Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: the Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft [Conference Notes]

by Latoya Peterson

These are the notes for “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft.” The notes are for the keynote presentation given by Dr. Nakamura at the Texas A & M University Race and Ethnic Studies Institute’s Symposium exploring Race, Ethnicity and (New) Media.

The full paper is available on Lisa Nakamura’s research site. The abstract is as follows:

This article examines the racialization of informational labor in machinima about Chinese player workers in the massively multiplayer online role playing game World of Warcraft. Such fanproduced video content extends the representational space of the game and produces overtly racist narrative space to attach to a narrative that, while carefully avoiding explicit references to racism or racial conflict in our world, is premised upon a racial war in an imaginary world—the World of Azeroth.

This profiling activity is part of a larger biometric turn initiated by digital culture’s informationalization of the body and illustrates the problematics of informationalized capitalism. If late capitalism is characterized by the requirement for subjects to be possessive individuals, to make claims to citizenship based on ownership of property, then player workers are unnatural subjects in that they are unable to obtain avatarial self-possession. The painful paradox of this dynamic lies in the ways that it mirrors the dispossession of information workers in the Fourth Worlds engendered by ongoing processes of globalization. As long as Asian “farmers” are figured as unwanted guest workers within the culture of MMOs, user-produced extensions of MMO-space like machinima will most likely continue to depict Asian culture as threatening to the beauty and desirability of shared virtual space in the World of Warcraft.

Notes

  • People don’t hold video games accountable for racism; however they do hold them responsible for violence. Gaming has to constantly defend its portrayals of violence, but almost never discusses how it reinforces racism.
  • More people play Warcraft now than were on the internet in 1995. There are a significant number of players in China and S. Korea. Digital games are one of the only platforms we had that were transnational from the inception. People who would never think of trying out Japanese media has actually been engaging for a long time without being aware of it through the gaming world.
  • Nakamura starts her presentation off with a clip from South Park from the episode Make Love, Not Warcraft. In the segment she plays, the following conversation happens:

      Cartman: “I am the mightiest dwarf in all of Azeroth!”
      Kyle: “Wow, look at all these people playing right now.”
      Cartman: “yeah, it’s bullcrap. I bet half of these people are Koreans.”

    With that, Nakamura starts the discussion on how Cartman’s off-handed comment reveals how many think of Asian players – specifically Korean and Chinese – as “not real” players in this online world and begins to explore how racial bigotry is manifesting itself in the World of Warcraft.

  • Machinima are fan made vids using graphics and scenarios from Warcraft. Some machinima are very critical of Chinese players; likening them to service workers like maids.
  • Nakamura then talks about the weird line between spoof on the internet and actual racism, and how occassionally, one can lead to the other. She brings up Alex Rivera’s Cybraceros Project and Damali Ayo’s Rent-A-Negro project. For those unfamiliar with these projects, here are the descriptions:

    Cybraceros

    THE Cybracero MISSION

    All the work – without the workers!

    Cybracero Systems provides employers with innovative marketing and technology solutions that enable them to grow their business.

    Founded in 2006 by a group of visionaries, Cybracero Systems was created with one objective in mind: to get all the work our society needs done, while eliminating the actual workers and all the difficulties that workers imply: health benefits, housing, IRS, INS, union conflicts, cultural and language differences etc.

    Through our proprietary and patent pending technology, we combine the latest technology, Internet and state-of-the-art robotics and create “Telepresence”, a model that is about to revolutionize the planet.

    Rent-A-Negro

    Rent-A-Negro.com serves today’s changing nations by allowing you the chance to promote your connection with a creative, articulate, friendly, attractive, and pleasing African American person. This service comes without the commitment of learning about racism, challenging your own white privilege, or being labeled “radical.” In fact, rent-a-negro.com allows you to use your money and status to your advantage! In addition, your dollars go to support the African American community…

    Both of these projects were jabs at society; however, Nakamura notes that both Rivera and Ayo actually received requests to rent a Negro or to purchase Cybraceros.

  • The next clip Nakamura shows is a BBC report into the practice of Gold Farming in WoW.
  • Paying someone to do boring labor online really speaks to the dynamics in the real world – how we pay immigrants (legally or illegally) to do “the boring work” no one else wants to do. (Similar undercurrent of contempt.) Nakamura notes that the perspective of the gold farmers is missing – while they were interviewed for the story, they were not permitted to tell their stories about being murdered in game or being targeted because they are Chinese.

    In her paper, Nakamura writes:

    As Dibbell (2007) notes, WoW isn’t a game for everyone in a literal sense: for worker players it is a virtual sweatshop. Worker players in MMO’s produce informationalized property that they can neither consume themselves nor sell directly to those who can—in this sense, their high-tech labor in low-tech conditions more closely resembles maquiladora factory laborers’ conditions than it does other recreational or professional software-based activities.

