Pictures from a Chinese Gold Farm: Some Problems with the Promise of Serious Play

Julian Dibbell

Every day in China tens of thousands of people work twelve-hour shifts playing the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft for approximately thirty cents an hour, and on September 6, 2006, I was one of them. One Western gamer’s brief taste of the Chinese gold farmer’s daily experience can only just begin to convey the lived reality of that experience, of course, but for me, those twelve hours on the day shift brought into focus questions about online play that have nagged at me ever since I wrote the article “A Rape in Cyberspace” thirteen years ago. Can we ever say, in digital gaming spaces, where the playful ends and the serious begins? Can the uses of serious play — whether for educational, political, or economic ends — ever fail to do violence to play itself? And in our eagerness to defend games from the charges of both frivolity and antisociality, do we not miss the chance to critique play’s increasingly strategic utility for a not-entirely humane contemporary social and economic order? If, in short, the gold farmer is the ultimate serious player, must we not then recognize in serious play a problem as much as a solution? Beginning with a slide-show walk-through of my day on the gold farm, this session will open out into the broader questions it provoked and invite the audience to pose its own.

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