Transcript for Cory Doctorow on "For the Win"

Jim Fleming: If you’ve ever played one of the big on line multi-player fantasy games like World of Warcraft, you know that in the beginning, there’s a certain amount of drudge work.  Your character has to sheer a bunch of sheep to make a lot of shirts, or dig a lot of ore, or kill monsters in order to acquire the good stuff, swords, gold, spaceships, laser guns, and that takes time.  There is an alternative.  You can pay someone else to do it for you.  The practice is called gold farming and it’s the subject of a new young adult novel by Cory Doctorow called “For The Wind.”  Anne Strainchamps asked, what kind of gamer would hire someone else to do their playing?

Cory Doctorow: Well, there’s lots of different cases for it.  Say your partner has been playing Warcraft for a year and she’s gotten up to some unimaginable height through hundreds of hours of play, and you’ve decided that it’s time that you and your partner will play together.  The problem is, that for you to get to a level where you can play alongside her best character, you’re going to have to play for hundreds and hundreds of hours on your own or with other players who are kind of at the same level as you, or she’s going to have to tag along in a bunch of really boring quests with you, so you might pay someone to level your character out.  Gold farmers do this, they do these repetitive tasks and then they find a way to sell those items to other players for real money.  There are about 400,000 people who do this for a living.  Most of the farmers are in poor countries and most of the customers for their gold are in rich countries.

Anne Strainchamps: Do they make much money doing this?

Doctorow: Probably not.  You know, it’s hard to say because this is a gray market, so it’s very hard to tell exactly how much money anyone is making doing it.  One of the most interesting things I heard about gold farming when I was interviewing experts about it, is that there’s a kind of pervasive get-rich-quick story in the outer provinces of China where there’s been a very aggressive effort to add high speed networks to a lot of very economically depressed regions in hopes that that will spur local business, and the idea is that if you could get, say 10 boys who are out of work to come and sit in a room full of computers and play video games all day, that you can get rich off their play.  The socialist in me wants to call this alienating them from the product of their leisure, and it’s probably not the case that any of those people who start those businesses get rich, or most of them probably don’t because that’s been the nature of get rich schemes, but that doesn’t mean that someone isn’t making money somewhere.

Strainchamps: So we’re talking about an entire network of electronic sweatshops?

Doctorow: Yeah, some of them are really sweatshops, you know.  I talked to farmers and people who ran farms, and experts who described things that we would characterize as being normal for sweatshops, like places where you are locked in, where you sleep in a dormitory that’s attached to your place of work, where your salary is docked if you do the kinds of things that we would consider normal like slowing down a little while or going to the bathroom to often, and some of them I think are just a couple of guys, usually guys, who figured out that they can make money doing it as independents or semi-independents. 

Strainchamps: Well so far, this seems like a great subject for an investigative piece, you know, a newspaper or magazine story.  What made you want to turn it into a young adult novel?

Doctorow: You know, the business of gold farming, it’s got a lot of parallels and resonances with some of the big fights that we’re having right now, so in virtual worlds and games, people who are “real players from the rich world,” look down on gold farmers and think of them as cheaters, although of course as you pointed out, they are also customers, and it’s a source of a lot of racism and really ugly stuff that people who walk around in video games, who have Chinese names and talk in Chinese to each other, often find themselves being harassed by players from the developed world saying, you know, you’re a dirty gold farmer.  You come here, you’re unwelcome, go home.  You’re a cheater, you enable people to cheat, get lost, with a lot of racial epithets thrown in for good measure, and so that’s pretty distressing, but what’s interesting is that the claim of legitimacy that the “real players” have, is no less tenuous than the claim of legitimacy that the gold farmers have, so first of all, the gold farmers, some of them anyways, will tell you, ‘well, I have a claim to legitimacy on two grounds.  The first is that I play this game for 12 to 18 hours a day and I’m better at it than you are, and the second one is that because this game is not only the thing that I do for leisure, but also the thing that I do for my bread, this game matters to me more than it does to you.  I’m actually more of a legitimate player than you are.  You’re just a punter, I spend my life here.” 

Now, at the same time, the people who run the games will tell both of those groups of players, “actually, none of you have any stake or legitimacy here.  You are here at our sufferance.  Every time you log in, you have to click on a multi-thousand word license agreement that spells out in agonizing detail just how few rights and how little legitimacy any of your claims to being the true resonance of this world are,” and moreover, you know, if you play a game like World of Warcraft from Blizzard, they mandatorily install spyware on your computer to make sure that you’re not doing anything while you’re playing the game that they would disapprove of, like running something that would automate game processes, so this program which is unashamedly called Warden, actually can look at every file on your hard drive and report on its contents to Universal who owned Blizzard.

Strainchamps: Well, you could see that the stage is set for some kind of massive democratic labor organization or movement, which is exactly what you created in your novel.

