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Monthly Archives: March 2015

“You need to choose the same race if you want to hang out with your friends” – these were the directions we were given when loading up World of Warcraft. At first I thought I had misheard, but upon entering the game I realized it was in fact a perfectly accurate description of the initial WOW setup. If I chose to be a Elf I began in a different area than if I chose to be a Gnome, or a Troll: WOW is entirely racialized. Perhaps I would not have been so unsettled by this realization if I hadn’t first encountered the game in the context of this class, but due to the surrounding readings and critical approach that framed the game, I can’t help but challenge this.
First of all, this entirely undermines the positive portrayal of the digital world as a place where you can be whoever you want to be. The theme of adopting alternative character has been pervasive through the course, with the exploration of the possibility that the digital world gives freedom from limitations. Be whoever, speak to whomever, wherever, whenever. Yet this racial underpinning of WOW demonstrates the fallacy of this positive portrayal. Perhaps you can be whoever, but that whoever will still be prone to the same type of categorization that we experience in the real world. This therefore reveals the notion of freedom within boundaries that the digital world seems to create: you can speak to whoever you want via the amazing network system, but as long as you’re not discussing something censored [for example].
One could still argue that this is just a game, so who cares? But as evidenced in this weeks readings, as well as elsewhere in the course, is play ever really ‘just play’? The division between reality and virtual seems to be increasingly thinning, to create a vastly more porous interaction than we may think. Video games for war-training, sexting instead of intercourse, when can we actually draw a line? Consequently it is incredibly important to be re-enforcing a universe of categorization and race, even it is in a fictitious world.
On a slightly separate note, but something I’m interested in exploring. I find it interesting that we returned this week to the idea of hallucinations, as this was something we dealt with in the first week of class. It seems the Matrix and WOW provide an interesting dynamic when looked at together. The Matrix is supposed to be terrifying on the basis that we are unwittingly living in a fake world. We have been duped into a false, digital existence against our will. How has this transitioned to WOW? We are now voluntarily leaving the real world to get immersed obsessively in a fake, digital world, exactly the type of fake-reality that horrifies us in the Matrix. We have literally chosen to exist in a way that was previously sold to us as horrifying. The hallucination was a form of deception at the start of class, but now it is a voluntary act. [Free labour indeed…]

The traditional definition of biopower sees an authoritative state exerting control over its subjects.  There is an incredibly transparent power dynamic present in this statement.  However, Dyer-Witheford’s examination of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft as a virtual demonstration of biopower raises some interesting notions about how concrete this power dynamic really is. On page 132 his document, Dyer-Witheford states:

“…when a Blizzard Game Master threatened to ban a WoW player who publicized her Oz guild as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender “friendly” for a breach of “terms of service” about sexual references, the decision was met by mass protests. Other gay- friendly guilds, Stonewall Champions and the Spreading Taint, organized in game protest. Blizzard apologized and sent its administrators to sensitivity training (Ward 2006).”

What this incident of successful player protest indicates is that the subjects that are supposedly being controlled in a biopower setting are not always entirely powerless.  While they may be at a disadvantage to the producer of their virtual world as consumers of it, by the basic principle of supply and demand they are capable of snatching some power back to themselves.  The key insight is a simple one; the relationship between producer and consumer is a symbiotic one.  The authorities in a demonstration of biopower, in this case Blizzard Entertainment, may be at a greater position of influence in the scenario.  However, they must still abide by a basic tenet of any functioning society that has existed since feudal times; in order to exploit one’s subjects, one must actually have subjects.  Societies that have employed enslavement see uprisings or financial loss when they push this envelop too far, and governments that flirt too heavily with this boundary see revolutions.  What makes the virtual context that biopower is demonstrated in with World of Warcraft unique is that it is uniquely voluntary in nature.  While one has limited control over what type of government they wish to engage in as a citizen of a specific nation, one has full control over which and how many virtual societies they wish to participate in.  The question then becomes this; to what extent is this biopower ethical in instances in which it is voluntary?

Today, I played World of Warcraft for the first time. I created a Night Elf in the Mage class (after experiencing frustration from not being allowed to create a Death Night) with the randomized name Belbrook. In the forty or so minutes after finishing customization, I completed six or seven quests. I accumulated a number of items from looting monsters that my inventory said were sellable, but I never had the opportunity to sell them. After this afternoon, I will likely never play World of Warcraft again. I suspect I am what seasoned veterans of MMOs would refer to as a “casual.”

I wonder what percentage of WoW players consume the game in the same way that we did, dipping their toes in the neomedieval world and nothing more. This approach to gameplay may straddle what Dyer-Witheford calls a “radical challenge to the commercial domination of virtual space” (150). It is no elven proletarian revolution, but it is antithetical to what is supposed to be an all-consuming game. Still, the teams at Blizzard probably anticipate that sort of gameplay and account for it. Given these methods of playing — the casual/hardcore dichotomy — is such a “radical challenge” possible? Can players revolt against the code? What role and power (if any) does the casual possess when they briefly immerse themselves in a universe full of hardcore, obsessed players?

