[ISEA2016] Panel Statement: Bjarke Liboriussen — After the Gold Rush: Gold Farming in China – and in Western Academia

Panel Statement

Panel: Games and Gaming in China 

Journalism, and Fiction In the mid-2000s, a new “third-party gaming services industry . . . grew rapidly . . . as MMO games grew in popularity”. According to a 2008 estimate, “China has around 80-85% of employment and output in this sub-sector”.  The production of MMO currencies, items and services is commonly known as “gold farming”, and stories about gold farming in China proliferated in western news media from 2006 to 2009. Meanwhile, scholars commented on Chinese gold farming and its reception by western players by analytically linking it to Third World stereotypes, anti-immigration discourse, and social aspects virtual world ownership.  The figure of the Chinese gold farmer also found its way into western novels. The size of the gold farming industry in China is assumed to have peaked. Although empirical basis for this assumption is weak, the literature tentatively suggests determining factors such as rising wages, and the spread of subscription-based software, which allow private users to automate gameplay for financial gain.
This paper draws together existing western scholarship, journalism and fiction dealing with the Chinese gold farming phenomenon and frames coverage in these distinct yet interconnected fields as a case study of how discourses around video game economics resonate with broader discourses, in this case western perceptions of China and its role in the global economy. The primary theoretical framework is Vukovich’s update of Said’s orientalism thesis for a world in which China is seen to play increasingly important and diverse roles in the global economy.  Dissatisfied with its status as the world’s factory, China seeks a broad shift from “made in China” to “created in China”, as seen in the Chinese leadership’s importation of “creative industries” policy. The notion of China as a creative country jars with a western sense of China as an industrial and economic superpower, which due to a deep-seated lack of scientific curiosity, a “lack of wonder”, has to rely on hacking and shanzhai copying for innovation. At first glance, gold farming would seem to fit this pattern. I argue, however, that the fictional trope of the gold farmer found in novels by Doctorow and Stephenson, in contrast to the journalistic stereotype, embodies the character trait of cleverness (conming in Chinese), or “practical cunning”. Such “Chinese” cleverness disregards the theory application binary so fundamental in western thinking, and by extension also the related science-technology binary. Taken as a whole, then, western discourses around the Chinese gold farmer bring together a range of divergent techno-orientalist imaginings, from Third World proletariat over parasitic copycat to the embodiment of an alternative to western thinking about science and technology.

  • Bjarke Liboriussen, University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China

Full text (PDF)  p. 395-398