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esports, game studies, gold farming, South Korea, China, race

Made in China

Gold Farming as Alternative History of Esports

Tara Fickle (University of Oregon)


This essay intervenes in current conversations about the history of esports by uncovering the demographic, economic, and discursive intimacies between esports and gold farming—the practice of harvesting in-game items or currency to be sold for real money. The essay analyzes a series of documentary films about the rise of South Korean esports and of Chinese gold farming during the early 2000s, showing how the reigning narrative of East Asian gaming as simultaneously model and threat to aspiring North American and European game scenes is secured through complementary discourses about the denigrated “cheapness” of Asian play. Drawing on the insights of critical race studies, specifically theories of racial capitalism and ludo-Orientalism, the author demonstrates how the legitimation of global esports as a real sport—a fundamental concern of the Western esports industry—relies on the racialization and disavowal of gold farming as an exceptional site of precarity and exploitation. The essay further demonstrates that recentering the role of virtual Asian labor in esports history helps challenge existing Eurocentric methodologies and exposes the limits of binaristic or hybridized definitions of the relationship between play and work, material and immaterial labor, and race and nation commonly found in contemporary game studies.

In the early 2000s, Blizzard Entertainment, the American-based developer and publisher of such highly successful online games as World of Warcraft (2004) and StarCraft (1998), joined game developers across North America and Europe in publicly condemning the practice of gold farming and the burgeoning real-money trade (RMT) in games, wherein players became workers, harvesting in-game currency, items, or even entire accounts to sell for real money to others looking to level up faster or purchase rare items. As the spokesperson for one game being farmed lamented, “Playing games should be fun and entertaining. It’s not a way to trade and make money.”1 Although gold farming, in its early days, had been a global phenomenon, by the time this statement was issued, it had been discursively reduced to an Asian malady, with numerous American news outlets reporting on gold farming “factories” and “sweatshops” popping up throughout China and Southeast Asia and, in-game, increasingly racialized and xenophobic antipathy aimed at gold farmers for “ruining the game” by turning it into a source of productive labor.2

By the early 2010s, productive game labor—“playbor,” as Julian Küklich dubbed it—was operating under a different moniker: esports. From the outside, the day-to-day operations looked rather similar: groups of bleary-eyed young Asian men working, eating, and sleeping communally, crowded together in front of computer screens playing games (chief among them Blizzard’s StarCraft) for upward of twelve hours a day under the watchful eye of a manager. The marked similarities between the two activities in terms of working conditions, employee demographics, and, of course, the fundamental novelty of being paid to play video games for a living, were, however, obscured by the strikingly dissimilar response. Where for Blizzard, as for many World of Warcraft (WoW) players, gold farming had been reviled and lamented as yet another industry being made from “cheap Chinese labor,”3 esports was celebrated and elevated as the new frontier in video games, a sign that the enterprise was finally being taken seriously as a sport. Indeed, while gold farming had been framed in Western media as a largely underground operation—a grey-market industry gone increasingly dark following crackdowns by governments and game publishers—esports was rendered hypervisible as a lucrative spectator sport, with televised tournaments filling massive arenas, garnering huge online audiences, and rebranding players themselves into celebrity athletes. (At least, this was the case in East Asia, particularly South Korea and China; it remains an aspirational model for the growing North American and European scene.)

The striking difference in response to gold farmers and esports by game publishers is, from a cynical perspective, easily explainable: gold farming was costing them money; esports is making them money. Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux put it more eloquently: “In the particular case of e-sports, it is with equal fanaticism that the right hand [of the game industry] evangelizes the encroachment of global capital in the form of professionalization and monetization while the left casts out the value-seeking behaviors of so-called ‘farmers’ that are coded . . . as specifically Chinese.”4 In other words, it is precisely because the two are so closely related that they need to be so strongly differentiated. The racialization of certain kinds of capital-generating activities—what has elsewhere been described as racial capitalism5—functions to obscure the fundamental similarities between gold farming and esports partly as a mode of rationalization, legitimating the latter as a real sport played for “the love of the game” by delegitimating the former as a form of cheating or ruining the game through profit-seeking behavior.6 Further, the legitimation of esports and the delegitimization of gold farming are both inextricable from their racialization—and more specifically, as this essay will suggest, mutually constitutive of the racialized dynamics of global capitalism and transpacific exchange. In what follows, I tease out this racialized dynamic of (in)authenticity by considering the similarities between gold farming and esports as refracted through their documentary representations, demonstrating how the Asian body at work at play constitutes a challenging subject to the documentary form’s efforts at legitimating esports.

