Title: Gold Farmers (Min-max Means)
Work: Text & online exhibition
Location: On the server
Date: 2020

Title: Gold Farmers (published on Veinte20)

It’s 2005 and you’re taking a break from whatever it is you normally do to play some World of Warcraft. You’re playing an undead warlock, and you’re about to reach level fifty-six. It’s not all fun and games though; as especially at these higher levels the game can often be a real grind. You spend hours on end killing the same monsters in the same spot, just to gain a few experience points or a few gold. So you get fed up and decide to speed things up a little. You open your browser and enter your credit card details into a website selling in-game currencies. You spend twenty-five dollars and in return receive 250 gold. This mightn’t be how the game was designed to be played, but this way you can concentrate on getting to that dragon at the end of the game. This gold will let you repair your armour, buy that new staff you’ve been eyeing off, and still have enough left over to buy some extra potions.

What you may not have realised was that before this gold reached your account, the online company that you bought it from purchased the gold from a gaming workshop. One such operation is the Donghua Gaming Workshop based in Jinhua, China. The company employs eighty ‘gold farmers’ to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, earning gold on World of Warcraft. The workers are given a forty-five-minute break for both lunch and dinner, and can take one day off per month. For their efforts they receive thirty yuan, or $3.80, per day.1 In their two to three hours of daily leisure time, many go downstairs to the internet cafe on the first floor of the building, and continue playing World of Warcraft. Once they have finished gaming, they head back upstairs to sleep in dorms adjacent to their workplace. Some of these workers are young peasants who came to the city seeking employment, while others are urban youth from average families - often already game fans.2 Like the workers in the gold-farming industry, the kinds of companies that employ these workers vary widely. Some gaming workshops are small businesses, owned and operated by a few colleagues of equal footing.3 Some are mid-scale operations like the one in Jinhua. While others are gargantuan multinationals, such as industry front runner Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE).

In 2005, IGE, a Hong Kong-based company co-founded by former child movie star Brock Pierce, moved into their new offices on the 19th floor of Oxford House; a glass skyscraper that also housed CNN Hong Kong. At this time IGE was generating millions of dollars in monthly revenue, most of which was made by employers playing World of Warcraft. However the company faced one grave impediment: Blizzard Entertainment, the owner and operator of World of Warcraft, prohibited the trading of real-money for gold. In an effort to crack down on such behaviour, Blizzard began to shut down accounts used by gold farmers. To which IGE responded by starting to employ a series of techniques to avoid detection. If the locations and identities of their workers could remain concealed, their chances of getting caught and banned would be reduced. For this purpose, the  company would spend $20,000 per month to receive internet from a dial-up phone service that connected to servers based in the U.S. Which meant that if IGE’s farmers were outed, they would be traced back to computers in the U.S., rather than those in Hong Kong. Similarly, each World of Warcraft player needs a unique account in order to play, and the accounts that IGE created for their employees were fabricated using names and addresses taken at random from U.S. phone directories.4 While this surreptitious behaviour allowed IGE to continue gold farming, to expand further the company needed to persuade Blizzard to legitimise real-money trading. For this express purpose, IGE invited Steve Bannon - then an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, to become the company’s vice chairman. In this role, Bannon secured for the company $60 million in funding from Goldman Sachs and other investors.5 Yet even with this funding, Bannon was unable to legitimise IGE’s murky practices. Blizzard remained steadfast, and their measures to stop real-money trading only escalated.

Before a player can download World of Warcraft, they must agree with Blizzard’s End User License Agreement; a document which outlines in detail the rules that the player is obliged to follow when playing the game. If a player does not comply with these requirements, they are liable to have their Warcraft account suspended or revoked. Under prohibited commercial uses of the game-world, the agreement lists “gathering in-game currency, items, or resources for sale outside of the Platform or the Game(s)”:6 exactly the activity undertaken by the gold farmers. Blizzard despise gold farmers because they profiteer from the company’s own work, whereas other players despise gold farmers because they disrupt the experience of the game. It may be that to proceed to the next part of the game, a player is tasked with killing five helboars, but there are no helboars left, because every time they spawn, a group of farmers immediately kills them all. Behaviour of this kind can therefore render the game effectively unplayable for others. This is the computer game equivalent of paying for a movie ticket only to get your seat kicked throughout the entire length of the film.7 

