The complex economies of online gaming and the tragic reality of third-world sweatshops come crashing together in Cory Doctorow’s new novel, For the Win.
Working the threads of stories taking place in multiple online worlds, in multiple countries, Doctorow shows us the sinister side of gaming. In India and China, workers play to win virtual gold that they then turn over to their bosses, earning more in local currency than their families have ever had, but enduring horrible conditions. And if the workers in India get too dissatisfied, the bosses simply recruit more workers in China.
In For the Win, the workers get organized, and set up a worldwide virtual union, determined to work together to demand fair pay and better conditions. The juxtaposition of physical and game-based violence makes Doctorow’s novel a page-turner. Doctorow juggles dialects and gamer slang to make the story more convincing. Even for readers who aren’t avidly connected to the gaming world, the economic implications of buying and selling futures in virtual goods is fascinating: “When lots of people believe something is valuable, it becomes valuable. So if you’re selling game gold and people think game gold is valuable, they buy it.”
Until the price of a fancy pixelated sword gets too high and that little voice in the back of the player’s head says, Wait a minute! These are virtual swords, and why I am paying so much money for them? If the price stays low enough or the player thinks he can sell the sword on to someone else, he’ll ignore the little voice for as long as possible. When the little voice becomes the voice of the fat lady, it all comes crashing down.
Doctorow’s focus is on what’s fair in an information society. What else would you expect from one of the lead editors of the popular tech/culture blog Boing Boing? Access to information and the Internet can level the playing field of equality for workers all over. The important thing is teamwork. Joining together and using everyone’s skills to get the job done means that those nasty bosses, the ones who spit and punch and yell, can be beat. Because they don’t know how to play the game. And they’re certainly not organized.
If anyone can set up a free voicecall to anyone else in the world, using the net, then we can all communicate with the same ease that’s standard for the high and mighty. If anyone can create and sell virtual wealth in a game, then we’re all in the same economic shoes as the multinational megacorps that start the games.
On one side there are the workers, largely based on Asia’s Pacific rim, skilled at playing games in various worlds. The workers are generally under the thumb of local bosses who work for bigger local bosses, all getting rich from the sale of virtual gold to wealthy players based in the West. In the book, an American economist employed by the world’s largest game-running company spent his PhD time at Stanford working out equations to represent the value of fun in the gaming world. Newsweek‘s Daniel Lyons recently wrote about ‘the serious business of pretend products’ (“Money for Nothing”, Newsweek, 19 March 2010), noting just as the novel’s economist does, that in a virtual world, an economist can experiment with market forces in ways not possible in the physical world.
When the workers, known as Webblies, take over several of the most major games on the planet, virtual economies larger than actual physical countries (eg, Portugal) start to wobble and shift.
The world’s economy is a runaway train, the driver dead at the switch, the passengers clinging on for dear life as their possessions go flying off the freight-cars and out the windows, and each curve in the tracks threatens to take it off the rails altogether.
The game running companies are forced to take notice. Doctorow peppers the narrative with lessons in crooked information-age economics. How do you run a scam? Find someone who thinks they can’t be tricked, and fool them completely. Then do it again, because they’ll be too embarrassed to admit they screwed up in the first place. If it sounds too good to be true ...
Doctorow keeps up a driving pace, full of action and violence both inside the games and in the real world as the union efforts heat up. With the popularity of online gaming today, it’s certainly easy to believe that the stakes are high for the players and companies, as well as the workers. Access to information, net neutrality, and fair use of the work of others are all issues that come into play in For the Win, set in the game context and mixed up with a global labor movement. It just might be that the author is describing a not-so-distant future.