I was recently interviewed for an article in The McGill Daily. The topic was gold farming. Here’s the link:
All your digital labour are belong to us.
The Daily’s Whitney Mallett explores the world of gold-farming: professional gaming and virtual trading
Below is the full exchange with the writer.
MGD: How does gold-farming re-map and reinforce repressive structures and global inequalities? Does it transcend these in any ways? Does it have the potential to?
UM: Virtual gold, or “gil,” might not be a tangible good like coffee or strawberries, but its exchange in the market is subjected to the same economic forces–which means that yes, there is the potential for this practice to replicate the inequalities inherent in capitalism. At a fundamental level, we are talking about supply and demand here: someone doesn’t have the time to collect all that gil, but they’ve got the money, and someone else has got the time and needs the money. But then we have to look at it as a global trade issue as well: some parts of the world have a “comparative advantage” when it comes to supplying cheap labor — the question of course is why. It is not accidental that the videogame players are sitting in North America and Europe, while most of the gil collectors (they don’t like being called “gold farmers” — it’s a pejorative term to them) are sitting in China or Indonesia. So it is unavoidable to talk about global inequalities when we talk about gold farming. Does the practice have the potential to transcend these inequalities? Maybe so. According to the interviews I’ve seen, some of the gil collectors find it preferable to engage in such practices as opposed to working in actual farms or factories.
MGD: Is the perception of gold-farming as abusive with sweatshop-like conditions over-represented? Can the over-representation of a victimizing narrative be harmful and possibly prevent positive social change?
UM: I think gil collectors should be the ones answering the question of whether they feel exploited or not. I do believe there is a tendency for us in the “First World” to look at an image of, say, a bunch of shirtless guys in a room somewhere in Asia and immediately think “sweatshop” and “oppression.” Which is not to say that we should overlook the ways in which this practice obviously fits into the context of global capitalism, like I said earlier. But I do believe that there is a underlying cyber-Orientalism in the tropes of Chinese Gold Farmers or (Amazon’s) Mechanical Turks. I think this Orientalism serves to conceal the fact that, as I heard Alex Galloway say recently, we are all Gold Farmers. In other words, in this age of user-generated content, we all find ourselves being (sometimes willingly) exploited by Web 2.0 companies. You might derive some benefit from poking your friends around in Facebook, but basically it’s a glorified marketing ponzi scheme where you surrender your personal data and your privacy. It’s just that we find it much easier to think of those being exploited as being Chinese. You and I, on the other hand, could never think of ourselves as being exploited by Google. But at least the folks in China are getting paid!
MGD: On your web site you talk about the paranodal and the network as a site to resist the commodification of the social — how can these ideas be applied to gold farming?
UM: The paranodal is the space between the nodes in a network. This space is not empty. It is populated by multitudes that do not quite conform to the organizing logic of the network. In essence, my concept of the paranodal is just a way to talk about the politics of inclusion and exclusion in networks. All networks exclude. For every node you have paranodes, at once attached to and detached from the network. So if we think of MMORPGs as networks, then gil collectors could indeed be an example of the paranodal, working and existing in the interstices of the network. In a recent alternate reality game I organized for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, we played with a gold farming scenario and we contemplated whether there could be Fair Trade gil, just like we have Fair Trade coffee and chocolate–in other words, a system for compensating workers appropriately. But in reality, I don’t think this would work. For one thing, the Chinese government is already getting involved in trying to prevent or limit the exchange of virtual currency for real goods and services. Secondly, my guess is that companies that produce MMORPGs, while they initially tried to ignore and then repress gold farming (by closing the accounts of farmers, for instance), will eventually adopt the sale of virtual goods as part of their business models. They will realize there is a demand and figure out a way to make money form it. What started as a paranodal practice will become mainstream, and more importantly, automated. Some companies like Sony already started doing this, with their Everquest Station Exchange. So I’m not sure gold farming as a paranodal practice has much relevance to resisting the commodification of the social. In the end, however, I am more concerned about *my* paranodal resistance. I would definitely want to work on that before prescribing what someone in China should do.