In order to keep track of players causing such disruptions, Blizzard employs thousands of GMs, or Game Masters, who function as overseers of the Warcraft world. Amidst responding to innumerable complaints, the GMs are tasked with investigating the behaviour of suspected gold farmers. Once they’ve witnessed a player mailing excessive amounts of gold to other players, they will either suspend or ban the player. By April 2007, amidst Blizzard’s war on farming, IGE abandoned virtual-currency trading before rebranding as Affinity Media. The board went on to get rid of Pierce, and replace him with Bannon as CEO. Yet without being able to sell virtual currency or merchandise, the company became a shell of its former self; Bannon was now captain of an all-but-sunken ship, and the company’s game workers returned to being game players.

For the American gamer who can trade a day of pay for many days of would-be grinding, purchasing gold makes sense. Yet this trade is only viable because the worker who accrued the gold has a much lower wage than the American. In this way the very existence of the gold-farming industry is predicated on the exploitation of global income inequalities. Gold-farming is thus a form of offshore outsourcing; the same activity that Bannon would later position himself as diametrically opposed to. In fact Bannon claims that his entire worldview, one which concentrates on the perceived evil of globalism, was crystallised during an encounter with some American uniforms that were manufactured overseas. In a 2018 documentary interview, Bannon discusses visiting his daughter at the U.S. military academy, where she was a member of the volleyball team. Whilst there, Bannon saw the new volleyball uniforms arrive in boxes that were emblazoned with the words “Made in Vietnam“. “With all the jobs lost to globalisation. It was an incredibly clarifying moment for me.”8 Bannon’s mention of jobs situates his impassioned stance on globalisation as being engendered by his love for the American working class. As the chief executive of Trump’s presidential campaign, and as President Trump’s chief political advisor, Bannon claimed to be a defender of manufacturing jobs; a champion for the hard-working, honest members of the working class. “It’s everything related to jobs… I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.”9 And yet between 2007 and 2011, Bannon was the CEO of a virtual sweatshop. The very existence of the company which he oversaw was predicated on underpaying employees, and servicing gamers who were looking to cheat. It was the work done by Blizzard’s programmers and technicians in Irvine, California, that Bannon’s company was exploiting. These companies which trade in virtual currency, of which IGE was only one, not only benefit from the work of their own, poorly-paid gold farmers, but they also take advantage of the work of those developing and maintaining the games.

It’s late at night in Jinhua and Lao Liu and a few of his colleagues are at the internet cafe after their last Warcraft shift.  Liu’s a level 60 orc rogue, and as he runs around killing satyrs and helboars, he’s removed from the troubles of his daily life. Another character runs up to him and starts speaking in a language that he can’t understand. Liu minds his own business and chooses not to respond. Eventually the other player gets fed up and calls him a ‘f**king chinese farmer’, a phrase that Lou is intimately familiar with and understands acutely. This quickly takes him out of the game. Even in a world of night elves and trolls, he can’t escape his ethnicity. It’s one thing for workers like Liu to build the computers we play on or the clothes we wear while playing, but for them to be a part of our community is something else entirely. This interaction sticks with Liu as a reminder that the virtual world is not as far removed from his own as he might like to think.

A valiant brotherhood of millions; protectors of the light, young and old, joined together in an interminable struggle against a horde of despicable enemies; a world locked in endless war, where each faction is composed of distinct races. These descriptions summarise the narratives of both the World of Warcraft universe, and of Steve Bannon’s own worldview. In Warcraft, two opposing factions, the Horde and the Alliance, fight each other tooth and nail for control of the world. The Alliance are the righteous ones, the strategists that think of themselves as better than their enemies; they’re the champions of order in a universe of chaos. Rallying against them are the Horde, the underdogs; a motley crew of warmongers and outcasts. According to Bannon, the Judaeo-Christian West, much like the Alliance, is locked in it’s own battle against a chaotic evil. “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict”, Bannon told those gathered at a conference in the Vatican. He urged the people of the church to fight “against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”10 The forces that are threatening Judaeo-Christian values include the corruption of capitalism and the rise of secularism, but most of all, Bannon is fighting a “global war against Islamic fascism.”11 And yet his capacity to play the role of guardian and protector has been undermined at every turn.

