World of Warcraft (commonly known as WoW) is a role-playing video game developed by the company Blizzard Entertainment that has more than 5 million monthly subscribers (paying) in 2020 and also holds the Guinness record for being the video game of most popular role in the world with over 11.5 million players in 2010.
And it probably also holds the title of being the first video game or MMORPG (Massive Online Role-Playing Game) that has managed to create real slaves. I’m not referring to those gamers who spend their days in front of the computer screen, enslaved by the video game. I’m talking about real slaves, hired cheaply to get virtual gold or anything else virtual.
Until now, virtual places like Second Life already allowed the exchange of Linden Dollars (LD), the official currency, for legal tender dollars (1 US dollar equals approximately 260 LD; the price of a small virtual island is about 375,000 LD): which has allowed cases such as that of Ailin Graef to occur, a user of this alternate world whose avatar was called Anshe Chung who became the cover of Business Week magazine, and who in just 2 and a half years obtained around 2 million dollars from virtual businesses ranging from fashion design to urban cyber speculation.
However, the virtual universe of World of Warcraft has gone much further.
Word of Warcraft takes place fundamentally in a virtual geography located on the planet Azeroth, a planet that has 3 continents: the Eastern Kingdoms, Kalimdor and Northrend, which are separated from each other by an immense ocean called the Great Sea. In addition, in the center of this vast ocean there is also a gigantic vortex, the Maelstrom, and different small islands. The Eastern Kingdom is home to the Allied faction; Kalimdor is an ancient jungle inhabited by Night Elves; Northrend looks like freezing Scandinavia. Anyone can enter this virtual world from anywhere in the real world. As long as you have a computer, so you can meet other friends, interact with them, have conversations, forge alliances, assume the role of legendary heroes to achieve power and glory, etcetera, etcetera.
Now change the scene. Imagine a small slum in some Chinese city that you have never heard of. A Chinese city full of Chinese, without elves, or magicians, or warriors in iridescent armor. In this humble city, far away from Azeroth, there will surely be at least one boy who spends 12 hours a day, 7 days a week connected to World of Warcraft. When his shift ends, he is then relieved by a colleague, who will continue for another 12 hours. These guys are not playing games, they are not even enjoying their connection to the computer. They just work. They kill monsters that, upon death, give them coins and secret weapons.
Forget the old sooty street kids who sell trinkets, polish your shoes, or use their tiny hands to steal the unsuspecting tourist’s wallet. All that is out of fashion. Charles Dickens has been modernized and now children work in an electronic fantasy world in the guise of warriors, wizards, elves, and other archetypal characters from role-playing games.
This burgeoning business is called Gold Farming. It employs 400,000 people around the world. And, according to a study by the University of Manchester, it generates around 340 million euros of profit per year. Real money. Of which you can touch. Although, originally, the gold obtained is totally virtual.
And it is that being someone powerful or important in the virtual world begins to be as necessary as being outside of it. Moreover, if in the real world we are not or cannot aspire to be respected, why not try it in another universe? Why not adopt another identity, made up of electricity, to make a name for ourselves, fulfill frustrated dreams, reach peaks that in the real world are unattainable?
That is why poor Chinese who work every day in World of Warcraft, like Dickensian slaves of the 21st century, can charge around 10 yuan for every 100 coins they get in the game. In real life, 10 yuan is barely enough to survive. But 100 gold coins, nevertheless, serve a lot of things in World of Warcraft. For that reason, in this new model of human exploitation, the head of the shed can charge three times more money to the American or European player who wants to move up the virtual social ladder more quickly.
The situation reminds me of an episode of the irreverent animated series Matt Stone and Trey Park, South Park. First aired in 1997, the series celebrated its tenth season by airing one of the most acclaimed episodes by the public, entitled Make Love, Not Warcraft. A double episode devoted to the obsession that Word of Warcraft is generating in millions of people. In it, the protagonists of South Park, addicted to WoW, they come into contact with another virtual character managed by a player who has been accumulating power for months and who does not follow the rules of the game. No one can beat him, not even the creators of the video game itself. So Kyle, Cartman, Stan, and Kenny decide to kill virtual boars day and night in order to level up and thus gain enough power to face the enemy.