Replaying History

How does our understanding of—and the way we study—esports change when we think of it as a history of labor rather than a history of play, and specifically a history of virtual Asian labor? Drawing attention to the similarities between gold farming and esports is important not merely to emphasize the undertheorized racial dimensions of both but as an antidote to the temptation to perform another kind of legitimation and exceptionalism by heralding esports’ novelty as cultural zeitgeist. Such exceptionalism—the novelty of playing video games for a living—relies on the erasure of gold farming as a historical precedent in the longer global genealogy of professional play.7 Overlooking this kinship, however, has long shaped the dominant scholarly as well as industry narrative. Although entire monographs have been published documenting the history of esports, one is hard-pressed to find even offhand mentions of gold farming and esports in the same sentence.8 Academic and mainstream historical accounts of esports are, instead, often histories of technological advancement and tournament competition. Many writers and documentary filmmakers use the 1972 Spacewar Olympics, 1983 Video Game World Championships, or 1990 Nintendo World Championships as a putative origin story; some go back to the early days of competitive arcade gaming or “cyber sports.”9 Dal Yong Jin, a pioneer in the field, has crucially broadened the scope to consider how the technological infrastructure of South Korea—specifically, the spread of broadband internet following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the significant investment in online gaming by media broadcasting and telecommunication companies—created ideal growth conditions for esports in the country and a model for global esports in ensuing years.10 These material histories and infrastructures are crucial to understanding contemporary esports, yet they are uncommonly found; although discussion of esports as immaterial or digital labor is becoming more common, gold farming has long remained a missing link.

Reinserting gold farming into the picture is, however, stymied somewhat by the limited amount of reliable, English-language scholarly work on the topic, exacerbated by the false perception of gold farming as a brief and bizarre blip that died out by 2010.11 (In fact, as recent work on gold farming in China by scholars like Zixue Tai and Fengbin Hu, and journalistic accounts that suggest a renaissance in places like Venezuela, demonstrate, the phenomenon is very much alive, and more sophisticated than ever.12) In any case, there remains a significant lack of primary source material beyond the same handful of endlessly cited articles, most of them from the early 2000s, resulting in what Bonni Nardi and Yong Ming Kow, and Sheila Jasanoff and Sang Hyun Kim, respectively, have called a self-perpetuating “digital imaginary” or “media package.”13 This paucity, as opposed to extensiveness, of firsthand research on the subject has led to the remarkable consistency in representations of gold farmers found in scholarly as well as journalistic accounts. These representations tend to reproduce familiar Eurocentric and Orientalist assumptions—for example, the cementing of the use of the derogatory term virtual sweatshop to describe any gold-farming operation, and inaccurate assumptions that buyers of virtual gold were exclusively wealthy foreigners (i.e., Westerners) rather than domestic markets. The early insularity of the digital imaginary was arguably necessary, in that the practice of gold farming itself was—at least as depicted in existing research—diffuse, nonstandardized, and shadowy. Yet the very idea of that shadiness, along with the framing of gold farming as a continuation of so-called cheap Chinese labor practices, with the bizarreness and even immorality of extracting profit out of play being a primary draw, has itself of course served a number of long-standing racialized assumptions.

Compared to gold farming, the digital imaginary surrounding esports is comparatively large in terms of sheer volume of material, and yet, as we will see, comparably limited in the range of narrative strategies and visual rhetoric deployed. While Ge Jin’s Gold Farmers (2007) and Anthony Gilmore’s Play Money (2017) are two of the only widely available documentary films dedicated to the topic of gold farming, the number of esports documentaries already exceeds the ability of one person to watch all of them within a reasonable amount of time (a 2016 compilation listed more than seventy in circulation).14 As Will Partin notes, this “surprisingly robust canon” runs the gamut not just of quality but creators and intended audiences, from fan-made documentaries to slick corporate productions to investigative journalism and pieces made specifically for public television.15

Methodologically, Partin points out, tracing the history of the esports documentary is a way to trace the history of esports itself. This is in part because the evolution of esports, as an institution and a culture, is less a story about the particular games that are played competitively—indeed, as with gold farming, the games themselves, their rules and stories and characters, are often glossed over quickly, if discussed at all, in these documentaries—than about the growth of the industry as an industry. Documentaries about esports often generically frame the dramatic wins and losses of individual teams or players at esports tournaments against the backdrop of an industry bildungsroman, contributing to esports’ efforts at self-legitimation as a real sport (and a legitimate occupation) by implicitly or explicitly shaking off the stigma of games as wastes of time and related antisocial-nerd-in-mom’s-basement imagery. Esports documentaries, even when made by independent filmmakers, can serve similar ends to more explicitly reflexive behind-the-scenes or insider industry productions. John Caldwell, in his study of Los Angeles production culture, has defined these trade narratives as capital-generating enterprises, taking shape through recurring genres that one readily finds in esports documentaries, such as “against-all-odds allegories,” “genesis myths,” and “making-it sagas.”16 Even when those generic conventions are critiqued in independently made esports documentaries, the net effect can still be, as in Caldwell’s examples, to confer “professional legitimacy and [the] accumulation of career capital” onto the industry.17