Doctorow: That’s right, so [inaudible], it’s a book not just about gold farming, but it’s a book about using gold farms or using virtual worlds to form trade unions that are independent, in places where trade unionism is presently illegal, or at least independent trade unionism is illegal, whether that’s free trade zones in India or China or Vietnam or Cambodia, or other countries as well, and kids are able to do this for two reasons.  The first is that they’re doing so in a virtual world and that virtual world is a place that’ hard for their bosses to surveil because they are better at using the virtual world than their bosses are, and the other reason is that all the workers are in the same place, so though it’s easy to take a video game sweatshop and go, ‘well, if you guys want to be unionized, we’ll move to the next village down or we’ll move the gold farm to eastern Europe, or we’ll move the gold farm to Singapore, that the union organizers can go to the same place that you’ve gone to and start sidling up alongside of the orcs who work for you, making virtual gold, and say, ‘hey comrade, have you ever thought that we have common cause even though we come from different countries?’

Strainchamps: So let’s talk a little bit about the story you have created and what happens in it.  The book begins with a number of different characters.  They are gold farming kids and you’ve got characters in Mumbai, in Singapore, in China.  One by one, all these people wind up meeting a mysterious game player who calls herself Big Sister Norr [sp?].  Who is she?

Doctorow: Norr’s an Indonesian labor activist who was a gamer who happened to work in a textile mill and who found herself unemployed when her employer shut down the mill and moved to a free trade zone, but discovered in the virtual worlds that she liked to play and the seeds of a better union movement, one in which you could follow capital to any place that it would go to, and who decided to found something that she calls the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, or the Webley’s, and she’s [inaudible].  Thank you.

Strainchamps: Great.

Doctorow: Yeah, I like that too.  So Big Sister Norr is holed up in Singapore in the red light district, the gay line, hidden away in an internet cafe commanding this global army of trade unionists, along with two of her trusted lieutenants, a woman from Malaysia, and a young man from China.

Strainchamps: Are any of the events that take place in your book based on things that are really actually happening?  I mean are there instances of collective action taking place in on line games?

Doctorow: No, not to my knowledge, although there have been some instances in which there were popular revolts of games.  One of my favorite examples of this was several years ago, in a game called Eve On Line, normally it’s a game about space pirates and space merchants, but they call it spread sheets in space, because the way that you play the game is by forming corporations and then managing your supply chain and your human resources.  Essentially they’ve kind of gamified middle management, it’s very weird, but a lot of people really enjoy playing it and you either become a merchant or you become a pirate, and the people who ran the game decided that being a pirate wasn’t fun enough, so they gave the pirates a better ship, and the merchants started to lose a lot of ground to the pirates.  It became a lot less fun to be a merchant, and the merchants were very upset about this a couple of prominent merchants decided that they were going to have a little revenge, so they formed a syndicate and they asked all the biggest corporations in the game to come into their syndicate and solicited from them their liquid capital in order to raise the money to buy a set of plans to build a ship that would out-maneuver the pirates and would rebalance the game, except there was no set of plans, there was no ship.  It was a Ponzi scheme.  Their objective was to suck up as much of the liquid capital as they could from the game and then resign their accounts, at which point all that money would just disappear, and when that happened, the game went through a deflationary whipsaw and it completely knocked the game’s economy off-kilter. 

So this is pretty amazing, a pretty amazing example of collective action in a game and actually, today Eve On Line is distinctive in that it has an in-house economist and it has a democratically elected player guild or player counsel who have a say in the management of the game, which is pretty interesting. 

Strainchamps: So are you, would you like to see young players, young gamers thinking about taking on more forms of democratic collective action inside the games they play?

Doctorow: Not just games, right.  So this is the thing, the game is just a symbol for an overall fight about legitimacy and claims to legitimacy in networks and in cultural realms, and in physical places.  The physical wire in the ground.  We have cable companies and phone operators who have been given government largess in the form of a right-of-way.  Imagine you were Ma Bell and you said, ‘Okay, I’m going to start a new company and I’m going to buy the right to run wire under every street and to every basement in America, the clearing price of those rights-of-way.”  You know, a trillion dollars later, you’re still wouldn’t have wired half the country, but the got to do it for free, and yet they got to say, ‘that’s our wire, not your wire.’  When the FTC tells them they have to run that network in a neutral fashion that allows everyone to connect what they say, you have no legitimate claim to our free enterprise network.  I want to say, ‘you know, it’s our dirt, it’s our rules.  If you put your wires in our dirt, you’ve got to play by the rules.  If you don’t like the rules, we’ll give you 60 days.  Get your wires out of our dirt.  Otherwise, we’ll pay the scrappage cost of them and find someone who will operate the network we want,’ so this fight keeps going on all over the place.  You know, when a kid takes a character in a book that they love and writes some fan fiction, puts in on line, or in a movie that they love or what have you, and a corporate publisher or a corporate film studio writes to them and says, ‘you’ve got to take that off line because that’s not your character.  It doesn’t belong to you,’ and the kid says, ‘well wait a second, you conjured up a character that you deliberately stuck in my head.  That character went on to do things in my head.  Who are you to say that I’m not allowed to write them down?’  These claims of legitimacy kind of echo up and down the whole of 21st century society.  That’s always been negotiated and that’s what this is really a book about.

Fleming: Cory Doctorow talking with Anne Strainchamps about his new young adult novel, For The Wind.  He’s a former Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a co-Editor of Boing Boing, and author of the award-winning young adult novel, “Little Brother.”


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