Boundaries Disappear In Virtual World

There’s a good – if long – article by Julian Dibbell, “The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer” (Link – registration may be required), on The New York Times website today. It goes to some length describing a situation I’ve mentioned on this blog, and is related to something I posted on another one. Good Sunday reading.

Also, as I often find myself having to search for the post of mine on that other blog in order to provide a link to it, and because one never knows if or when a blog is going to vanish into web air, I’ve decided to repost it here; social topics and issues stemming from these emerging technologies are certainly no stranger here now as they seem unavoidable.

For anyone who finds the general topic of interest, what follows might be worth your time as well.

The Flat Earth’s Shaky Virtual Ground

Normally I write about three things on my own blog: design, virtual reality, and technology – particularly rapid prototyping. However I wanted to diverge from those for at least my first post here into something a bit different for me because a) I dislike overlapping topic areas on blogs and b) I’m becoming more aware of some social issues about which I really only had the slightest idea prior to involving myself within the Second Life community. So I’d like to briefly touch on some of what I’ve encountered in that regard and share some questions I’m currently asking.

When I first joined the SL community, by happenstance I came almost immediately in contact with some presumably new Chinese “workers”. Most people who have followed MMORPG’s know that there are low wage workers in 3rd world countries making a real world living by “playing” online games. I’m personally unfamiliar with this in games like Everquest, but I’ve read enough articles and know enough about games in general (and the booming virtual economies spawned from them) to get the drift. But unlike these workers apparently, I was aware that there was no “game” to Second Life. There are no “levels”, no special dragon-slaying armor, no magic spell or BFG blaster to acquire – it really is pretty much nothing more than a virtual space where you set your own agenda. That fact is still taking a while to sink in for some of these workers who immediately and impatiently set about acquiring land (or attempting to) and earning virtual currency to satisfy their employers’ daily quota back in China.

Over the past 6 weeks I’ve watched mostly at a distance while one worker in particular struggled with the “game”. What was obvious to me early on was that this person had no real idea how capitalism worked. Sure, they understood the basics like “buy low and sell high”. But they didn’t understand the more nuanced issues the same way most people in the West can’t read a stock report. For example: this particular worker owned land near mine, and had purchased this “First Land” as I had at the rate of L$1/sq meter (which is a kind of gift from the gods that be, Linden Labs, since most land goes for at least L$6/sq meter). But this worker didn’t really understand what they owned and what its true market value was. Worse yet, they never even thought to find out. When I caught up with the Chinese workers one day after seeing a For Sale sign on that plot, I asked about the land and was proudly told by the former owner that it had sold for a profit at L$1.17/sq meter. Well, I’d seen the land for sale. Except it wasn’t the Chinese worker now selling it. Taking the Chinese worker back to the parcel I let them find out for themselves how much profit they had lost – the parcel was being “flipped” (resold) for L$6.84/sq meter. After this depressing discovery the worker started asking some questions – wanting to understand how it was that I knew to hold on to my land when they didn’t; how it was that I had determined the land value would continue to rise. So that night I stayed up til dawn explaining some of the nuances of capitalism. And that is the thing that I want to bring up here.

In most games,”work” is routine. Spend X number of hours “fishing” and sell your virtual catch for X number of gold pieces at the virtual market. Simple blue collar labor. But in Second Life, real profit comes from understanding capitalism and market forces in ways even many Americans wouldn’t understand. It is, by default, a “game” that requires the “player” to become educated in real life concepts if they want to financially “succeed”. And from this merging of real and virtual arises an interesting situation. Assume for a moment you are the Boss, the person running a real world sweatshop employing low-cost laborers who spend 12-18 hours per day inside games and sims to earn virtual currency and whatnot for later sale on sites like eBay. Do you really want your employees learning all the tools necessary to replace you in your real life job? Or to leave your business and start their own in competition to yours? Or to make secret contact with someone in the West for the purpose of conducting real world business? Furthermore, does the upper class community in the region truly want lower class citizens being educated by someone in the West? How would some Indians feel about my teaching aerospace engineering theory to an Untouchable? Has anyone really considered the social impact of this kind of interaction? And what are the consequences?

All interesting things to consider. And while I work on my little SL/RL project, I’ll be watching to see how all these questions start to get answered – because these are probably issues that will find an answer. Let’s just hope it’s for the best.

{Original post: Second Life Future Salon blog, 29 April 2005}