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Category Archives: Hunter’s section

Monday’s lecture, and especially Terrenova’s essay, made me reflect on the bizarre ways in which value is derived from communities/products on the internet, and the role of the “user””s labor in creating it. Companies profit from the creation of “platforms” — in the case of WoW, by charging for subscriptions, and in the case of Facebook (as a metonym for a whole class of web applications), by serving advertisements — by making their use irresistible. (After playing WoW for only an hour I could already feel the amazing and perhaps dangerous dopamine feedback loop of leveling up and finishing quests.) But these products are useful and desirable only when a mass of people use them — WoW isn’t much without guilds, facebook is nothing without friends. The labor each user performs might be freely given (here, free as in freedom, libre), but their free (as in beer, gratis) efforts generate significant capital for the creators of the product. Following this logic, the fact that the crucial metric of value for many Silicon Valley VCs is a product’s number of “users”makes a lot of sense — this is why the seemingly ridiculous yet completely serious people at VC firms give insane valuations to companies that don’t seem to produce anything.

After we listed forms of “free labor” in lecture on Monday, a certain company that doesn’t produce much came to my mind: Waze, the crowdsourced traffic app that asks users to report road conditions (traffic jams, potholes, speed traps, etc.). Using both passive location tracking and active user input, the app aims to give optimal directions to its users. “Nothing can beat real people working together! Imagine millions of drivers out on the roads, working together towards a common goal: to outsmart traffic and get everyone the best route to work and back, every day,” the app’s website explains, in line with the communist utopian/californian vision of free labor Terranova mentions. Of course, when Google bought Waze and each of the ~100 company employees received around $1.2 million, no one was looking to compensate each user for their contributions to the app. Aren’t users of Waze receiving enough of a reward for their labor — the utility of a product that saves them time and money?

I believe that virtual world biopower politics should not be treated separately from real world biopower affairs. What is happening online is not just increasingly coinciding with the RL, it is directly being affected by it. While the farming of digital gold and trading of digital goods is unique and new frontier for commerce and the companies running such farms, it is also the livelihood for the folks doing the farming. The attacks and ambushes on farmers I imagine greatly detract from their ability to meet their quota. This impact can be felt monetarily or lead to loss of employment for farmers. I doubt that these repercussions are ever a consideration for the WoW neighborhood watch. While I do agree that bots running around the MMOs and that the selling of characters can undermine community formation, I believe Blizzard founders should take another trip to sensitivity training – perhaps the EULA should be revised to include protection for those that may lose their livelihood due to an attack on their “work.” One of the reasons I am being so sensitive to this issue is because the game has you start our by selecting a “race” and a “class.” By funneling all users through this process, and with the selection of different classes landing you in different WoW states, the game is surely “reconstituting the basic corporeal and psychic aspects of human existence,” and because of such the game creators should be sensitive as well to what that means.

As my randomly generated avatar perused through a mythical yet Asian-influenced planet on World of Warcraft, I felt dizzy. Every time I – or should I say Hsmaya? – turned slightly, the entire range of vision would shift in such high degrees I had not expected. I am so used to my limited yet comfortable periphery vision, the power WoW bestowed on me with such a huge range did not make me feel powerful, rather, weak. I immediately felt overwhelmed with the amount of information I was given and I did not like it. I feel like this discomfort could harp back to my individual fear of too much choice because of the consequentially proportionate amount of responsibility inherited as well.

My favorite part of WoW was when I was given quests I needed to fulfill because they were so straightforward and simple. I felt at ease, because there were goals I could accomplish while not caring about my surroundings. I feel like my emotions toward this game are interesting, because I feel like the reason so many people like WoW (and other MOOs of the sort) is because, although there are goals players achieve, there is so much wiggle room and freedom to accomplish it in any way possible. Although the producers of WoW probably sold it as this potentiality of individuality – as Professor Chun spoke about in lecture – what I found “selling” me was the idea of lack of freedom and constraints.

In some ways, although I explicitly like the idea of governance in these far-off realms, even people who may not actively think like me do appreciate it as well. For someone to continually go back and play (or arguably, work) on WoW for hours on end, they must like the systems, which govern how they act in this world to some extent. If the system were intolerable, due to the attributes that make it a game – these people would voluntarily stop playing. So although this concept of biopower and virtual governance initially sounds creepy and off-putting, they can also be seen as appealing and necessary for people to feel comfortable in certain environments.

When you ask someone who their favorite fictional character is, it’s likely that they’ll tell you something like Tom Sawyer, or some dude from Star Wars.  You’d probably think that they were a weirdo if they said their favorite character was themselves playing portal.