Beyond the social capital they confer on industry players, the perceived objectivity and distance of the documentary genre, as film theorist Bill Nichols notes, further make it a particularly ideal form for legitimating pursuits. Nichols helpfully describes the “impression of authenticity” created by documentaries as a “relationship between the camera and what comes before it.”18 In other words, the material cinematic effects and generic conventions associated with the documentary form can be thought of not only in terms of representation but of rationalization: of the camera making sense of—making into legitimate subjects—the objects that come before it. In many documentaries about esports, as in documentaries about gold farming, those subjects are young Asian men who play video games for a living, which by necessity means asking questions about how rationalization and racialization, and attendant assumptions about gender, sexuality, language, nationality, class, and culture, are intertwined, and how they are formally given or denied documentary focus. It further means asking how the normalization or legitimation of esports as an authentic sport might in some ways gain its force from the essentializing, oftentimes starkly Orientalist and sexist, proscriptions being deployed about who belongs in the esports community—who is a real, authentic gamer—based on essentialist assumptions about the implicitly superior or inferior status of certain kinds of bodies. Given esports’ global nature, such inquiries necessitate a careful examination of the complexity of Asian as a simultaneously racial and national signifier, and how slippage between these two registers contributes to a mode of racialization that synchronizes Self and Other (or West and East) specifically through the gamic logic of winners and losers.

Model Threats: A Racial Theory of Ludo-Orientalism

The complex twinning of race and nation in esports is immediately evident in the tenor of the response of combined disbelief and admiration, specifically by those in North America and Europe, to the perceived challenge presented by Asians as professional video game players. As Lily Zhu has observed, speaking of Blizzard’s StarCraft and other popular esports titles, “it has become an ironic fact and a sore point that though massively popular games are produced and distributed in the western hemisphere, their competitive scenes are co-opted by East Asian nations such as China and South Korea.”19 That this constitutes a “sore point” reinforces the growing recognition that seemingly universalist, unmoored virtual worlds are deeply entrenched in nationalist affect, policy, and stakes; that it strikes westerners as “ironic” further speaks to how this affective response belies an implicitly Orientalist assumption. In numerous esports documentaries—most explicitly in one titled The Foreigner (2016)—one finds various Western actors struggling to come to terms with the fact that Asians, and South Koreans especially, have outplayed the West at their own game to such an extent that for years Americans and Europeans were referred to homogeneously and derogatorily as the foreigners in esports.20

One way to understand these competing affects of respect and disgust in esports beyond a general theory of sportsmanship (although a comparison to the racialization of ball-and-stick sports is another area in which esports studies would do well to consider21) is through a racial theory of how Asians have long functioned in the Orientalist imaginary as simultaneously a model and a warning sign through the intertwining of moral and economic values.22 This is especially evident in gold farming, which, although it had existed for some years in North America as an independent enterprise or a network of loosely affiliated individuals, was as a bona fide industry cast as a particular invention of the Global South, refined and eventually dominated by China. In this racialized, non-Western form, it constituted, as researchers like Richard Heeks and Julian Dibbell observed, a model for what was to come, “a glimpse into a much larger future … where life, work and commerce become ever more immersed in cyberspace” and evidence of a fundamental shift in “the classic economic distinction between play and production.”23 Similarly, although game developers (Blizzard chief among them) actively prosecuted American gamers who were using software to automate the grinding labor of leveling up in games like World of Warcraft, it was in casting gold farming as a disrespect for the game as Western intellectual property that it could be effectively displaced and essentialized as a Chinese failing, novel in its content but not in its racial perpetrators.24 This essentializing tendency is not restricted to mainstream discourses but has also guided scholarly directions in the field: consider, for example, an essay like “We Are the Gold Farmers” by Alexander Galloway, which explicitly takes up the Chinese gold farmer as a universal archetype for the exploitative digital labor performed by us (i.e., the West) in the age of post-Fordist capitalism.25 Galloway is not alone in this endeavor; indeed, the preponderance of scholarly work that has discussed gold farming has often treated it less as the province of living individuals and more as an archetype of late capitalism or a comment on the Chinese state—for example, as exemplary of the perils of biopower, digital labor, virtual economies, the blurring of work and play, or information capitalism.26

While China, as the putative home of gold farming, and South Korea, as the origin of commercial esports, are radically different in a number of important ways, it is precisely through recognizing the power of Orientalism as an ideological framework that mandates running roughshod over these differences that we can understand how and why the “reactionary rhetoric” of model+threat—what I have elsewhere called ludo-Orientalism—toward different groups took such markedly similar discursive shape.27 Since the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the nakedly expressed desire in Western esports discourse to “beat Koreans at [their] own game”—which is to say, to rightfully return “our” game to “us”—has coexisted, in mainstream discourse, with a kind of wistful admiration of South Korea as an enlightened haven for esports, a “promised pro gaming land” and a “model for the future of e-sports worldwide.”28 Beyond a healthy sense of nationalist competition, though, one finds far more explicit ludo-Orientalist abnegations of this model threat through headlines in gaming publications, such as “Western pro-gamers shouldn’t want to be like Koreans,” handmade signs at esports tournaments reading “Nerf Koreans,” and fan-created nicknames for certain European teams as “China slayers.”29