At the same time, “casual gaming” itself is a lucrative industry, marketing toward smartphone users and individuals outside of the white teenage male gamer archetype. And while these games may be casual, they are not free from the hegemonic economic manipulation of WoW — games like FarmVille and Candy Crush immediately come to mind. Maybe these games have IRL farming (no pun intended) like the Chinese gold farmers Dyer-Witheford describes. What could have been a departure from corporate, programmed in-game biopower created it in another form.

So, if this casual gaming is not too different from hardcore gaming, does this dichotomy (or spectrum) rely on time? Is the only way to resist WoW to play it for under an hour in the Granoff, or to bring change from within the game (that is, once you have spent hours and hours paying and playing)?

Not only is World of Warcraft a perfect example of Terranova’s principle of ‘Free Labor,’ but it also seemed to call into question the basic definitions of labor or work, as opposed to leisure or play. While the lab today only allowed me to ‘play’ the game for a short period of time, the tasks I did manage to complete felt so much like ‘work’ – I was given quests with checklists, which wasn’t so different from a chore list I might use in real life to categorize homework and household chores in order of importance. Once I finished a quest, I was often given another one immediately to take its place. My chore list only grew larger, rather than shrinking towards some finish line. I could ignore these tasks, of course, but my interface would not be free of quest messages until I did. In fact, writing this very blog entry exists on my list of ‘Reminders’ on my Macbook – in order to check it off, I must finish writing. As fascinated as I am by the world of Modern Culture and Media, I wouldn’t describe my homework assignments as ‘play’ with the same category as an online immersive game such as WoW. 

Once I did too much ‘play’ (or too much ‘work’ killing monsters), I had no other choice but to go to a merchant and sell my rewards to make room in my backpack. In order to do more work, I had to be a responsible player and do a little spring cleaning, so to speak. The sense of play as ongoing and infinite is further enhanced through the scope of the world itself. I was a blood elf on Sunwell, yet before I even managed to grasp the region around me, the game directed me to hit ‘M’ and open the map – I was forced to realize that before the game even begun, I would never reach a finish.

Yet the game, whether it was ‘work’ or ‘play,’ was enjoyable! But why? Why did I love doing work? Was it because it was disguised as play? I feel the answer must lie with the interface – in order to complete my labor successfully, I had to understand a new way to live as a fictional avatar, controlled with certain real-world computer strokes and fictional weapons (magic spells, in the case of my blood elf). Without the interface to conquer, the game might not feel like a game at all and reveal itself as a distant cousin of the grocery shopping list.

I’ve read Terranova’s Free Labor more than any other work during my time at Brown; this is no hyperbole. I think it’s a very important essay, and while it primed me to be depressed about the amount of time and labor I was about to spend in the WoW gamesphere doing menial tasks, i think this misses the point a little bit. When free labor is at its most insidious, it isn’t simply that the laborer is voluntary offering up this labor and delighting in it–it is when a laborer is engaged in an unequal economic transaction that does not appear to be a transaction at all that free labor truly rears its ugly head. Thus, when i forked over my personal info to WoW in exchange for a free account, it filled me with great sadness. Long before I could engage in mindless deer slaying or any of the free labor activities that mirror what we would conceive us as traditional labor, I had already and unknowingly subjected myself to the true economics of this system.

The readings about interfaces suggest that our modern day society may be at a point where interfaces have become inescapable—they are ubiquitous. I was particularly moved by the ‘Mother’ that Professor Chun showed us in lecture. The ‘Mother’ encompasses Matthew Fuller’s idea he articulated in his piece It Looks Like You’re Writing A Letter: “A society is defined by its amalgamates, not by its tools.” The ad did not emphasize the individual features of the ‘Mother’ but rather the overall potential of the machine—it becomes a part of your family, reminding you of trivial matters such as how long you have brushed your teeth or when you need to take out your garbage, to more important ones like when members of your family have returned home. The creator of mother said of the device “We have made sensors that unobtrusively blend into your life. She offers the knowledge and comfort you want, when and how you want it, all while remaining discreet.” ‘Mother’ merges into lives seamlessly, without notice, Thus, as seen through ‘Mother’ interfaces have made a new step—perhaps more creepy—towards complete integration.

This notion Terranova offers of free labour from the individual (both the mass and the specific individual) needs to more clearly include the win-win aspect of certain types of free-labour. Take “liking” something on Facebook, “hearting” something on Instagram, or “favouriting” or “retweeting” on Twitter. All of these interactions and notions of labour help to construct relationship and bonds between people, primarily through positive means. “liking” something might be labourious to one person, but to the person receiving the “like” gains something and clears way for a bond to be made in the middle of numerous networks. This act of labour my the “liker” provides free labour and feedback for Facebook, Instagram, etc., but, beyond the larger company receiving this positive, qualculative end, the recipient gains pleasure. Is this the surplus that is spoken of in Terranova’s article, like Wark discusses as the prize that players can achieve together?