I liked Jenkins’ paper comparing the different types of narratives in games, and tried to think about my opinions on the narrative vs mechanics game debate.  My opinion on that really isn’t relevant, but I thought it led me into thinking about why game is even used as a vessel for narrative, and how they compare with other modes of narrative.  This is a pretty vast wasteland of vague questions that could be asked, and are all probably very interesting, but it overwhelms me so instead I’ll focus on 3d games vs 3d animated movies, because that limits the domain just enough for me to perceive a little structure.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that 3d games and 3d animated movies are the same medium.  When I start thinking about the difference between the game and the movie, I come up with things like the game gives the player a position in the space, the player becomes a character, the player can interact with the world, the player has a say in the story, etc.  All of these things are pretty positive.  When written down on paper, I’d say that these all go in the pro game category, and the fact that movies don’t offer these things would mean that they go in the cons for movies.  Returning to what was mentioned earlier about picking a favorite character, maybe we don’t pick ourselves because it’s incredibly obvious that we are our favorite character, and the question is clearly actually asking who our second favorite character is, and since all the other characters in games look lame next to us, we default to a character from a movie.  That’s probably it.  So then why would anyone go see a movie?  Why would people possibly like movies more than games?  It seems like the only argument that could be made for movies is that they’re easier.  You don’t need to do anything when you watch a movie.  You don’t need to interact with the world, you don’t need to move, you just need to listen to the story.  I obviously would never call movie-goers lazy, because that would be rude, but that seems to be what the signs point towards.  Or maybe the movie-goers are so bad at games that when they are given the opportunity to write their own story in a game, they blow it and can’t hit the mark.  They say that the end is the hardest part of a story to write, and I guess the final boss is the hardest part of any game.

So in conclusion, I guess this reading made me feel like I should like games more than movies.  However, I know that I like movies more, and that there is something really viscerally exciting that I feel when I watch a movie that I almost never feel when I play a game (with regards to characters and narrative).  I guess Jenkins talks about this a bit saying that we find out about a character, and see them reach their goals.  But it makes me feel like I’m a sap for thinking that I would enjoy seeing other people reach their goals more than I enjoy reaching my own, but maybe that is true for me and a bunch of other movie people.  I don’t want to accept it, so maybe after a little more thought I will come up with it.

I very surprised by my first interaction with World of Warcraft in section today. There is no apparent end to the game. I also wasn’t able to come up with a final goal of WoW. Rather, it was a string of individual tasks and challenges that would reward the player with a new object or information on yet another quest. This was unexpected because I found it difficult at first to understand the addictive quality of the game. Yes, it was a magical world to explore, and although I enjoyed the game, I did not yet feel the addictive qualities that have led to such highly-frequented and successful game. Leading my night elf throughout the virtual world, I ran into so many other players, understnding how many people were participating in this world. However, I realized that what I enjoyed about the game was that there was constantly something to do. The quests led me to explore other areas, practice new skills and acquire more objects all while accomplishing set tasks. Later on, as I was reading Terranova, I couldn’t help to draw the connection between his idea of free labor on the internet and collective knowledge with the workings of WoW. The willingness to perform these small tasks in order is like the digital labor Terranova describes. Not only is the player always on the move to fulfill these tasks, but the tasks are actually requests by other creatures who benefit from the outcome. The player is merely rewarded with a tool or object. On the internet, we willingly provide information on ourselves and our whereabouts, ultimately creating a huge database that companies can use to tailor their products and marketing to us.

In a way, games like World of Warcraft (not just MMO’s but ones that specifically involve tasks) are an extreme illustration of free labor. World of warcraft is presented as a massive fictional landscape, where your character exists in as a mimicry of life with a fantastical add-on. Yet the gameplay largely follows a structure that looks like work. It is not only working fro free, but there is literally no outcome. It is work as play.

Dyer-Witherford’s Piece explains the manifestation of Biopower in games such as WOW. In my experience of playing the game I had a set of instructions and did small tasks for these fake people (creatures.) I really enjoyed myself for some reason. However, I cannot really understand why. If I had to do these tasks in real life( for example go speak to someone that someone told me to speak to, or grab some objects for someone) I would have been quite frustrated, yet in this virtual world I did them with such zeal. As Dyer-Witherford points out, the life force of WOW is a corporation and every user is essentially their worker. What is the desire to keep completing the tasks?

The currency a player receives is part of an economy of adrenaline. Right after I complete a quest I am immediately congratulated, and given a new object. The newness I experience at that moment is one of a new graphic. A change of the screen colors. It is a small rush of satisfaction. enough to drive me to the next task. This small rush is basically what drives the game, and some people into addiction. This rush also happens when you get a match on tinder, or a notification on Facebook- the immediate feeling you get.