Less explicit, but no less reactionary, are esports’ ludo-Orientalist grammar and image economies, which trade in well-worn racial stereotypes revivified as cybertypes, and where Asianness determines how one is represented not simply as a person but as a player. Many of esports’ cybertypes date back to gold farming, and their inheritance by esports and the video game industry as a whole is a reminder of gold farming’s enduring legacy long after its putative extinction.30 As scholars like Lisa Nakamura, Dean Chan, Christopher Patterson, and Todd Harper have noted, play styles themselves have become racialized in the Western imaginary as “Asiatic,” whether in the sense of the perceived agility of “Asian hands,” the repetitive, localized resource extraction practices of those assumed to be Chinese gold famers, or the “collectivist,” “disciplined,” “patient,” and “robotic” tactics and strategies deployed by East Asian (especially Chinese) esports teams as described in English-language media.31 Beyond becoming the basis for subsequent racist memes depicting Chinese esports players as literal rice farmers, as Boluk and LeMieux rightly observe, terms like farming and ricing, originally racialized designations, have become so delinked from their origins as to now be widely used idiomatically simply to describe particular stages and modes of gameplay that involve resource collection.32 The cybertypes found in esports and gold farming, in short, delegitimate certain kinds of play and players by effectively laminating material and immaterial forms of racialized labor: Asian esports players are gold farmers, from this racist tautological perspective, not only because of the way that they play (as laborers), but because of who they are (cheap Asians).

These examples illustrate the extent to which the logics that define and legitimate global esports (and delegitimate gold farming) are those of racial capitalism: they work to the extent that they racialize, which is to say how they frame the relationship between labor and capital as a dynamic of work and play differentially experienced according to the race and nationality of the worker/player.33 Racial capitalism thus constitutes a methodological imperative that we interrogate racialized representations or cybertypes not merely as epiphenomenal symptoms of the ideological and economic regimes that games rehearse and reinforce, but as a means of exposing the self-legitimating how of those regimes’ self-perpetuation. In that sense, racial capitalism in fact names growing work being done in game studies and media studies that, as Whitney Pow puts it, both exposes and resists the arbitrary lines “dividing our understanding of technology from . . . the systems of power inherent to whiteness and domination.”34 Games both possess their own politics and play a political role in global contexts as a means of justifying a grammar of international and interracial inequality. This justification is frequently enacted, as I have shown in The Race Card, through the use of gaming as a language and lens to reframe national borders as, essentially, the limits of a magic circle. Thus does the very logic of gaming secure the image of the nation as a meritocratic level playing field and the hierarchies that naturally result from such ostensibly even odds. Accordingly, the Asian cybertypes in esports should be understood not simply as denigrations of a racial group but intended to elevate, in contrast to the cheapness of Asiatic play, Western ludic values of individualized creativity, innovation, and daring heroism. And, as is familiar in the realm of racial capitalism, because these values are not only cultural or moral but economic, the resulting ambivalence over the potential for monetization to devalue and instrumentalize play, to contaminate or pathologize it by transvaluating it into work, is a substantial factor driving the commonly found racial displacement of this anxiety onto Asians. As scholars like Rachel Lee, Sau-ling Wong, Mimi Nguyen, and others have noted in relation to various transpacific tech industry locales, from Silicon Valley to Foxconn factories, Asians and Asian North Americans “have become crucial means through which [‘the West’s’] unacknowledged investments are articulated”—in short, where the production of material and virtual goods is outsourced and simultaneously disavowed.35 In that sense, esports and gold farming are not merely analogs but foils, complements that together create a fuller picture of how digital gaming participates in and draws authority from the projects of racial capitalism, and, specifically, the hierarchies and belief systems—the ludic and racial mechanics—upon which this capitalism itself relies for its global perpetuation and its pleasure.

Virtual Outsourcing, Dispersed Orientalism

The profitable ambivalence that results from the congealment of gaming and racial capitalism is the animating force behind Gold Farmers (2007). An independent documentary produced by Ge Jin, a Chinese PhD student studying at the University of California San Diego, the film, released in parts on YouTube, follows the day-to-day life of gold-farm employees and owners in a handful of firms in Zhejiang Province and Shanghai.36 It opens, in familiar expository documentary fashion, with a talking-head sequence of unnamed men defining gold farming in their own words. While the comments of the first three, in Mandarin and English, are neatly woven together to rehearse the now-familiar narrative about gold farming in terms of the specific activities a gold farmer might perform—repetitively killing monsters in a specific in-game area to gather virtual gold, listing and selling that gold or other in-game items on online brokerage sites—the monologue of the fourth man is jarring in its apparent lack of connection to the others’: “I suddenly realized that selling virtual goods online is the same as transmitting Chinese labor to America,” the English subtitles read. Before we have a chance to understand where this fits in with the preceding definitions, the camera immediately cuts to another speaker, who picks up the earlier thread of materialist description and statistics about professional gaming operations. Following these brief snippets of monologue, the viewer is treated to a series of scenes of everyday life in an unnamed gold-farming firm in Zhejiang Province. The action takes place in an unremarkable, whitewashed room of cubicles, each occupied by a young Asian man clad in a white polo shirt and wearing an ID badge, seated before a computer. From the outside, the film reminds us, this looks like any other modern white-collar office. It is not until we are treated to a close-up of individual computer screens, which display a colorful image of terrain, and hear a slightly older man issuing directives translated as, “Don’t attack the big guy directly, otherwise we will lose our soldiers too quickly,” that the difference becomes apparent. But once again, before we can become immersed in the battle unfolding on-screen, the camera shifts to the more banal aspects of this workaday life—fingers operating a mouse and keyboard, a young man stifling a yawn, another adjusting the cigarette in his mouth while scanning the screen—and finally turns its eye outward to the purplish sky and, against it, the city skyline.