Surpassing the dreams of 68, the control economy, protocol society, The Cave (call it what you like as the differences, while important, are nonetheless not my concern here), takes over everything, becomes everything and brings everything into itself. Appropriation is the name of the game within control society; making everything into a game is apart of the game. Whether you like it or not is not the point. The real point is that there is no outside to the game. You play it or you play it, whats important is that you do it not how you feel. Your work is organized such that even though you have no choice but to work you have the kind of impotent freedom which grants you a bit of enjoyment. In this way The Game, the cave, control/capture society, become more and more like a game without relinquishing its status of work.

Quite unlike games you must work to survive. “You try going back and forth clicking the same thing for 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, then you will see if it’s a game or not, (Games of Empire, 144)” Even so, people find enjoyment and even fulfillment in this same kind of work. The evolution of capital and of power then is not an elimination of exploitation as such, but a massaging and disavowal of feelings of alienation from all segments of work. “exploitation is entangled with empowerment and productivity is entangled with pleasure. (Games of Empire, 144)” Gamification is a limited example of this phenomenon. Exploitation and coercion can become massaged into fun, freedom, democracy, whatever you like. Freedom under protocol and freedom within games is always a freedom within certain constraints. Economic freedom is the choice of what products to buy, which of course is a far ways away from the freedom of how to live one’s life overall or even the freedom to not exist within the game, the cave, capture society, or whatever.

Fulfilling but inverting the wishes of folks like Debord, “do what you like, capture real freedom, go beyond the workplace” becomes a simultaneous dissolution of the workplace and its taking over of everything in supposedly diluted form. Much the same way you dissolve aspirin in water. Control society is continuous, diluted, everywhere at once. Play, work, break time, fun time, work time, all fuse together into a continuous time. On the one hand then is the alienated advanced capitalist worker in the imperialist west who becomes all-time-fun-time lover-gamer. We saw the precursor to this evolution in the way Navajo Women were treated in the Nakamura reading. What time isn’t spent making wealth for theirself is made making wealth for others and all this wealth is but a labor of love, a marker of happiness. You can work from home on one monitor and play WOW on another. For other workers elsewhere the flow of capital requires other tasks which, while managed differently reinforce and allow the ~~””playbor””~~ of the advanced capitalist worker in the imperial west. Something else to consider then is to further Liang’s discussion of porous legalities and the figures which in globalized state capitalism both stabilize and destabilize the system, the migrant, the pirate, the hacker, the alien, and the squatter. The gold-farmer appears as another of these figures of seepage, the widespread vitriol for gold farmers and demand for their products is evidence of their status at the boundaries of legality within this system, part migrant part hacker. What other figures emerge from the detritus of this system’s grinding circulation? And considering the rate of technological innovation and the advancement of mediums and forms, What figures are bound to pop up in the coming years?

As an addendum to this it is important to note, as was noted in lecture, that the fun one might have doing their gamified work is not simply false consciousness. It isnt that we just dont know what we’re doing and so we’re falling for capitalism attempts to mask exploitation. The scarier and harsher truth is that being exploited has never been more fun. Something else harsh to consider perhaps is if empowerment and exploitation are intrinsically linked within capital, and there is no outside to capital, then is reformism the only viable path for the late capitalist leftist? To put it another way, is the exploitation and violence of capital inescapable? And if so, what at all do those most hurt and exploited by this system have to look forward to?

Victor Bramble

I blogged 2 weeks ago about the ways in which the format of the self-published blog post [and youtube videos, facebook posts, etc.] encourages users to commodify the act of expression.  In section, Fran hinted at Terranova’s “Free Labor” as an important perspective through which to reinterpret my statements.  I think that perspective is extremely useful to question the digital exhibitionism that is so prevalent on social media and other sites of the web.

The format in which information is shared on social media is often in terms of exhibitionism.*  Facebook, for example, prompts users with a variety of personal questions such as, “What’s on your mind?”  These prompts can be further personalized with the user’s name, such as “What’s going on, Grant?”  Personal status that are published are then presented as a commodified object amongst other such objects.  I have argued previously that this commodification of self-presentation encourages user to competitively create content that is interesting to the browsing hunter-killer user.  In part, I am concerned with the way in which this competitive exhibitionism could warp our understandings of social engagement.

Through an understanding of Terranova’s “Free Labor” the function of a competitive digital exhibitionism can further be understood to be an essential component of internet platforms.  The mobilization of social pressures encourages users to create content that would be deemed interesting by peers.  This free source of “interesting” media maintains the internet platforms and the corporations’ profits.

According to me, Keenan’s exploration of the dual nature of windows resonates with the question of privacy and information disclosure in the internet. It is interesting to note that, apart from processes of identity building, people’s attitude towards privacy is very pragmatic. According to a survey conducted by Caroline Lancelot-Miltgen  about online customer’s behaviors when e-commerce companies ask about personal data, people tend to make a decision according to the benefit of information disclosure. The problem of this rational behavior is that most of the time, the cost of information disclosure is usually deferred, non-transparent, unobservable.