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Beyond the Borders of the Real

Video Gamers and the Future of Labor Rights

by RON JACOBS

Even though I’ve been involved in at least four union organizing efforts at jobs I have had since I began working in 1971, I have never worked at a union job.  In addition, many of the various antiwar and antiracist endeavors I have been involved with  have included trying to get unions on board.  Having this experience with union activists has helped me stay abreast with the issues faced by those who organize labor.  Foremost among these issues ever since the explosion of capitalist globalization in the 1990s is how to organize workers across international boundaries. 

Besides never having held a union job, I’ve never been a gamer, either.  In fact, I have a hard time getting to the third level of the very first Mario Brothers game.  My son, on the other hand, like so many of his contemporaries, used to spend hours playing games online.  I was certainly not aware of the phenomenon known as gold farming that occurs within the gaming world while bridging the actual world of dollars and yuan.

Essentially, gold farmers are game players hired by quasi-legal operators to obtain as much game gold as they can by playing multi player video games.  The employers, who are often part of a larger corporate or criminal operation, then sell the virtual gold in exchanges set up for this purpose to other players unwilling or unable to gather the game gold for themselves.  Most of the gold farmers make a better living than many of their compatriots in the countries where this practice is located, but are still exploited by the people behind the larger operations.

Given that multi-player games are played by gamers from all over the world who would otherwise have no connections whatsoever, it can be argued that they represent a truly international phenomenon that has destroyed political and economic borders.  Indeed, it is exactly this aspect of the game-playing world that is the foundation of author and internet freedom pioneer Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, For The Win.  Doctorow, whose previous novels include a bestselling adventure  titled Little Brother that pits a band of internet savvy teens against the post-911 national security state, has written a novel with For the Win that is part thriller, part economics lesson, and a rallying cry to those in the world who still believe that workers can be a powerful force for social change.

The aforementioned premise that organizing international game workers can be the spark that ignites a prairie fire of social revolution may be a bit far-fetched to many, especially those whose vision of a typical video gamer is of some social misfit who can’t relate to the real world.  Yet, by the end of Doctorow’s novel, even those readers may be convinced that the characters in For The Win might be on to something.  Even if this isn’t the case, the "beyond-the-borders" aspect of the virtual world of gamers is a very useful metaphor for labor organizers from Shenzhen to Los Angeles and from Hanoi to Buenos Aires trying to figure out a strategy that can keep up (or even move ahead) of capital’s constant flight from country to country.  Until a strategy that challenges capital on its own terms can be developed, workers around the world are stuck accepting the crumbs left to them by their employers or not having a job at all.

The story begins in an internet cafe in the worst slums of Mumbai where a group of teens work for a shady individual named Mr. Banerjee farming gold.  Their leader, a girl named Mala, is more than just a good gameplayer.  She is also a leader of the youths in the neighborhood.  Meanwhile in Shenzhen, China, a group of young men are introduced.  These young people are also gold farmers.  Many  of them began their working lives in a factory run by an multinational corporation that either fired them or closed down the operation when it became cheaper to move elsewhere.  After a strike that is attacked by police, one of the young men named Lu runs into a pirate radio DJ who calls herself Jianda.  Jianda is a love advisor and workers’ advocate for millions of Chinese factory girls whose lives depend on their employer and whatever supervisor is above them in their shop.  Using a sophisticated internet network of proxy servers, unused chatrooms and empty web addresses, her evening program reaches millions of these girls every night.  Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the son of a modern day shipping magnate who is flunking out of high school because of his gameplaying, runs away from home and puts his gameplaying skills to work for a game corporation as a freelancer.  After hearing about the strike that Lu and his friends were involved in, he decides to join the cause.  A labor organizer who goes by the name of Big Sister Nor begins to work with these disparate groups of game workers, Jiandi and other sympathizers and organizers..  Eventually, the International Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWWW) assumes a shape and gameworkers around the world begin to sign on.  In addition, factory girls began to show an interest, as do the authorities, both state and corporate.  Violence, negotiations and danger follow.

This story is fiction and describes a world known as "virtual."  Yet, the economics discussed in its pages are as real as your laid off friend or the foreclosures up and down the street.  In a time when national economies rise and fall on algorithms designed to sell money that never existed and corporate executives go unpunished for stealing thousands of people pensions and livelihoods, the idea that the virtual world may well provide us with clues on how to organize the real one is not far-fetched at all.  Perhaps we should listen up.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net 

 

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