Several minutes later, we return to the man who made the unexpected comments about “transmitting Chinese labor” earlier, who we now learn is Tie Tou, a Shanghai-based “Gold Farm Owner.”37 “When I was studying in America,” the early- to mid-twenties Tie reminisces in Mandarin, seated on a couch wearing an Adidas track shirt, “I found everything, from a meal to a haircut, is eight times more expensive than in China. But you cannot transmit a meal to America, nor can you transmit Chinese labor to America, otherwise it [would be] easy to make money.” As we, along with the young Tie, ruminate on this thorny dilemma, the camera cuts to the same footage from the Zhejiang gold farm we have just seen, except this time in black and white. Tie Tou’s words now continue as a voice-over: “But I suddenly realized that selling virtual goods online is the same as transmitting Chinese labor, virtually” (see fig. 1). As he speaks these words, the earlier image of the young man yawning is overlaid with a grid of flashing green lights, which continue to blink rapidly over the footage as Tie speaks. “I was very excited when I came up with that idea,” he finishes, as the camera cuts momentarily to an image of a modem or router revealed to be the source of the flashing green lights, and then immediately back to Tie’s apartment and another jarring, curious representation, this time of him striking a pillow on his lap with two sticks in imitation of drumming (see fig. 1).

Figure 1

Stills from Gold Farmers representing modem/router lights flashing over a worker’s face in a gold-farming firm (left) and of Gold Farm Studio owner Tie Tou at home (right).

This brief reflection by a self-described industry pioneer on the origins of Chinese gold farming, skillfully framed by Jin’s postproduction work and editing, encapsulates the ambivalent calculus driving Chinese gold farming. Tie elaborates on gold farming not simply as an import/export business but as a “service industry,” in which “Chinese gamers use their time to give American gamers a service.” What is being leveraged here is, in other words, a version of what Yujie Chen and Ping Sun have recently dubbed “temporal arbitrage,” wherein the “stratification of value of people’s time” creates the surplus value that widens profit margins. While the authors coin the term in a different context—meal delivery drivers in China—it is useful here as way to think beyond the familiar language of gold farming as a form of “cheap Chinese labor,” which centers a “West and the rest” perspective by considering the West as a default baseline for the value of labor against which everything else appears cheap.38 Focusing on time and service, as Tie and these scholars do, also allows us to better recognize the ways in which the legitimation of the monetization of video game playing—a process which the video game industry itself would soon come to embrace, as we will see shortly in discussions of the WoW token—relies on a particular way of understanding the difference between gaming as work and as spending time.39

While gold farming was originally envisioned, in Tie’s words, as an attempt to capitalize on the differential value of (Chinese) time and (US) currency, the true rate of exchange is represented, by the filmmaker Jin, not in terms of hours or dollars, but in the automation and becoming-data of the Chinese workers through the outsourcing of the operations of grinding play required by the game itself. In figure 1’s flashing lights superimposed onto the Asian body, we have at once a familiar disembodiment of the other, a version of high-tech Orientalism that harkens back to cyberpunk representations of East Asia in the 1980s and 1990s, which consistently relied on what Wendy Chun observed as the representation of (Asian) otherness as a disorienting flood of information, “unknown yet readable.”40 High-tech Orientalism, for Chun, “disperses Orientalism,” and it is through the conduit of Orientalism that we further witness “the dispersal of global capitalism and networks.”41 In the scene of high-tech Orientalism found in Gold Farmers, we see how the lamination of the flashing lights with the men’s faces creates an impression less of equivalence or erasure (i.e., “they all look the same”) than of dispersal. Not only the inherent humanity, but the particularity of their identity—the workers’ names, ages, facial features—is denuded of unified meaning, drained first of color and then multiplied into, indeed pixelated as, the numerous flashing green lights that represent the transmission of data packets and the virtual goods they are harvesting. Such a dispersion—in the sense of a fragmentation into individual scenes or packets of meaning—is rendered especially meaningful given the documentary genre of the film, whose legitimating effect, as discussed earlier, is clearly related to its reality effect. André Bazin, for example, defines journalistic documentary as film whose object “is to present facts which would cease to be interesting if the episodes did not actually occur in front of the camera”—and of what is this more true than the mundane grind of working life in an office, even when that work involves playing games?42 Making such events interesting, according to Bazin, is a two-step process that involves first removing their reality—rendering them cinematic through the dispersing “trick” of montage—and then “restoring” it by bringing together, in at least one shot, “those elements previously separated off by montage.”43 In Gold Farmers, the overlay restores the reality of racialized automation under informationalized capitalism not merely by bringing the two elements—technology and Asian body—into “spatial unity,” but by demonstrating that the logic that makes gold farming possible and profitable is a continuation of the logic of high-tech Orientalism itself.

