Updated: Nov 24, 2020
By Andrew Copolov & Lister Wood
Due to NeoLiberalism and The Online becoming more accessible and needed; more people are beginning their journey of their digital career and exploitation of virtual labour.
This is done through the exploitation of wealth, the reliance of bad faith, our need for escapism entwined with using virtual spaces to seek favour from others, and to subconsciously fit into this restricting path created by the need for The Online in Modernity.
Immersion & Autonomy
I build the world. I build it using code. The lines of text aggregate and suddenly I have a sandy plane. I add two more lines, and now my sandy plane bulges. I add a second plane, and the sandy island becomes beset by waves. Two more lines make the island pucker and slope, turning it into a tranquil paradise - an island world that exists outside of politics. You can’t get eaten by sharks here, or attacked by savages, or harassed by tourists. Mine is a world of solace, and there aren’t even any mosquitoes.
The vision for my island was singular - I made it myself. There are no anomalies or contingencies here. Occasionally chance does enter, but only when it is invited in. Each time a dice roll generates a number greater than 0.6, a coconut tree will generate a coconut. The player can add the coconuts to their inventory, but the action of eating is purposefully omitted from the game. Best to avoid any explicit reference to bodily functioning - the player comes here to escape all of that. Somatic faculties are left unconsidered, in this world it is only emotions that are attended to. In this world the player can experience joy, relaxation, intrigue; and all without the need for upkeep, without maintenance or consequence.
To elicit an emotional response requires making the players feel as though they are directing the show. Short grass, long grass, light forest, dense forest… clearing. The experience of each game asset, each component of the world, is meticulously orchestrated. There are no interiors here. Everything is outside, and in that sense - there is no outside. At the edge of the island there is nothing. The sun doesn’t set here. There’s no night time during which to sleep. This world cannot be minimised - it can only be experienced full-screen.
I find myself in a world. I meet the peaks of a craggy desert. The first thing I do is to survey the dusty trails splayed out before me. My head bobs up and down as I trace each trail. My mouse marks each turn. Despite the expansive landscape, I know this world to be finite. My first ambition transcends the mechanics of the game; I want to know how much world is there for me to explore. I want to find the edge. And then, as I ascend one particularly steep peak, I hit it. An infinite invisible plane. Visually, nothing changes. I simply can’t go any further. The landscape that unfolds before me has no depth. An endless wall that cannot be seen, sounds like an unyielding imposition, but it’s also an edge - and edges are prone to fraying. I make a few strategic jumps to test the boundary. And it seems I’ve found a gap. With the right choreography of jumps, I might just be able to fall through. I try it but overshoot. I try again - I get to the top peak, jump toward a lower one, and instead of hitting the ground, I fall right through. As I plummet, the mountain above - a one-sided surface - becomes invisible. Above me a blue sky, and below me a flat sandy plane. I hit the ground without a sound. Normally, falling from a height instances an audible response, but here the response isn’t triggered. The game mechanics work differently down here. This region lies beyond the edge of the game, and perhaps I’m the first player to discover it.
(Visual reference: WoW glitch terrain)
Ours is a world-in-common. We make our world together. It acts as a hypothesis; a working model, not something determined or closed. We conceive of our world not as an island but as an archipelago. Separate from any mainland, it remains autonomous, but not in any absolute sense. Ours is an autonomy of self-sustenance and communing. Our game is an open one. We are co-isolated, not alone. We harvest together, we craft and trade items together: when my hatchet is blunt, I borrow your sharpening stone, when your pickaxe breaks, I offer you mine. We determine our own relations and reciprocities. We encourage each other to take breaks. Sometimes we leave our world running in the background, and we go outside. We are conscious of the physical repercussions of our archipelago. As we well know, it takes real electricity to turn on a virtual light.
The Exploitation of Virtual Labour
What happens when a virtual currency’s worth surpasses the price of labour in your country?
This question was asked a decade ago when World of Warcraft (WOW) became one of the most popular games ever created due to its vivid world enabling real world escapism, which also ran alongside the net boom of The Online in the later 2010s. This led to a desire for in-game currency - Gold, enabling a marketplace to be created for Gold in the real world.
This marketplace would go on to be named Gold Farming. This started to become prominent in China due to there being small wages in the country, and alternatives for Gold Farming would be manual labour or sweatshop labour. This led to thousands of labourers in China being paid to play WOW to make a profit for their employers. This is performed by people playing this game for excessive hours to make in-game currency, which is then traded through different online means for real world currency for a profit at the hands of these virtual labourers. An interview from 2007 stated that this small company would pay their workers $4 a day, while the owner of these labours were making $13 a day per worker; Average daily hours being 12 a day. The interviewee goes on to defend the lower wage saying that the alternative would be to work in a nike sweatshop and produce shoes that would then be sold for 600 times the value of the workers labour, so his alternative isn’t as bad. This was slowly fazed out however due to the fall in the value of gold, as well as the rise in the average wage in China leading workers to find better job roles.
