I became interested in Cyber Labor when I was doing research on real money trade in the virtual world of online games, such as World of Warcraft, back in 2006. I met group of Chinese young men who were making a living by playing online multiplayer role-playing games. These young men are called gold farmers, and the in-game goods they collected were sold to other gamers, often from the US and Europe, for real money. I also made a documentary film on this topic. In the documentary, gold farmers talked about how it feels to live at the border between the virtual and the real, to mix play and work, and to interact with foreign gamers who they would never have the chance to meet if not for this globalized virtual world.
I’ve been called a Nihilist in the virtual world. My gaming skill is miserable and I cannot sincerely engage in all the quest and interaction of an online game, so my gamer friends asked me, “do you believe there is any meaning in our world?”
But as I was making this film about gamers, about people who live at the edge of the real and the virtual, I realize that we all create and live our virtual reality one way or another. Through this film, I met young Chinese workers who are happy to find that they could make a living by playing the online games they love. In the virtual world they find what the real world often deprives them of: dignity, power, and community etc. But when they are gold farming or power leveling, in other words doing the dirty work in games for their customers, they are constantly reminded that people are not born equal even in this virtual world.
I also met gamers from the US who are willing to spend a significant portion of their income on things in game. Some of them laughed at my comment that they find compensation in the virtual world for what they cannot get in the real world. They say they endure their boring and taxing jobs in real life so that they have the money to make their virtual life better. The real does not necessarily precedes the virtual. Meanwhile, some gamers cannot tolerate that money from the real world is contaminating their virtual world, which is supposed to be a level playing field. But they often target their anger at the gold farmers, rather than the innate structure of most games.
The encounter of these Chinese and American gamers is thus fascinating. They wouldn’t have this personal interaction if not for this globalized virtual world. Of course there is misunderstanding or even conflicts, I hear stories about vigilante groups patrolling the border of the virtual and real as if the Chinese gold farmers are illegal immigrant labor from China to the US. But there are plenty of heart warming stories about gamers collaborate, communicate, and learn about each other’s culture.
I no longer think these gamers are more distanced from reality than people like me who don’t have an avatar. Things I gave the most important meaning to might seem completely virtual to others, for example, money and fame. What would our real life be, if we take all the imagination and interpretation away from it? Whose game is reality? To those who are stubborn about keeping it real or keeping it virtual, my film has a statement: we can accept anything but reality.