamese branch, where highly-skilled workers can create professional 3D environments for a fraction of the cost, were it done here. It’s easy to see how the Chinese farmers of Warcraft might evolve into the blue collar workers of the 3D Internet.
MTV producer Matt Sunbulli put us in touch with Ge Jin, and we asked him about this phenomenon, and sought his own thoughts on its relation to the future of work online.
How did you locate these gold farms?
Ge Jin: I have a friend who had been operating a gold farms in Shanghai since 2003. So his gold farm is the first one I visited. My friend’s gold farm closed in 2005, so did most gold farms in Shanghai. Many of them migrated to smaller cities with lower housing and human resource costs.
So I contacted other gold farms through my friend’s old network… I was lucky enough to find several gold farms that were open to me in Jinhua, Nanjin, Lishui and Hangzhou. Again I was lucky to win their trust. It’s probably because I’m from the same background as many gaming workers (many gold farm owners were former gaming workers.)
Were gold farmers afraid the Chinese government would shut them down?
GJ: The ones that allowed me to film there were not afraid because they are located in cities where local goverments are tolerant of this industry. There is no national policy regulating this new industry yet, so it’s up to the local governments to judge.
Most local governments have no motive to shut down these gold farms, as they reduce unemployment and even reduce the crime rate by reducing unemployed male youth on the street. Some gold farms refused my visit because they don’t want to pay tax and choose to operate underground, or they are worried that their labor practice is problematic…
What does WoW gold farming suggest about the future of work?
GJ: I think these gold farms indicate that the game platform has the potential to engage more people in Internet-driven economy. The gaming workers in China don’t have skills like English, software or graphic design to participate in other forms of Internet-driven work, but they can communicate and navigate in a 3D game world whose tools and routines they are familiar with… So if more social and economic activities happen in an accessible 3D game world, people who don’t have access to other culture capital but gaming knowledge will be more likely to be included in global interaction.