This productive yet ambiguous use of dispersal nuances the alienating arithmetic familiar to Marxist critique, whereby labor—particularly low-wage, repetitive work of the sort gold farming is defined as—converts the laborer into a thing alongside the things he produces. This narrative is presented not from the perspective of the laborer but is refracted through the entrepreneur, and one who ostensibly gained the inspiration as an international student in the US, which renders the representation more ambivalent. Are we to see gold farming as an extension of Western capitalist greed, or an act of plucky (but legally dubious) Chinese entrepreneurship? Neither, Gold Farmers seems to suggest, through its inclusion of Julian Dibbell, a well-respected games journalist and one of the first to tell the story of Chinese gold farming in Western media. As Dibbell reminds us, the games being farmed are already commodified, not only because they commonly contain features like in-game auction houses for players to buy and sell goods, but on a more fundamental level because they require players to engage in the tedious, repetitive labor of in-game harvesting of gold and items in order to advance; indeed, this is why such forms of play are colloquially known as grinding. The desire to subvert this labor yet enjoy its fruits had long led American players to devise workarounds in the form of small pieces of software like Glider, created by American programmer Michael Donnelly, that would essentially allow users of the program to farm for themselves in World of Warcraft by automating their character to perform repetitive harvesting tasks and level up. Although the two activities are very similar forms of recommodification of the game’s own commodified dynamics, the aggressive legal action Blizzard pursued against Donnelly—including an attempt to garnish all profits he had made from selling the program online—garnered less interest in mainstream media than the scandal of Chinese gold farms.44 The latter were, as Dibbell marvels in Gold Farmers, almost “too perfect” an image of “foreign parasitism” to displace and distract from the extent to which MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) were already turning all of their players into gold farmers, not only uncompensated for their labor but paying for the pleasure of performing it. The service that Tie Tou describes as being rendered by Chinese gold farmers to American players is, in other words, that of being able to save and maximize the latter’s play time by allowing them to not have to play a significant part of the game. By reinstating a false and racialized binary of American game companies on the side of fair and free play, and Chinese gold farmers on the side of degraded cheap labor, MMOs could continue to function as a “capitalist fairytale,” as Scott Rettberg has nicely put it, rather than a capitalist nightmare.45

These neoliberal fantasies of free market exchange are managed, in other words, through an explicitly Orientalist hierarchy where the less fun elements of capitalism trickle down to become associated with Asian Others. Here the work of scholars like Lisa Nakamura and Nick Yee is indispensable. Based on ethnographic research conducted on World of Warcraft, Yee’s “Yi-Shan-Guan” incisively showed how embittered rhetoric against Chinese gold farmers as “cheaters,” “rats,” and “commies” drew its inspiration and force from much older racist tropes and language found in nineteenth-century anti-Chinese immigration US discourse.46 Nakamura built on Yee’s findings through her own analysis of US and North American player-created representations of gold farmers in WoW, demonstrating how the latter were racialized as Chinese and cybertyped into “unwanted, illegal, and anti-social workers.”47 Nakamura importantly contextualized gold farming within a broader milieu of networked racism, neoliberal discourses of color blindness, and informationalized capitalism. In underscoring how racism that seems disembodied or invisible is “particularly easy to disavow” and dismiss,48 such work helps explain how issues that are more rightly systemic problems with the game itself—for example, the tedium of in-game labor required for leveling up—can instead be rationalized and displaced onto Othered players.

Ge Jin, in Gold Farmers, rejects this Orientalized virtual outsourcing of responsibility for gold farming onto people like Tie Tou, yet he further shows how Orientalism is itself another false binary that overly constricts our perspective of gold farming into a zero-sum game: either a continuation of racialized disrespect for intellectual property (i.e., a Chinese tradition of copying, counterfeiting, and the general discourse of shanzhai culture) or something that is inherent to the (Western-made) game itself.49 These binaries disguise the messiness and internal contradictions in which individuals function as both victims and perpetrators, workers and players, which is arguably Jin’s point in depicting Tie Tou’s success in material terms. Tou’s curious act of mimicry, as represented in figure 1, captures not only his comfortable living conditions but another central dilemma in which the limitations of existing binaries for making sense of human activity becomes starkly apparent. Arguably his air drumming is a visual metaphor for the imaginary or shadowy nature of the virtual goods being produced, but one tonally at odds with the images that precede it. Seated comfortably with a faint smile spread across his face, half-watching a nearby screen (presumably a television program), Tie, in this guise as the fat-cat virtual industrialist, cuts a strong and rather distasteful contrast to the young gold farmers, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, tired and bored. Jin’s amplification of the disembodied relationship between Tie Tou’s body and his voice—even as we watch him engage in drumming, his words proceed extradiagetically as voice-over—deepens this contrast. Mary Ann Doanne has noted of the use of the voice-over in documentary film that it is precisely the “radical otherness” of this voice, with respect to the cinematic space, that gives it a degree of authority while simultaneously constituting a “denial of the frame as a limit.”50 Where fiction films attempt, in Doanne’s psychoanalytic reading, to create a fantasmatic sense of unity that “hold[s] at bay the potential trauma of dispersal, dismemberment, difference,”51 Jin’s use of voice-over, like his earlier use of montage and overlay, can here be seen instead as an embrace of traumatic dispersal and a blurring of the seemingly iron-clad distinctions and limits that define gold farming. Soon after this scene, we are shown convivial, re-embodied images of Tie and his employees, all dressed alike in casual clothes, laughing and clapping one another on the back. Such images continue to be narrated by Tie’s voice-over, however, formally reproducing the equivocal nature of what is happening in the gold-farming industry and the quandary of how it should be interpreted by us: as work or play? Exploitation or entertainment?

