New York Times: Portrait of a virtual sweatshop

Great piece in the New York Times magazine today, in which Julian Dibbel describes his tour of the “gold farms” in China, where young Chinese men toil over their keyboards for 12 hours a day collecting virtual money in games like World of Warcraft, sleeping in cramped dormitories and earning the equivalent of about 25 cents an hour. Stories about gold farming aren’t new, but this is the first time I have read a first-hand description of what they are like, and interviews with gold farmers. There’s also a video intro by Dibbel here (Update: Ed Felten of Freedom to Tinker has some thoughts here).


One of the things that interested me about the story was the fact that there is already a hierarchy in gold farming operations — the lowest level just pays young men to play games all day and collect gold, which is then sold to (primarily) Western players. But the companies that run games like World of Warcraft don’t like the gold farmers, so a second class of operation has developed that takes over the character of a player who wants more gold and plays the game while the owner goes about their real lives.

Is this any worse than a real sweatshop or gold mining operation? Hardly. In fact it’s arguably a lot better, since the only real health risk is either repetitive stress injury or some vitamin-related ailment from never seeing the sun. It’s also interesting that when these young men aren’t working, many of them play World of Warcraft in Internet cafes. It’s difficult to imagine anyone making shoes or t-shirts or mining gold for fun in their off-hours.

Bonus link:

There’s a great photo essay in the magazine as well, which is reproduced in an online slide show: it shows some game players and their avatars. Not surprisingly, there is a severely overweight young man whose avatar is a muscled superhero, and an Asian man whose avatar is a young schoolgirl. But there are also several young women, and one man who clearly has ALS or some other muscle-wasting disease, and is in a wheelchair wearing an oxygen mask — he plays Star Wars Galaxies about 80 hours a week.