Thursday, February 08, 2007

Virtual Gold Mountain

Tonight I attended a panel discussion about Serious Play: MMO gaming, real money, and social worlds. The first presenter, writer Julian Dibbell, explored the theme of "play money" in virtual online environments to draw attention to the dematerialization of hard currency, goods, and labor in current conditions of what he calls "ludocapitalism." (I won't attempt to summarize his critique of game studies, however, which focused on what he considered to be the self-defeating disciplinary assertions of mutual exclusivity that are represented by Jesper Juul's Game Liberation game.) Dibbell described his experiences trying to earn his living for a year trading virtual objects in Ultimate Online toward the end of participating in real money trading (RMT) through Internet auction sites like eBay. Dibbell also discussed the experiences of Chinese "gold farmers" who earn game capital in the currencies of massively multiplayer online role-playing games and by "leveling up" the avatars of others.

We watched fascinating footage of these gold farmers from Ge Jin a.k.a. "Jingle," who showed how the workers in what would appear to be online sweatshops actually choose to pursue gaming during off hours as well. I found the Chinese players wistful discussions of "communication" problems with foreign players and the fact that vigilante squads of American players try to locate and exterminate these low-wage professional players particularly affecting. Given that our course, the Humanities Core Course at U.C. Irvine, will be welcoming noted Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kington next week, who describes the hardships of immigrants to "Gold Mountain" in her book China Men, these conflicts and exclusions in virtual landscapes seemed like a particularly relevant subject.

Respondent game-designer Ralph Koster seemed aghast that these un-gamelike emergent behaviors were being rewarded by the market. In contrast, a voluble spectre in the audience, who appeared perhaps to be Lev Manovich, seemed to accept the proposition that capitalism was always already virtual pretty readily. Furthermore, Koster seemed particularly irritated by the taxonomy of game players in Final Fantasy XI that William Huber had outlined. I enjoyed learning about the political dimension of the game from Huber in which demonstrations of nationalistic fervor had led to denial of service attacks. Kudos to UCSD organizer Noah Wardrip-Fruin for an event well worth the drive.

Update: Check out Terra Nova for a wrap-up from Edward Castronova on reactions to statistics on virtual trading recently released by Sony in a white paper.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Liz,

Glad you could make it!

-- Noah

8:06 AM  

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