Saturday, July 9, 2011

Don't Be That Guy: Prisoners of WoW

Don't Be That Guy: One of the best things about being one out of several billion is that there's always somebody doing something stupid. If you keep your eyes open, you can usually wait for a stupid person to try something first. Watch them fail, laugh, and be sure not to repeat their mistake. Or read my blog and get the skinny straight from the Nerdery.

World of Warcraft is a divisive little piece of nerd-product. As an MMORPG, it's part of the genre that is used to mock nerds as a social group at least as much as glasses, snorting Urkel laughs, and Star Trek tech arguments. For those of you who don't know, MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. The MMO portion of that describes any game in which there is no hard limit on the number of players participating in the same session--successful MMOs have hundreds of thousands of players connected during their peak hours.

Most MMO games are also RPGs, largely for practical development reasons. In an RPG video game, players will generally spend most of their time striking off on their own or in teams for small group instanced combat. This is by design, as it provides less strain on the game's servers if fewer players are in the same area at the same time. The other big reason MMORPGs are by far the most popular iteration of the online genre is because video game RPGs are almost always primarily concerned with experience, character advancement, and loot grinding. Character advancement is very different from character development, as it refers to some way that the game gives you more power as you play for longer amounts of time. You might kill a giant rat for five experience points, and after getting one thousand experience points you get a chance to learn a new attack power. The next level will come after geometrically more experience, and the next after that, and so on, such that players might spend days of play-time at higher levels to level up just once.

Loot grinding is another huge element of MMORPGs in general and World of Warcraft specifically. You see, in addition to having nuanced combat powers that your character can develop, MMORPGs also feature items and resources that can be found, mined, bought, or harvested. These items can greatly increase the power of your character, or can just be sold when found to save up for something better. This is the core value of loot grinding--there's always cheap stuff to be found, but there's always something better out there.

So there are two grinds in WoW--the level grind of killing things repeatedly to gain experience and the loot grind of collecting gear and gold to get that ultimate piece you want. Level grinding is a personal trial that can't easily be outsourced--you have to kill the stuff yourself--and most players prefer to control their advancement carefully anyways. Loot grinding, on the other hand, is easily outsourced and usually players do so happily because it just isn't that fun to virtually chop wood or mine gold for hours on end. Not in WoW, anyways.

This demand creates an opportunity. People who don't mind the tedium of tapping gold veins for days on end can make offers to impatient people in a trans-reality exchange: people pay real money to get in-game gold. The suppliers in this scenario are often called gold farmers, because of harvest-reaping-selling pattern of the industry.

In this article, a former Chinese inmate dishes on how the guards there used teams of prisoners to gold farm in a rather lucrative scheme that exceeded the profits that inmate labor in factories could produce. They'd be forced to mine gold in 12 hour-a-day shifts, and when the prisoners failed to meet their quota, the guards would punish them in much the manner you'd expect of a Chinese prison. The article reports that an estimated 80% of all gold farming is done in China, and the informant stipulates that many other prisons in China must be following suit.

There's several layers of don't-be-that-guy, so let's work through them.

Unenjoyable video game-maker: don't be that guy. When at least half of your product's content consists of something your clients would rather pay more money to skip, and that prison inmates are forced to do in 12 hour shifts, you've overshot the goal of progressive difficulty for your game and gone into programming-douche-baggery. I mean, making repetitive-but-essentially-enjoyable gameplay dynamics is one thing, but we're talking about something that boils down to a hunt-and-click dynamic that gets old after three minutes. To put this in physical perspective, that'd be like giving seating priority at a football game to people who get their tickets punched by all the vendors multiple times. It's meaningless activity that has no direct bearing on whether someone is worthy of the reward, and it doesn't really improve the game's experience.

China: don't be that guy. This is an intrinsically ideological one, but when you see it you will poop bricks. China, the world's foremost communist power, in whose century we supposedly live, has state employees (ie, the guards) using state resources (ie, the prison labor) to pander to one of the most prevalent pieces of rampant capitalism known to the modern world (ie, MMORPG players) for personal gain. Estimates are that there are well over a hundred thousand Chinese gold farmers (though the inmates are probably a minority in that group), and each one of them is a silent condemnation that comunism as a state structure generally only works as a pariah system that feeds off of more dynamic economies. Especially after the ridiculous expense of the Hong Kong Olympics, it comes off as throwing a garish party to impress your neighbors and then driving your jallopy down to the local soup kitchen for breakfast the next morning.

Prisoner of WoW: don't be that guy. Bear with me on this one. I'm not going to be one of those idiots who try to belittle the anguish inherent to this work--it may be playing a video-game, but it's externally directed, limited in focus, and done in long shifts that probably lead to freaky nightmares of being haunted by cel shaded icons that tingle with the promise of cheesy money sound effects. And then there's the specter of martial punishment, which is the bad part. Imagine two prisoners in the prison courtyard, punished by being forced to stand outside with their arms upraised for hours on end:

As the guard passes by, Liu whispers out of the corner of his mouth, "What did you do?"

The other guy, a scarred and heavily-built tattooed man named Po, replies, "I shanked my cell-mate with a sharpened toothbrush. He was a lazy, worthless slug who kept complaining about laundry duty."

A pause as the guard passes in the other direction.

"What did you do?" Po asks.

"Um..." Liu hesitates. "I didn't collect enough gold in this American video game they've had me playing."

"Your name's Liu, right?" Po mumbles with a sneer, freezing for the guard to pass again. "What's your cell block? Maybe I'll look you up."

"I get beat with pipes, too!" Liu blurts defensively.

As a Chinese inmate, it's got to be a hard sell to the other cons that you're actually recieving your fair share of abuse from the guards. It's a hideous catch 22 where finding the solace in your prison routine comes with the risk of looking like the guards' pet.

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