While playing World of Warcraft today, I was obviously thinking about the Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter reading, particularly the part focusing on biopower. Somehow biopower is a key term in three of my classes this semester, so I have spent a lot of time reading about it and discussing it in varying contexts. In AIDS in Global Perspective, we discuss government control of the AIDS epidemic, and in Intro to Gender and Sexuality Studies we discuss practices such as choosing who can reproduce in a population or even positive things such as vaccinations as examples of biopower. Today in my lab for Digital Media, I got a completely new example of biopower in playing World of Warcraft. The management of race and class in the game acts as a microcosm for real world practices of biopower. The fact that players make decisions about their character’s appearance which will affect their experience in the game mimics the way in which the government or other powerful entities sometimes choose the fate of people based on their characteristics (race, mental ability, etc). I think it’s interesting that the game is set up this way, allowing players to practice population control and experience its effects on important aspects of the game (strength, stamina, intellect, etc). It’s a light-hearted representation of a sometimes much more serious practice.

World of Warcraft is a platform that demands the navigation between virtual reality and real life. However, WoW blurs the lines between these two realms unlike any of the other interfaces we have encountered in the course so far. The imagined community that surrounds WoW interplay is separated into distinct locations, comprised of beings with unique abilities and physical characteristics, race and occupation, and (almost) having their own language. Watching the gold farming video in class, although the narrator was speaking English, I hardly could follow his instructions because of the references to actions, and objects that are completely foreign to me. I wish we had participated in LambdaMOO in class for better comparison, for WoW lacks the free form of democratic user-created rules and news, but it certainly tops Myst and Doom in “realness.” WoW is engaging to a point of stimulating very real emotional response and attachment. One person in our section witnessed a duel between two users, including violent battle and foul language.

 

These two people, despite their lack of physical contact, are quite viscerally experiencing the conflict. They are fighting, and there is real investment in the virtual real, particularly aggravated by the objectives, quests, and competitive goals established by the program. Where WoW trumps lambdaMOO in its interweaving with reality is the currency of WoW having actual monetary power in the real world. The fact that there was more money surrounding WoW than the Bulgarian economy, as mentioned in class, is shocking and represents how serious this “game” truly is to people’s lives. What makes it a game in the first place? Because it is fun? As Cait wrote in her post, it hardly feels like play the entire time, for there is immense stress and assigned tasks to be completed. The virtual world holds appeal over the real world, where hard work pays off and advancement is clearly tracked. Would this be as satisfying as a single-player campaign, or is it the knowledge that you are progressing beyond other people that is exciting? Other people’s actions make the game all the more unpredictable and real – the realer the game, the more exciting. So why bother with a virtual game in the first place?

The notion of users as providing free labor is nothing new to many of us. In particular, we have resigned ourselves to the fact that internet companies track our data, build models of us, and both directly sell the data and use it to target certain demographics when selling ads. We send our bug reports and input our calorie counts without thinking about it.

One particular case that I brought up in lecture was the issue of location services. Apps use location services to provide location-based suggestions and tag data they collect with the user’s location. This seems that it would be a symbiotic deal: companies can presumably make more money by targeting you even better while hopefully making better matches between you and an advertiser relevant to your location. I want to unpack this a bit further, because I think this particular case has some key differences from the general notion of free labor in digital media.

One of the key features of the free labor we tend to provide through digital media is that it is quantifiable. Normally this comes in the form of deliberate actions taken by users: pages opened, miles logged, videos watched, etc. But there is something different when it comes to they type of labor embodied in location services. Namely, it is extremely passive. Once a user accepts the contact to share location data, s/he must do nothing else but use the medium as expected to participate in that form of labor. After a quick acceptance of location tracking (often when the user is excitedly setting up a new phone), the data begin being recorded.

It turns our every movement into a monetizable unit. In contrast to the cognizant labor we typically think of, this passive labor can breach what we generally expect from our services. I’ve shown a number of friends their Google location history (https://maps.google.com/locationhistory) and they have been shocked at what is collected.

And yet, it is sometimes beneficial. Lose your keys and need to retrace your steps? Trying to remember the places you visited on a previous vacation? That location history can surface itself. Corporations may even find it essential to supersede your permission when applicable. From Apple’s “IOS7: Understanding Location Services”:

For safety purposes, your iPhone’s location information may be used for emergency calls to aid response efforts regardless of whether you enable Location Services.

This opens up a broader question of whether the benefits we receive from the services allow us to call all of the tracked data, moderation of forums, et al. free labor. Without this stipulation, Apple may not be able to help you in a time of need. In some ways we are just entering into a contract (EULA) with a corporation. We let Facebook track our browsing in return for them to profit off of us. Some of the revenue goes to shareholders but some of it goes into adding features, paying customer service staff, etc. It is very easy to cast all of this capture (both cognizant and active) in a negative light; it is certainly the knee-jerk reaction. Security breaches and abuses of privacy abound, but so do the (potential) benefits of such capture.

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)?