Clearly it is both, and it is precisely the problem this bothness presents to reigning binaries that led early generations of scholars to develop portmanteaux like playbor and prosumption, and subsequent generations of scholars to critique those terms. Many have taken at face value early pronouncements like Dibbell’s that gold farming was evidence that something had fundamentally altered the iron-clad distinctions of work and play. Yet it is equally clear that such statements are themselves inextricable from a mythos that work and play were ever as cleanly distinguished as we might like to imagine. Scholars have noted how celebratory notions of digital labor—whether entrepreneurial labor like Twitch streamers or Etsy sellers, or the free labor of user-generated or -curated content—as cocreative spaces of agency and opportunities for self-expression can problematically conceal and congeal power inequalities and abuses, especially along gendered and racial lines.52 Others have suggested that the very term exploitation is insufficient in these contexts because it fails to acknowledge participant agency or cognizance of the situation, or capture the complex and nuanced relationship between consumer and producer, labor and capital. Too, as Taylor et al. note, per Hardt and Negri, the intertwinement of exploitation and entertainment is already a hallmark of immaterial labor and the networked age.53 (Indeed, my own work has shown that overemphasis on the universality of IT-based exploitation can actually problematically cheapen race or render it a toothless meme, obscuring racial and regional particularities of exploitation by revivifying stereotypes and hierarchies.54) Rather than focusing too much on describing esports and gold farming as play or work, however, we might consider how the erosion of the usefulness of the concepts themselves may help explain the scapegoating of Asians as a root of this problem. In other words, another act of racial displacement takes place wherein gold farming—understood as a Chinese phenomenon—is seen as both exemplary of, and responsible for, accelerating the erosion between seemingly natural or essential distinctions. What is being outsourced and racialized, here, is the collective ambivalence that has resulted.

That this ambivalence could, by and large, be characterized as a Eurocentric preoccupation with the sanctity of work and play and the longer history of the Protestant work ethic which ostensibly underlies it is part of why studying it in the context of Asia is so important. Scholarly discussions of immaterial labor tend to focus on North American and European contexts and, as Lin Zhang and Anthony Fung note, are often undergirded by Eurocentric assumptions that “the rest of the world [i.e., the Global South] is too busy engaging in outsourced ‘material labor’ and building basic telecommunication infrastructure to concern itself with ‘immaterial production’ and consumer labor.”55 Interrogating this Eurocentrism is additionally important because immaterial labor and notions of digital exploitation tend themselves to rely on and reproduce a binary between the pleasurable and voluntary value-generating activities of relatively affluent, Western users and what tends to be described as a traditional or Marxist realm of “industrial labor’s sweatshop conditions.”56 The very invocation here of sweatshop, given its historical association with Asia and nonwhiteness in the Global South more broadly, implies a kind of racialized as well as socioeconomic divide that relies on familiar techno-Orientalist fantasies of the laboring nonwhite body as the old-fashioned, exploited antecedent to the new, free, potentially postracial forms of digital labor—which, inadvertently, reifies the divide Zhang and Fung speak to regarding the comparative (lack of) complexity, subjectivity, and interest in self-expression attributed to the exploited non-Western laborer.

Yujie Chen has suggested that gold farmers “have to be invisible” precisely because they are excluded by normative definitions of digital labor as fun, creative self-expression produced by the West.57 This erasure paved the way not only for hypervisible celebrations of esports but what we might consider Blizzard’s own subsequent strategy of “eradication through incorporation”58 through the 2015 release of the WoW token (see fig. 2), which players could purchase directly from the company for twenty dollars and effectively redeem for in-game gold or additional game time. The company’s senior vice president justified the apparent about-face as an inevitable “keeping up with the times” in an industry turning to free-to-play and microtransaction models,59 and indeed seemed to take pains to avoid mentioning any potential connection between the token and gold farming despite the obvious analog. Yet we can see how the racial displacement of gold farming in WoW, itself already a response to the commodified and capitalist nature of the game, accordingly produced a reverse movement whereby the WoW token could be implicitly justified as taking back lost revenue from these erased Asian laborers. Indeed, even as the WoW token ostensibly renders obsolete the unacknowledged Chinese gold farmer, that absent specter remains everywhere as a shadowy presence, arguably providing (in yet another instantiation of the ludo-Orientalist model+threat configuration) both the beleaguered justification and the aspirational model for the token program, which leveraged the same logic of temporal arbitrage that Tie Tou had seized upon a decade prior. While the framing language Blizzard used on the WoW token page—“Time is money, friend, but sometimes one is harder to come by than the other”—may be read simply as hackneyed cliché, it is rather a reminder of how the racialized transpacific logic of gold farming profoundly shapes the very terms in which the practice is both delegitimized and relegitimized by the gaming industry—even and especially when it is rendered invisible.60 And, given that companies like Blizzard continue to be at the forefront of esports—that is, another lucrative industry founded on the monetization and professionalization of video game playing, and inextricable from East Asia—it is important to recognize how, far from being a momentary blip, the residues of gold farming, including the racialized displacement of its ills onto Asian bodies, continue to shape gaming as a whole.