First, in 2017, after only eight months on the job, Bannon was ousted from the White House. Then in August of this year, he was indicted for his involvement in the ‘We Build the Wall’ campaign. The campaign, operated by Bannon and three others, was set up to privately fund the construction of stretches of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The group used the crowdsourcing platform GoFundMe to raise $25 million, before later being charged with the misappropriation of part of these non-profit donations for personal use.12 If Bannon is convicted of these charges, it will attest to a willingness to lie and cheat that was evident in Bannon since he first chose to enter the murky world of gold-farming. But if the resurgence and continued growth of real-money trading is anything to go by, illegality is not an insurmountable hurdle. And as is fitting for a self-styled warrior, the legal proceedings left Bannon undeterred. After being released from custody on a $5 million bond, Bannon said that the “entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall.”13 And many of the people Bannon is referring to do indeed remain unwaveringly supportive of his crusade, even in spite of his fraudulent behaviour. In this sense, the legal is to a significant extent supplanted by the virtual. And as Bannon faces a trial date of May 2021, what’s clear is that irrespective of the outcome, if he can access the internet, he can continue to fuel the marginalising tendencies of nationalist conservatives across the globe. To many, it is painfully obvious that the virtual world, with its complex economies and its billions of inhabitants, can be mobilised in ways that have extensive and lasting implications on the physical world. And yet Bannon and his sympathisers are some of the few who act on this fact effectively. What Bannon makes clear is that to undermine the vindictive vitriol of those promoting marginalisation and xenophobia, to abate the calls-to-arms of warmongers, will require mobilising the virtual even more effectively than Bannon himself has.

[1] Julian Dibbell, Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot (New York: Basic Books, 2006)

[2]  Jie Gu. “Gold farmers part1.mov,” last modified March 12, 2006,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3cmCKjPLR8

[3] Nick Yee, The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us-And How They Don't (London: Yale University Press, 2014)

[4] Shawn Boburg and Emily Rauhala, ‘Stephen K. Bannon once guided a global firm that made millions helping gamers cheat’, The Washington Post, 2017

[5]  Julian Dibbell, ‘The Decline and Fall of an Ultra Rich Online Gaming Empire’, published on Wired, 24 November, 2008, https://www.wired.com/2008/11/ff-ige/

[6]  Blizzard Entertainment, Blizzard End User License Agreement, last revised June 1, 2018, https://www.blizzard.com/en-sg/legal/fba4d00f-c7e4-4883-b8b9-1b4500a402ea/blizzard-end-user-license-agreement

[7]  Joe Blancato, ‘Plaintiff’s Attorney in Player-IGE Lawsuit Speaks to The Escapist’, last revised June 1, 2007, https://v1.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/editorials/interviews/1220-Plaintiff-s-Attorney-in-Player-IGE-Lawsuit-Speaks-to-The-Escapis

[8] Steve Bannon, American Dharma, directed by Errol Morris (Utopia, 2018)
(transcript: https://subslikescript.com/movie/American_Dharma-8804284)

[9]  Michael Wolff, ‘Ringside With Steve Bannon at Trump Tower as the President-Elect's Strategist Plots "An Entirely New Political Movement" (Exclusive)’, published 18 November, 2016, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/steve-bannon-trump-tower-interview-trumps-strategist-plots-new-political-movement-948747

[10]  J. Lester Feder, ‘This is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World’, Buzzfeed, last updated November 16, 2016. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/lesterfeder/this-is-how-steve-bannon-sees-the-entire-world (For video see here:  https://youtu.be/FWXScQaZ2uI?t=271)

[11]  Ibid.

[12] Alan Feuer, William K. Rashbaum and Maggie Haberman, ‘Steve Bannon is Charged with Fraud in We Build the Wall Campaign,’ last updated August 31, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/20/nyregion/steve-bannon-arrested-indicted.html

[13]  Reuven Fenton and Ben Feuerherd, ‘Steve Bannon claims indictment is ‘fiasco’ to prevent border wall’, The New York Post, August 20, 2020 https://nypost.com/2020/08/20/steve-bannon-claims-indictment-is-fiasco-to-prevent-border-wall/

(Published on Invert/Extant)

(Virtual Exhibition - Dovetails)

World of Warcraft Inventory (image made using Blender)

Illustration by Juan Vallecillos