    Farmers work in shifts, playing WoW in 12 hour sessions and sleeping on pallets—their work exemplifies “flexible accumulation’s strategy of mixing nonmodern and modern forms of production” which as Hong (2006) explains “depends on and reproduces racialized and gendered exploitation” (p. 115). Gold farming is an example in extremis of informationalized capitalism, for the avatar is a form of property that is composed of digital code yet produced by the sweat of a worker’s brow.

  • Gold farming is seen by Richard Heeks as providing an ICT infrastructure and helping to bridge the digital divide in other nations. Far from being a scourge, practices like gold farming provide income to developing nations and provide jobs for people in a digital space.
  • Much of the machinima made about the WoW universe is anti gold farmer, with titles like “The China-man gets fired.”
    While the market for gold is predicated on having both someone to purchase the gold and excess gold, buying is not as bad as selling – similarities with gold farming and sex work. While people like Ryan, the gamer profiled in the BBC segment, are considered cheaters, most of the administrative action and ire within the game is reserved for the gold farmers. Most anti-gold farmer rhetoric is anti-Asian.
  • One of the best (and most popular) machinimas to illustrate this is one called “Ni Hao” (lyrics included when you hit play on the video)
  • Most relevant verse:

      “Where did all the doggies and kitty cats go
      Since the gold farmers started to show
      Don’t want to know what’s in the egg roll
      And they keep comin’ back
      Cuz you’re giving them dough
      Take one down and I felt inspired
      Corpse camp until
      This China-man gets fired
      That’s one farmer they’ll have to replace
      Not supposed to be here in the first place.
      I don’t know any other way to convey
      How much we wish you’d all just go away
      Server economy in disarray
      Guess I’ll just fear your mobs around all day.”

      “Ni Hao (A Gold Farmer’s Story),” Warcraftmovies.com, accessed 10/26/07

  • Nakamura points out that a lot of what is being said in the video are based in anti-Asian stereotypes. “Player produced videos such as “Ni Hao” mock Chinese food ways, implying that Chinese eat dogs and cats. This is a nonsensical accusation, since there are no dogs or cats in WoW, nor any egg rolls.” However, players still insist that their criticisms of gold farmers are not racist.
  • Also from the companion paper:

    As is also evident in the readers’ comments to Yee’s essay, posters are eager to prove that their hatred of Chinese gold farmers isn’t racist, is not a prejudice against “biological difference,” but is rather a dislike of unsuccessful assimilation to American social norms, what the poster calls the “anticultural” position.

    The problem with gold farmers isn’t that they are Chinese; it is that they “act Chinese.” The characterization of American WoW player behavior as self-sufficient, law-abiding, non-commercial, and properly social is belied by their role as gold buyers within WoW’s server economy: the purchasing of virtual property lies within the bounds of “American” gaming behavior while selling it does not. But this is only the case if one is Chinese—IGE is not targeted in racialized terms, if at all. The notion that it is permissible to condemn someone for how they behave, rather than what they are, is a technique for avoiding charges of racism, for “culture” is seen as something that can be changed, hopefully through assimilation to American norms, but race is not. However, as Yoshino (2006) notes, this neoliberal position results in a compulsion to cover one’s identity, to behave in ways that are normatively color-less or sex-less, in order to take one’s unchangeable race, gender, or sexuality out of play.

  • Most of the machinima is anti-gold farmer, which begs the question: Who gets to produce machinima? Politics of labor and privilege playing out over who gets the right to speak and who gets to control the discussion. “Leisure” players, those who play WoW for recreation have more time to create machinima; “worker” players, those who play WoW as a source of income, are normally unable to devote that kind of time to a side project.
  • Nakamura also reports on racial profiling in game – the habit of certain players killing other players because they type slowly or strangely, as if English was not their first language. Nakamura explains that she has a friend who is a skilled player, but a horrible typist, who is often targeted because they confuse his slow typing for someone who does not speak English as a native language. Nakamura prefers to use the word “profiling” than “stereotyping” because profiling is more behavior oriented.
  • Some also argue that there is not a racist link because people are expressing their preferences for certain gaming styles. However, when styles are viewed as symptomatic of a culture and then devalued because of that link, there are serious issues.
  • You also see similar schisms forming around this subject as you see in intra-racial or intra-ethnic anti-racist discourse. Gold Farming is considered an issue of class in China, rather than race. Internalized ideas of what is right and wrong in game leads to distancing leisure players or “good” Chinese playing for fun from the “bad” Chinese players who trade their play for cash. Some of these divisions are heavily emphasized and enforced by Chinese leisure players.