Blizzard, Diablo 3, and sweatshops

A few weeks ago developers Littleloud released a game about sweatshops called, funnily enough, Sweatshop. It used tower defence gameplay as a way to get players thinking about the nature of sweatshops, encouraging them into the mindset of a sweatshop manager, even as it reminded them of just how many everyday items come from such places. It was an intelligent, effective piece of edutainment. It’s also a game that certain members of Blizzard would do well to play, perhaps while reading up on gold farming.

Gold farming, in case you weren’t aware, is the act of playing an online computer game in a repetitive manner in order to obtain large quantities of gold and other valuable in-game items, in order to sell them for Real Money at a later date. It’s an activity generally frowned upon for two reasons. The first is simply a matter of interaction: other players generally don’t enjoy the presence of players who don’t take part in the game as expected. This is particularly exacerbated when people use ‘bots’ to gold farm, as these bots will obviously be incapable of even basic communication, never mind teaming up with other players. Indeed, it was these bots that bore the brunt of the initial outcry against gold farming, and most online games have systems in place to automatically remove and ban any bot-using profiles for this exact reason. Unfortunately, it was this which led to the second, and rather more serious argument against gold farming.

Gold farming is inefficient, generating a low income. It’s also distinctly Not Fun. This is why people developed bots: it wasn’t worth doing manually, as the extreme tedium of the activity combined with the low pay-offs made it a poor substitute for a job. Any job. So as bots started to get removed, people stopped gold farming… in richer countries. Instead, in poorer countries, where the average wage is far, far lower – and jobs harder to come by in the first place – people saw an opportunity. Organised ‘factories’ of gold farmers were set up, tasking their workers with mind-numbing, low-paid work. In other words: gold farming sweatshops. And this is not something that has recently come to light: reportages from the likes of and little-known newspaper The New York Times have been floating around for a good while now. Developers were quick to make clear that they did not condone this practice, most making clear that the selling of any of their virtual commodities for real money was a bannable offence. Nevertheless, the practice continued, with gold farming companies creating new accounts faster than developers could shut them down. A cynic might wonder why more wasn’t done, and point out that the developers directly profited from every new subscription, but at least overtures were made to suggest that such behaviour was frowned upon.

Not any more for Blizzard, it would seem. Today a trio of unpleasant revelations came about: first, that Diablo 3 can’t be played offline, meaning no option to play on a laptop while travelling, say. Second, that Diablo 3 will not have mod support. And third, that Diablo 3 will allow players to buy and sell gold and equipment for real money. So far, most sites have emphasised the first two issues, as those are the two issues that will affect players directly. But it’s the last that should be getting all the focus, in terms of real world damage. Quite simply, by encouraging the purchase and sale of virtual ‘loot’ via their own, in-game auction house – from which Blizzard will profit, earning a flat-rate fee per transaction – Blizzard are condoning the behaviour of gold farmers. In fact, executive producer Rob Pardo explicitly condones the behaviour of gold farming, saying:

“What’s the difference between a player that plays the game a lot and a gold farmer? They’re really doing the same activity. If you are doing an activity where all you’re trying to do is generate items for the auction house, you’re not making someone else’s game experience poorer. If anything you’re making the game better, because you’re generating items for the auction house that people want to purchase.”

Neatly side-stepping the whole issue of sweatshops by focussing solely on the argument that “Hey, at least they don’t spoil the game for the rest of us”. So that’s okay then.

Or not. Many were worried that Blizzard’s merger with Activision would lead to a more profit-led company which cared less for its player base. I don’t know if Activision had any influence on this development, but it’s clear that Blizzard don’t give a toss about the actual, real-world effects of their decisions. Of course, the game isn’t out yet, and things could change. I hope they do. I hope that the people responsible for these decisions think a little bit harder about what, exactly, it is that they’re doing, and come up with a better approach. An approach that doesn’t reward the use of sweatshops (or even, in some exceptional circumstances, prison labour). If not, well, I know where my money shan’t be going in future.

Update: I’ve since written a second, considerably longer piece on this subject, responding to the arguments given to me about why I shouldn’t care about this. You can read it here.


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August 2011
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