10 May 2010

[Literature] Digital Imaginaries: How We Know What We (Think We) Know about Chinese Gold Farming

In "Digital Imaginaries: How We Know What We (Think We) Know about Chinese Gold Farming (forthcoming in the June edition of firstmonday), Nardi and Kow first introduce what RMT consists of from the perspective of companies, players and gold farmers. They remark: It is no more or less strange to buy an item such as a piece of jewelry in Second Life, or Merlin's Robe in World of Warcraft, than to purchase a game of checkers, or a book (certainly a virtual experience) or really, anything we could think of that someone values enough to pay for.

The gold-farmer digital imaginary

Stereotypes are based on an intersubjective reality: we encounter people who are members of the stereotyped class, rather than imagining distant Others. Digital imaginaries are built through images, not actual individuals. Since we lack practical contact with the Others we are imagining, visuals concretize them.

The methods followed by journalists or researchers in their studies of gold farmers are seldom mentioned. As shown in the network graph above, only four authors have been to China, and two have conducted long-distance interviews with gold farmers. In 2008, Heeks guessed/estimated: There is a generalized assumption that the great majority of gold farmers are based in China. In the absence of any better evidence, we will go along with this and guesstimate that China has around 80-85% of employment and output in this sub-sector. The digital imaginary is based on these few sources. These sources do not bring a whole picture of the issue, but rather comfort the general stance taken about gold farmers.

Some videos of players proving they kill gold farmers can be found on YouTube. The Ni-Hao video conveys the player issues with gold farming. Nakamura analyzed the video and remarked that attacks are directed towards the Chinese culture itself:

Where did all the doggies and kitty cats go
Since the gold farmers started to show
Don't want to know what's in the egg roll.

Dibbel first coined virtual sweat shop as the place where the gold-farmer's life presumably takes place. In the digital imaginary, gold farmers receive low wages (10 cents an hour's good money when you are Chinese) for long days of work (12-hour shifts) and live in poor conditions. These conditions describe playbor, work that is also play.

A broader picture

Botting is often omitted from the imaginary of the Chinese gold farmers. Gold farming is supposed to be a dumb and repetitive work, not developing and using complex softwares. However, ubuy8.com, a consulting company, advised that gold farming companies invest 20-30 percent of their income on R&D [...] allocated toward the development of specialized bots, moving away from less effective generic bots. As the authors note, Botting does not play well with the notion of the virtual sweatshop.

The forensic analysis of the digital imaginary analyzed how and why Chinese gold farming is perceived as low-tech work-as-play. This digital imaginary persists for two reasons. First, the real-life anxiety and doubt that Third-World countries are getting more and more powerful. This fear is accentuated when Western players meet Third-World workers in the game: strangers invade paradise. Second, the complexity of hyperlinks establishes connections that lend confidence and assurance to the materials they propagate. Actually, there are only too few reliable sources still available.

Some contributors to the digital imaginary presume that gold farmers are actually farmers in real-life. The authors explain that Eighteen year old boys are not generally members of any specific workforce, and certainly they are not “farmers”—a difficult profession requiring the accumulation of years of expertise. People are nevertheless fascinated by the gold farming phenomenon. Gold farming is a mirror that reflects us back to ourselves as culturally superior.

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