They dedicate so much time to this task that they do not even leave their gaming position to attend to their physiological needs. Eventually, they all become morbidly obese, they can barely move in the real world, but they manage to defeat the renegade, who turns out to be also another obese human being who has had a good time without leaving the basement of his house.
This dynamic is causing an interesting phenomenon. The first cases of fantastic-virtual racism. If one of these Chinese farmers is walking through the green plains with a made-up name, it is very possible that someone will treacherously attack him to death. Because these Chinese farmers who work on commission only generate hatred among the players who simply connect to this virtual world to enjoy the game. On many forums, it is common to read messages such as “Chinese farmers must die “, which refer to philonazi slogans. I even organized groups of players are dedicated to go to areas frequented by these growers virtual money to organize hunts. The first case of virtual eugenics. Pixel ethnic cleansing. An invisible and untouchable Ku Kux Klan.
This type of death, although virtual, is highly cumbersome for farmers, who are forced to stay dead for up to 10 minutes before being resurrected again (which, however, constitutes a clear advantage over the real world, where normal people not usually able to resurrect, and where human life has a notional value of about 7 million, according to the Environmental Protection Agency of USA).
If Chinese children die too many times in WoW it is possible that the boss who exploits them ends up putting them on the street. Virtual and real-world mix. Such is the degree of discrimination against Chinese players that many gaming groups run tough entrance tests to see if aspiring players are from China or not. Chinese players, therefore, must manage to bypass the controls and dedicate themselves to playing for a living. But discrimination is not established only from Westerners towards Chinese, but also from Chinese towards other social hierarchies: Vietnamese players, for example, work for Chinese players. As in the real world, those with the fewest resources do the dirtiest jobs. The strong exploit the weak, both here and in Beijing or in Azeroth, whether for a bit of wow classic gold, or for the Nike shoes of the Vietnamese workshops,
The business in these virtual games, however, has only just begun. Many professional players are forced to live in this fantasy world longer than they do in the real world, as connected to the Matrix for money, they are no longer limited to obtaining gold coins, weapons or amulets. They even offer their services to impersonate the player who wants to pay for their services. Thus, the Chinese child earns money living your virtual life while you sleep, in order to increase your status and your energy levels. Like a babysitter pretending to be you. In the morning you wake up and then to your exhilaration that your character (you, in a way), has spent the night doing business, working, and building a reputation.
For about $300, your character ends up having an entity in the game that would have required months of dedication. Somehow, we are witnessing the birth of the company’s film Total Recall (Total Recall), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supplied false memories on vacation to paradise islands or all kinds of adventures to customers who have neither the time nor the desire to really live them.
All this virtual money generated through WoW, as fake as Monopoly, is acquiring so much tangible value in the real world that the Chinese government is already taking action on the matter. It has announced that it plans to charge a 20% tax on these transactions, thus becoming the first government in the world to collect a tribute for this type of virtual activity. And soon to be followed by other developing countries that may need to take WoW gold into account when calculating their Gross Domestic Product.
Even if money was prohibited in this medium, other forms of exchange of favors would emerge. Barter, for example. Or carnal treatment, as it happened in April 2007. Rumors on the Internet claimed that a player offered a night of sex for the user to get her 5,000 gold coins to optimize her character. Something like the girls who promise a cyberstrip through the webcam in exchange for a mobile phone recharge, although the aim is exclusively to obtain virtual money to live better in a virtual world.
The phenomenon is so interesting and is called to give rise to so many new social and legislative situations that it is already beginning to be seriously analyzed by experts. Perhaps the text that is opening the ban is The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer, by New York Times journalist Julian Dibbel, where the daily evolution of Chinese players trapped by mere real survival in a virtual world of strange geographies is analyzed, interacting with fantastic creatures that have serious real implications for them, dying and resurrecting again and again, sitting in front of the computer, traveling more than any other traveler in history but without leaving his barracks, with nothing to think about other than how to survive virtually in distant Azeroth. Technology critic Julian Dibbel also talks about other virtual worlds like Ultima Online and Everquest.
