Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Solidarity in an Illicit Trade: Are Gold Farmer Unions Really the Answer?

Cory Doctorow’s For the Win
Full book available for free download on his website and in hardcover for $11.04 on Amazon.

There is no doubt that Cory Doctorow is an idea-driven writer. His novels are showcases for prognosticating on society. In his latest effort, For the Win, Doctorow presents two main ideas: that the internet poses a unique opportunity for the working class to share the organizational advantages previously reserved for the ruling/owning class and that all modern economies, and perhaps simply all economies, are fundamentally unstable because at base they depend on the mass belief in their solidity to function.

For the Win is the story of a labor solidarity movement that begins with workers in massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. Doctorow’s characters are not the American teenagers who play these games as recreation, but rather the young people in India, China and elsewhere who earn a living by playing the games to accumulate game currency and rare items which their bosses then sell for profit to the American teenagers who play the games (known as gold farmers, and a real phenomenon). For the Win contemplates the ramifications of such a movement on the games, the corporations that run the games and the workers in and outside of the games.

At heart, Doctorow's novel is an ode to labor organization. He draws parallels between the gold farmers and more traditional labor workforces and organizations. Doctorow argues that both gold farmers and Chinese factory-girls who slave away in sweat shops making sneakers and handbags should organize against their bosses. Likewise, Doctorow argues for solidarity between the union his gold farmers create, the Webblies, and, for instance, the unions that organize India garment workers and dock hands. He not only names the gold farming union in honor of the International Workers for the World "Wobblies," but he writes a cathartic scene where the more traditional unions ride to the Webblies aid during the climactic strike.

However, there is a fundamental difference between the labor struggles in the traditional industries and the Webblies' gold farming: Gold farming is illicit. It is officially banned by the games it is practiced in. Doctorow describes at length the game owners' attempts to stop the gold farmer's labors altogether. As a result, the farmers are not striking or struggling against the corporations, but against the criminal organizations which sponsor farming. The real analogy is not to the factory girls making Nikes in a sweatshop, but rather to a factory girl making knockoff Gucci bags. The importance of the distinction is that Gucci has no responsibility for the welfare of these knockoff sweatshop workers.

Yet Doctorow does his best to implicate the game corporations in the labor struggle. He argues the games' opaque terms of service make every activity that a player undertakes in the game illegal. As a result, Doctorow argues that since the game corporations do not uniformly enforce the terms of service, when they do enforce those terms, their aims, for instance in quashing gold farming, should be regarded with suspicion. In addition, Doctorow asserts that the real reason the game corporations dislike gold farmers is that they are competitors. The game corporations, like the gold farmers, sell items and currency to players. Finally, Doctorow argues that the game corporations also make money outside the game on in-game items by making side investments with Wall Street brokers on the currency and objects in the games. Doctorow depicts the game corporations as not that far removed from the gangsters for whom the gold farmers actually work.

But Doctorow’s efforts to implicate the game corporations are artifacts of his plot rather than necessary manifestations of a game corporation. There is nothing about running an MMO that necessarily makes a company corrupt. In addition, the arguments are irrelevant because Doctorow's farmers do not work for, nor get paid by, the corporations. In fact, they exist despite the corporations efforts, rather than because of their efforts. Even if the game corporations are not above reproach in other areas, there is no clear reason they should be held responsible for the working conditions of the gold farmers.

Doctorow has an interesting scene where representatives of the Webblies approach the leaders of traditional unions in India seeking aid for their struggle. The leaders reject solidarity in what Doctorow depicts as a failure to appreciate the form labor will take in the twenty-first century. But it seems more likely that labor, which has always been skittish about associations with criminal enterprises sullying its goals, would have rejected the Webblies on that basis instead.

Doctorow is not persuaded by this distinction between criminal and non-criminal work. He clearly believes that because the Webblies are performing work, they deserve a reasonable wage. He portrays the work as noble and the workers as innocent. However, recognizing that the criminal bosses cannot be bargained with, Doctorow seems to believe that the Webblies are justified in extracting a fair wage from the game corporations.

Criminals unionizing is a fascinating idea, but the operative question here is one of responsibility. Doctorow's attempts to make the gold farmers the responsibility of the game corporations are not convincing. Those companies take steps, as Doctorow acknowledges, to neutralize the gold farming market. Beyond that, the Webblies struggle is with their criminal masters. Doctorow really seems to have a knack for depicting the socialist perspective on labor in a romantic and passionate manner. However, that approach just seems slightly off in this setting where the Corporation is not the force holding the Webblies down. Doctorow suggests that the answer may lie in incorporating the gold farmers as a sanctioned part of the game. But barring some fantastic extortion scam like the one that Doctorow uses to conclude his novel, it is not clear that the game corporations would have any real motivation to accept that solution.

That said, Doctorow's examination of ideas is thoughtful, if one sided. His ruminations on the basis for the international monetary system and his comparisons to the MMO gold system are particularly thought-provoking. His prognosticating about the organizing revolution presented by the internet and mobile phones is currently being demonstrated by the democracy movements across the Middle East.

One last point. Doctorow is a vocal member of the Creative Commons movement and he has made a lot of his work, including For the Win, available online for free. That this interesting and well researched novel is free is an amazing demonstration by Doctorow in his belief in his ideals. For the Win is well worth a read, especially at this price.

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