This left the market open for people to exploit the game economy in different ways like botting. Botting is a term given when one or more people write a code/script that will make their player character(s) perform an action in-game. This is normally an easy task of a repetitive nature. (i.e. mining, fishing, killing monsters, etc.) They then sell the produce from these actions such as iron ore, fish, weapons dropped from monsters, etc. to The Auction House, which is the heart of the games economy acting as a stock market of goods. The Gold traded for the goods will then be sold to other players for real world money.
This is known as real world trading and can harshly affect the game’s economy and player base. As well as change the fabric of these worlds.
(For example the extremely rare and valuable item in WOW, The Black Lotus, has seen mafia’s forming and hoarding the item and bullying out competitors for the item in the real world. They do this so that they can control the price and stock of this item. The WOW creators didn’t like the monopoly these groups had created so decided to make the item so much more accessible that the price of this item has dropped from around £2 to 50p making it not really profitable if you were to take in the costs of the labour, electricity, and account subscriptions.)
The reason I bring up this point of both virtual labour and botting together is that there’s a new marketplace that features these two points together and is being exploited on the popular game Old School RuneScape. (OSRS) This game, like WOW has virtual money - called GP, which is currently valued at around 2 million GP to £1. This exploit however isn’t with the game's currency so to speak but with the characters themselves. Whereas in WOW, players can simply perform tasks/quests and will eventually end up after a month or two at the maximum level; enabling them to enjoy the full range of content that their form of escapism can perpetuate. This is different in OSRS though, as to reach the max level in this game takes an enormous amount of time, (potentially over a year) something people value when it comes to video games. As to have the best form of experience in OSRS you have to dedicate a lot of time into the game for it then to be considered fun for the player. (I.e. being able to kill really strong monsters, finish really difficult quests, or more simple things like finding rare items in more dangerous terrain.)
The simple answer to this issue with time would be to bot, meaning you purchase a code/script off a botter, so that your character can kill monsters and finish tasks while you’re unable to sink time into the game, leading you to having an experienced character without all the labour intensive grinds. This was a popular solution for a long time until the creators of OSRS got smart with how to handle these botters.
The creators started to implement different mechanics that would affect the character in the game in different ways, as to prevent a computer/bot playing the game instead of a real person. These different mechanics would range from a monster attacking a player while chopping down a tree, (resulting in the character dying if no actions are taken) a whirlpool affecting the fishing spots, (removing the fishing material such as nets and poles from the player if no actions are taken) and around two dozen more unique mechanics. A Last resort for prevention is having a player MOD (moderator) who is a paid employee of the creators of OSRS, who in game, will approach your character and try to engage in conversation using the chat features with the player character suspected of botting. If the MOD is unable to engage the player in conversation the player character will be reported and issued with a two day ban on the account. If the owner of the account does not dispute this ban for two days the account is then banned indefinitely; this is to prevent further botting of the same character.
This of course leads to a need for a person to be behind the computer screen, always watching over their character so that they won't be banned in the process of making profit in game. This person so to speak doesn’t even have to be performing the actions made in game, the bots can do that for them; letting the computer bot grind away making millions of GP every hour under the watchful eye of this person, assuring this character of its safety from the game creators and MODs.
This is where the neoliberal’s come into the foyer to undermine and underpay the working class of other countries, much like other large western companies do in Asian countries like China. Unfortunately, this is the case in this scenario for the newly impoverished country of Venezuela. This is due to the perfect storm of a competent workforce and technological infrastructures (broadband/ computers), combined with a few poor economic decisions made by the government and leader their currency and GDP has collapsed compared to the dollar, leading many to look outside of the country to make a wage; leading many to look for help online; leading many to the capitals of the wealthy neoliberal states.
(During following section, I will be using the videos linked below as reference to get a general idea of the amount of money and profit being created during this process of botting and selling accounts made through OSRS, while using the labour of Venezuelans. This is the time stamp you can use as the reference point of referred amounts. (6:38 - 8:08) Some might argue as there is no real way in which to prove what this video is stating is fact other than a few screenshots, but SirPlugger (the creator of this series of videos) has been known to try and make sure his videos are factual and does work alongside the creators of OSRS when making videos. I would suggest to take these numbers with somewhat of a grain of salt as there may be some inaccuracies and false bragging. Evidence of these bots can be found in game however, it’s the issue of the amount of profit made using them that I suggest not fixating on.)
SirPlugger Original Video Link <—Click
(6:38 - 8:08/ Original Video)
Audio and Transcript Version <—Click
(Audio/ Transcript version)
The person behind this bot farm stated that he's working on 29 accounts/characters at once, but then went on to say that they were not working on the characters by themselves, and that they have been making accounts through their workers. So to briefly summarise what this bot farmer is doing is setting up a collection of bots that will play 8 characters all at the same time on one computer. The bots have been told to train their combat skills which would normally take around a month of 12+ hours a day to achieve. These accounts that have been botted are then sold to western audiences as a time saver for them, so that they can experience an extremely powerful character without putting in the time.