To do this, he brings up the story of Troy Stolle in his article for Wired magazine entitled The Unreal-Estate Boom. Stolle is a construction worker from the state of Indianapolis who, in his spare time, plunges headlong into the virtual world of Ultima Online, a fantasy-themed game that has developed virtual economies that also seep into the real world: eBay can be purchased with real magic sword dollars or land entirely made up of digital code. Those who prefer to earn their financial position from scratch, such as Stolle, must get as involved as they would in the real world. This is how Dibbel describes the way that Stolle made his avatar, Nils Hansen, got a new house in the Ultima Online world:
Stolle had to raise the money for the deed. To get the money, she had to sell her old house. First, to obtain this home, she had to spend hours crafting virtual swords and silver chain mail to sell to a regular clientele of roughly three dozen playmates. To attract and retain this clientele, he had to demonstrate Nils Hansen’s prowess at the hardware trade and appear before the Grand Master. To achieve this level of skill, Stolle spent six months exclusively forging.
Now stop a moment, go back, and reflect on what happened. Every day, month after month, a man who returned from work after a whole day of hard work with nails and hammer and then spent the whole night doing a repetitive click with a virtual anvil and hammer that left his fingers bruised (All this with the aggravation that you have had to pay $9.95 per month to enjoy this privilege).
In his book Everything bad is good for you, the scientific popularizer Steven Johnson also describes the fascination that these virtual worlds, increasingly similar to the real world, produce him through the eyes of his 7-year-old nephew. After being introduced in the SimCity 2000 video game, a virtual city simulator that allows you to bring out your inner Uranian planner, Johnson discovers in amazement how his nephew quickly gets hold of the rules and internal logic of the game and, after an hour, he watched as he reactivated a manufacturing district that had been fallen into decay. His nephew told him with naturalness and poise that he believed that the industrial tax rate should be lowered, already fully introduced into this new unexplored universe in which you have the freedom to build the kind of community you want: small agricultural towns, industrial cities or pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. Without forcing the user to follow an established narrative line, SimCity allows you to build practically any type of environment.
Thus, it is not surprising that a world so populated by human minds (whether or not it is real) and endowed with so many possibilities generates parallel situations with reality. So much so that the date of September 13, 2005 was the date that started the first virtual epidemic. Location: World of Warcraft. Following the spread patterns of a common flu, a programming error generated Corrupted Blood, a virus that spread due to the movements of the virtual characters that populated the virtual world of WoW.
Thus, unlike computer viruses that we are used to hearing, Corrupted Blood did not spread following the logic of a mathematical algorithm but by the simple mass hysteria of the players, who fled in terror from the epicenter of contamination, carrying I carry this deadly virus to all corners of the world. Those who were contaminated by the virus died slowly, losing all the energy, status and possessions that the players had accumulated after months of effort. It was enough to stay a few seconds near an infected player for your character to also become infected. The virtual Black Death took the lives of thousands of players, the cities were almost deserted. The cataclysm was exacerbated by the irresponsibility of some players, who did not give enough importance to contagion, throwing themselves amused, like kamikazes, towards groups of healthy players who remained exiled. To avoid this situation, as in a George A. Romero zombie movie, healthy players tried to pre-emptively massacre the contaminated, attacking them from a distance or behind barricades.
By restarting the servers where the game was hosted, Blizzard was able to eradicate the virus before its world fell apart, a victim of chaos and massive deaths. Now the epidemic is still being studied by prestigious epidemiologists around the world to prevent the disaster from happening again. Even in March 2007, Ran D. Balicer, a physician epidemiologist at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, published an article describing the similarities between this virtual epidemic and the spread of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, the severe pneumonia that appeared for the first time in November 2002 in Guangdong province, China, with an average global mortality rate close to 13%.
Dr. Balicer does not doubt that these virtual platforms such as World of Warcraft or other role-playing games, or even Second Life, could serve as a system to study the model of the spread of real infectious diseases. Because, although virtual, the reality of WoW begins to be as important as reality itself.
In fact, isn’t it becoming to a certain extent unnecessary to differentiate between reality and virtuality?