digital piecework: a mockery of creative industries

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.

Category: Uncategorized
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
9 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    Man, I was about to delete the spam but didn’t want to make your comment not make sense. However, I did edit Major Coscio’s URL. As blog owner, I get to edit people’s comments — a power I have never before exercised!

  2. Lisa nakamura says:

    I can’t believe that we got WORLD CUP SPAM on this post!

  3. Major Cosico says:

    While watching Spain vs. Germany, I felt both teams played an even first half trying to find a weakness. In the 2nd half Spain really developed a great rhythm with the ball. It was very hard for Germany to score when they didn’t have the ball. Puyol really attacked the ball like a cobra on his goal. It is great to see Spain in the final for the first time. Spain just has too much depth. Good luck to the Dutch!!!

  4. Monika says:

    This is a great website, wonderful posting, and I am so intrigued and excited to have found excellent intellectual discussions about the ways in which the Internet works.

    I wanted to comment briefly about lnakamur’s comment on the Mechanical Turk: “To free associate a bit, the Turk was an Oriental–exotic, inscrutable, and tricky.” I do not think that this is only a historical connotation, and the violence that naming such a program does to the reputation of Turkish people today. Turkey is considered to be no the margins of Europe, sometimes Middle East. In the EU, for instance, migrant/second-generation Turks in Germany who moved there due to a shortage of labor after WW2 are often marginalized second-class citizens, or portrayed that way in media.

    As someone who has worked as a freelance writer, I couldn’t agree more that this type of work program dehumanizes writers/information workers. It is absolutely a “mockery of the ‘creative industries”.

    So then naming this “mockery” Turk? What does this unquestioned naming do to both Turkish people and to the program? Does it naturalize Orientalist visions of Turkish people and Turkishness? Does it further isolate the Mechanical Turk workers from Amazon or their employers because of the exoticism associated with the name? Could we imagine if instead of Turk it was called “Mechanical Arab” or “Mechanical Mexican”? Would there be more of an uproar? Regardless of the roots the term has to this chess “machine” (which was arguably Orientalist in its day) the name seems derogatory to me, and I wonder if there has been any backlash in the US by Turkish people …?

    @Lilly, when you write AMT do you mean “Amazon Mechanical Turk”?

  5. lnakamur says:

    Lilly: thanks for your thoughtful responses! First of all, what is AMT work? I’ve never seen that acronym before. As for the idea of “microwork” (is that your term? it’s a good one!) I think that it’s hard to track precisely because it isn’t considered really work either in term of prestige/professionalization, and because of it’s being “casual.” It reminds me of the concept of “day” labor, maybe the oldest style of work for pay–poorly paid work lacking the security of permanent employment, and socially denigrated for that reason. It’s also the province of immigrants and racialized others, which has a lot to do with it. gold farming and other work in virtual worlds or digital games is permanently blurred with play, so it’s definitely a new formation, and one that travels. Gold farmers have less purchase upon the sympathies of even “liberal” non-racist players because they are viewed as “bad” players rather than good workers.

    I am right there with you on Aihwa Wong. Thanks for reminding me of her. She belongs in the NSF proposal/paper that I’m writing, for sure. It’s a chapter in Neoliberalism as Exception, which has the best book cover I have ever seen. Looking at it gave me yellow guilt.

  6. Lilly says:

    Awesome article, Lisa.

    The logics that leads to goldfarmers getting harassed and virtually killed reminds me of the southeast asian domestic workers in Hong Kong and Shanghai described by Aihwa Ong in her piece (is it a book chapter?) “Maids, Neoslavery, and NGOs.” I’m really curious how this racialization your describe is felt and lived by the goldfarmers but seems to be down. Also, i wonder how WoW players that other these goldfarmers are fashioning themselves and “their kind”? What account of “self” is emerging from the way they’re shaping the negative space?

  7. Lilly says:

    Your paper talks about how gold farmers have becomes undesirable guest workers, disposessed in the world of MMOs. This made me ask whether AMT workers are dispossessed. At the moment, I don’t see signs of AMT workers posing a threat but instead the media seems focused on what this new, massive labour configuration can do for companies that they currently cannot do at all. (And it gets recuperated by services like txteagle that sell AMT + mobile phones as a conduit for “development” through microwork.) But who will AMT workers displace or deskill? Could it be that statistical priests of Computer Science, the artificial intelligence magicians, will be bitterly decry being replaced by millions of AMT workers who are able to “simulate” artificial intelligence at lower costs? Will Google’s immigrant search result rating workforce get replaced by a distributed, outsourced AMT workforce that gets paid far less?

    Will new branches of computer science open up that, relying on microlaborers who are disciplined to fit these configurations, study how to “optimally” organize and orchestrate these technohuman infrastructures? Dolores Labs is actually just such a company, employing AI and stats experts to configure and discipline AMT workers by figuring out which ones are trustworthy workers and excluding those who are deemed not to be.

    Your post also gets me thinking about how newly popularizing technologies (human-technological configurations?) can create new kinds of work — work whose risks are often unknown, work with little history to ground prestige, work that emerges as an after thought for those doing the hiring. Anyone know of anything that has been written on this sort of work? Not that these sorts of work are “new” — piecework is very old — but sometimes they get constructed as distinct (goldfarming) and sometimes not.

  8. Ryan Shaw says:

    Another instance of this kind of piecework: the immigrants, many of them working at home while caring for babies, that Google hires to quality-check its search results in various non-English languages. (Note: I’m not necessarily condemning this practice; I know a few Japanese mothers living in the U.S. who were happy to have the extra income and found the work interesting.)