Lilly’s intervention into the Digital Turk has gotten me thinking about this kind of labor as the same type of digital piecework that women of color have done since the early days of digital culture. My grandmother worked in electronics assembly right after the war because she saw an ad recruiting Japanese American women as workers–this was right after the war in Santa Clara, when many of them had returned from internment camps. Thus, they were a fairly emiserated and jobless group of workers who had an excellent reputation for manual dexterity. As Donna Haraway wrote years ago, women of color, especially transnational ones, have always done the piecework of the digital age.
The Mechnical Turk makes digital piecework seem game-like, done on one’s own time, but it is also a mockery of the “creative industries” form of labor, done for love/interest/personal development rather than for the (meager) pay. Amazon is a platform for consumption, and hosting the Turk there makes working that way look like play. Lots of types of sweated/semi-sweated labor like this seem like play rather than work, and are also a mockery of the creative industries–like gold farming.
Lilly knows that I am obsessed with gold farming, because it is sweated labor done by Asian men in actual sweatshop conditions, but also because it is so overtly about play as work. These jobless and unemployable Chinese men play World of Warcraft and other MMO’s and sell their avatars and virtual money through third party virtual goods resellers like IGE. If we look at what they do, it’s also a mockery of the creative industries that the digital revolution was supposed to make available to so many.
In film and television studies, there’s new interest in studying “below the line” workers, like secretaries, script girls, craft workers, and personal assistants. So many of them are women, and they are so seldom talked about–they’re not auteurs or stars. If we look at digital games like other media, can we talk about gold farmers as “below the line” workers in the digital entertainment industry? They make the “play” of other more privileged people more easy and fun, they do the boring stuff that needs to get done to make the game accessible to busy Americans and even busy Asians who want to play at a high level but don’t have time to earn all this gold, and they are despised as a workforce for these very reasons. Are they Mechanical Turks? To free associate a bit, the Turk was an Oriental–exotic, inscrutable, and tricky. Chinese gold farmers are so marginalized, they are pallet-sharing, bleary eyed information workers a world away whose work is always viewed as harmful and antisocial in world of warcraft, yet their labor is essential; 20% of players have bought gold, and they are tolerated because Blizzard knows that without them many players would drop out in frustration (Mia Consalvo’s book _Cheating_, MIT Press, discusses this strategy–game manufacturers often leak cheat codes and tolerate farmers because otherwise new players would get too frustrated and stop being good customers.)
I wrote a paper about this which will appear in a communication studies journal. I’m posting it here because the journal is a paper journal and isn’t out yet. I wrote this article almost exactly a year ago, and I thank Difference Engine’s editors for letting me post it here so that people can read it. Any feedback welcome, as always.
WordPress doesn’t like my attachment, so I’m having to link it: click Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft to get the pdf.