This article has now been published in Swedish.
“A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.” — Groucho Marx
Seriously, if you were born before 1985, you might have some problems understanding this. So let me start at the beginning.
There is a phenomenon called online gaming. Simply put, you combine computer games with the Internet, allowing you to interact with other people who are online at the same time. Many of these games are known as MMORPGs, which stands for massive(ly) multiplayer online role-playing games.
Some of the more popular MMORPGs include Ultima Online, EverQuest, City of Heroes, Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft, and Runescape. They often have magical themes involving wizards and monsters.
Many of the games have hundreds of thousands of subscribed players who pay fees to use them. (Some of the games are free to play.) There are an estimated 27 million players of such games today, one third of them in South Korea.
So far, you must be thinking: what possible connection could this have to the trade union movement? Be patient — we’re getting to that.
In these games, as in many computer games, over time one acquires possessions, skills, rank and so on. Often, moving on in the game is a long, slow tedious process — and many computer gamers look for short-cuts to get beyond the lower levels of the game.
In MMORPGs, those shortcuts might involve getting hold of objects (including virtual money) from other players. Those objects can be traded. Which means that outside of the virtual worlds, trading can also take place. Many players seem willing to part with their cash (real-world cash, that is) in order to buy virtual objects in the games.
This activity made headlines in December 2004 when a 22-year-old Australian gamer spent $26,500 (real money) to buy a virtual island in the online game Project Entropia. This was no ordinary island. According to the game developers, “The island boasts beautiful beaches ripe for developing beachfront property, an old volcano with rumors of fierce creatures within, the outback is overrun with mutants, and an area with a high concentration of robotic miners guarded by heavily armed assault robots indicates interesting mining opportunities.”
“This is a historic moment in gaming history, and this sale only goes to prove that massive multi-player online gaming has reached a new plateau,” said a spokesman for the company behind the game.
Meanwhile, eBay, the online auction service, is filled with people buying and selling virtual objects for use in online games. Some game companies, such as Sony, which is behind EverQuest, forbid players from buying or selling game characters, items, or currency — and have moved to block the sale of such items on eBay.
So far, it all sounds pretty crazy, but where’s the relevance to trade unions?
According to the BBC, the problem begins with something called “grinding”. This is a process in which “gamers have to perform long-winded, mindless tasks, to bring up their levels and gain access to more adventure”. And this problem has created a market, and an opportunity for profit.
If you were to go online, join in one of these games, over time you’d advance, acquire objects, and these would have value to other players — especially those who wanted to avoid those “long-winded, mindless tasks”. You could sell those objects, either to your friends or players you’ve met in the game, or to online brokers, or via eBay. In fact, you could hire people to play such games on your behalf for hours on end, and you could sell what they have acquired. If you employed those people in countries with very low incomes, in countries with weak or non-existent trade unions, you could make bigger profits. Get the idea?
According to an article by Tim Guest in the Telegraph Magazine, in mainland China “people are employed to play the games nine to five, scoring virtual booty which IGE [Internet Gaming Entertainment] can sell on at a profit to Western buyers.”
China, as is known, has no free trade unions which makes it easy to pay sweatshop wages. Tony Thompson, writing for The Observer, investigated a California-based company known as Gamersloot.net which employs Romanians to play MMORPGs for ten hours a day, earning $5.40 — $0.54 per hour. That is the considerably less than what IGE claims to be paying Chinese workers.
When you visit the website of gamersloot.net, you won’t find any mention of virtual sweatshops in Romania, China or anywhere else. The site bills itself as “a central location to purchase or trade online game cd-keys, accounts, gold, items, and powerleveling services”, whatever that means. The company says very little about itself, except that it is soliciting investors — and hopes to work with a children’s charity. Not a word about the “loot” it has acquired, where it comes from, etc.
Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE), whose website is located at http://www.ige.com, touts itself as a place to “buy gaming currency, items, accounts, and more”. Its website is a little bit more revealing about where the virtual currency it is selling comes from: “The stock we have available has been purchased legitimately from game players the world over who chose to sell their excess.” Presumbably, these are the people working in virtual sweatshops in Romania, China and elsewhere.
As massively multiplayer gaming takes off (and broadband Internet is driving this), the market for virtual products will hugely increase. Which means that more and more people will be employed to play these games in low-wage, union-free countries.
That’s why this is going to become an issue for trade unionists. Fortunately, there is a difference between these virtual sweatshops and those producing, say, toys or garments. The virtual sweatshops creating objects for sale to online gamers are themselves online. The workers are using the Internet every minute they work, and they probably need a certain proficiency with English in order to play the games. This could make them targets of online, global organizing drives.