The MMO-sweatshop meme is on the march again. Over the weekend MSNBC ran a column that led with an oblique reference to Blacksnow Interactive’s notorious Tijuana gold-farming maquiladora. And though the rest of the column focuses almost exclusively on the fascinating and hardly ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever discussed intersection of massively multiplayer games and RL legal systems (“Virtual Worlds Wind Up in Real World’s Courts,” reads the headline), you can bet that when the piece got Slashdotted and BoingBoinged, nobody wanted to talk about anything but Mexican MMORPG peons. And who can blame them? In a single 16-word synopsis, the tale of the Blacksnow sweatshop says more about virtual economies, digital labor, and hypermodern capitalism than 18 months of beardy Terra Novan brain farts combined.
Here’s the problem, though: As far as I know, every reference you’ve ever seen to the Blacksnow sweatshop derives its factual authority from a single, very brief article that ran in Wired two years ago, bearing the byline of yours truly.
And that article, in turn, was based entirely on what I was told by Lee Caldwell, Blacksnow’s “sales director” and a man later fined $10,000 by the FTC for defrauding customers of an online business that preceded Blacksnow. It so happens I still believe his account of Blacksnow’s Tijuana operations; the details he gave me were simply too robust and quirky to even tickle my bullshit detector, and I wouldn’t have published them otherwise. Nonetheless, the greater the weight of significance laid on the Blacksnow story, the more I wonder whether the word of a convicted fraud is quite equal to the burden.
I wouldn’t worry, of course, if there were reliable accounts of other such sweatshops that could pick up the slack. But despite MSNBC’s claim that “[d]igital sweatshops, businesses where Third World laborers play online games 24/7 in order to create virtual goods that can be sold for cash, are… on the rise,” the fact is, Blacksnow’s is the only remotely specific story I know of that fits the bill and stands on record. We hear lively rumors of Chinese adena farmers working out of large-scale, tightly organized commercial operations. And people who should know speak confidently of the existence of similar operations in other games. But unless a convincing first-person or otherwise eyewitness account of some such plantation makes it into print, I fear that sooner or later Snopes will catch up with my beloved MMO-sweatshop meme and declare it an urban legend.
Therefore I issue this challenge: If you are now or ever were an employee, manager, or owner of a Third World industrial MMORPG farming operation (a/k/a sweatshop), stand up and let your story be told. To me, preferably. And on the record, eventually. You will have the thanks of a grateful community of scholars and a shot, if you want it, at being more famous even than the famous MMORPG farmers of Tijuana.