The owner of the bot farm then pays their ‘workers,’ to watch these computers play OSRS and to make sure they are not banned and paying them an hourly wage for this.
They go on to say that they hire Venezuelans (who don't even know how to play OSRS) to train on eight of these accounts at once, in which he pays them $25 to $35 per account. These accounts however take about a month to make so the Venezuelans workers are each generating about $240 a month. (around $1-$2 per hour) These sums may not seem like a lot to a western audience, but sadly this is actually a wage in Venezuela right now where it's been cited that more than 25% of the population earn around $6000 a year equaling to around $3 per hour; but as with the Chinese bot farm workers this is a much safer and less labour intensive environment to work in compared to other lines of work for this forgotten working class.
The owner of the bot farm explains in the video that they have joined random Facebook groups of Venezuelans, allowing them to scout people who have little to no income, but an internet connection. They would then use Google translate to communicate with them on how much they would make by working for them in these chat rooms. They however don’t mention why they want all of these accounts watched by just keeping it vague, and of course don’t mention that they actually sell the accounts for $80 dollars to $160. This means however that the workers are making around $240 a month from the accounts they are looking after, but then the bot farm owner then profits $560 from each worker, translating to around $3,000 a month with the eight workers, this bot owner is saying they have working for them. The video then goes on to state that this bot farm owner has over $40,000 in sales vouched for them, meaning that they have been running this for well over a year and states that they’re planning on hiring more people to expand their bot farming empire, of digital corruption.
(The video goes on to mention about another person who sends no information other than that they are also selling accounts in the same fashion as the previous botter; adding the fact that they have bots working on 15+ accounts all on the same pc. These bots in the video are performing the same actions that the previous bot farmer had shown off in their video. This would suggest that there are multiple people using these bots to create bot farms for profit, and competing at how to effectively exploit the game and the people playing it for them, as having 15 accounts played all at the same time is almost double the original bot farmers 8 accounts, translating to double the discussed profits and stealing of capital.
This person however doesn’t mention how much money they are making or how many workers they own, but it isn’t too hard to imagine that this form of exploitation will go on further than this one bot farmer and will probably be going unknown across many different avenues through OSRS.)
This is the area of text I thought I would include to add ideas for solutions to this issue of exploitation of labour online. I've gone back and forth with different ideas or different paths that could be taken to stop such exploitation, some of these ranging from removing the idea of wealth from the game, making it so that the wealth would be mandated by the game owners, as to keep the world equal; making the game then about skill and experience rather than wealth. I thought this might prove ineffective as it might make people seek other online games as the issue of neoliberalism ingrained into the western world always has people striving for wealth over experience and skill. I also thought maybe a different approach of taking action offline, leading the creators of the game to seek legal action to these bot farmers removing them from society for forcing almost slave labour in the digital age to these poor workers in impoverished countries. I went back over and thought that maybe if these bot farmer owners were to disappear due to fear of incarceration, what would happen to these workers? Of which are already in poverty and trying to find less skilled work, would this result in more poverty and more unrest for these workers?
While researching this niche market it brought me with deep sadness to know people go to the lengths of doing this type of digital labour just to be able to afford food or warmth. It made me appreciate the smaller things and luxuries of living in a western power such as the UK and hope that these works can translate these thoughts and feelings I’ve had while researching this topic.
I thought it would be an interesting topic to take the view of an estranged worker to OSRS, that has no previous ties or connections to this game; taking their first steps in a whole new world and documenting their experiences as they discovered them on their first day working through the world, while under their bot farm owner.
It's also little things that I had come accustomed to over the years of playing, seen for the first time once again. I think it would be nice to also reflect on the terrible life of poverty these people will be living through and to not shy away from the harsh realities of their situation. With this being said my diary series will touch on darker topics of the exploitation of these workers and the hardships they must face while working for these malicious, illegal bot farm owners. I think the juxtaposition of these two opposites; a new virtual world with new experiences, and a harsher reality of underpaid, starving labours would work well as a video and photography series all recorded in game to highlight these issues.
I would also appreciate any further insights into this topic if people have further information, I will continue this research and try to make contact with the people affected with these issues in further pieces connected to this work.
A link to these pieces will be provided below, as well as a Qr code to the videos, photo sets and other media involved with the production of this work.
Lister Wood is a Northern based British artist currently living in Leeds. He achieved his undergrad in Fine Art at Teesside University, and carried on to study his postgrad Masters in the same institute, focusing on internet culture and virtual spaces. Lister is also the director of WET Productions, an arts based platform found on most virtual realms, most notably Instagram.
Andrew Copolov is an Australian designer and researcher based in London. He holds a BA in Architecture from Monash University and an MA in Architecture from the Royal College of Art. Currently he is investigating spaces of globalised labour and logistics.
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