Figure 2

WoW token infographic. (March 2, 2015,

Behind the Curtain

Blizzard’s efforts to render gold farmers obsolete and to champion Asian professional video game players as celebrity esports athletes instead does little to disguise that the behind the scenes of both industries are almost indistinguishable (see fig. 3), not only in job description but demographics. Both are dominated by young, single men: esports athletes, on average, are eighteen to twenty-five; gold farmers, fifteen to thirty.61 A number of explanations have been offered for both the age range and the male-dominated nature of these labor pools, including the historically exclusionary, gendered nature of video games, the rapid aging-out process that can occur in esports due not only to bodily stress and ability but to the constant threat of being replaced by new blood, and the broader notion of gamework as a “random, sporadic, and messy . . . type of work . . . that favors the young, single male.”62 How does this messiness disrupt the glossy self-image of esports as a cutting-edge industry—and how is it, in both settings, reincorporated into the system as surplus value?

Figure 3

Stills of gold farmers in Shanghai (left, from Gold Farmers ) and Chinese esports athletes in LPL (League of Legends Pro League) (right, from League of Legends documentary [2019]).

The language of setting is important here, for the sharply gendered, prolonged-adolescent nature of both professions is evident in and reinforced by the strikingly similar architectural arrangements of the professions, where work spaces and home spaces, and hence employee and familial relationships, are blurred together or even identical. South Korean and Chinese esports athletes tend to live together in so-called team houses that look remarkably similar to the employee dormitories occupied by the young Chinese gold farmers in documentaries like Gold Farmers and Play Money, where the inclusion of room and board caters especially to young migrants from other provinces.63 As depicted in figure 4, multiple residents share a single sleeping area; although in some cases, this might mean rows of bunkbeds that resemble a college dormitory, fraternity house, or even military barracks in form, in others, even for esports dream teams like 8th team and star player Lee Jae Dong (the figure sleeping in the right-side image), it can involve rows of mats or sleeping pads in close proximity.64 Yet the similarities between the image on the left, where the markedly unprivate, partially unclothed state of the sleepers is clearly meant to emphasize the unglamorous, precarious nature of the profession, and the image on the right, which focuses on South Korean esports—a cultural context, as mentioned earlier, presumed to be leaps and bounds ahead of, and radically more glitzy than, its European and North American counterparts—underscores the extent to which even documentaries that try to make esports look good often make it look like gold farming. Here the common messiness of the industries begins to emerge, beginning with their most intimate spaces.

Figure 4

Chinese gold farmers in employee dorm (left) in Gold Farmers ; South Korean esports athletes in team house (right) in State of Play (2013).

This enforced intimacy is apparent at multiple levels, for the team house and employee dormitory architecturally conflate not only work and home spaces—individuals eat, sleep, work, and play together in the same place—but the social relations that would arise from these different contexts. As mentioned in the Gold Farmers documentary, a long history of cultural conventions, in particular the influence of Confucian kinship norms and archetypal narratives about brotherhood,65 means that the intermingling of work and family—for example, the tendency for Tie Tou’s employees to call him “[Older] Brother Tie”—is already present in Asian institutions beyond the gaming industry. Thus, it is no surprise to find Chinese and South Korean gold farmers and esports players consistently speaking of their teammates as “like brothers” and the team as a whole, headed by the protoparental figure of the coach or manager, as a surrogate family, or that this sense of kinship is only deepened by the intimate, homosocial dynamics of the team houses and dormitories.66 Yet, as Joseph Jeon points out in his discussion of films like Oldboy, the “appropriation of familial and Confucian discourses for the sake of capitalist expansion” has been an especially effective ideological apparatus in South Korea because of the way it “placed modernity on a continuum with traditional values, such that fealty to one’s job felt like devotion to one’s family and country.”67 In esports, we see the same Confucian capitalism logic played out from both directions, such that being a good younger brother means being a good worker and vice versa.68

Obligations and expectations of kinship or filiality (family values) can further be exploited as economically value-laden ones due to workers’ youth and alienation. Although there is clear camaraderie and good humor between many of the young men depicted in both genres of documentaries, it is also clear that the constructed kinship is a response to the extended family separation and homesickness created by the living conditions themselves: that is, the fact of living in the team house rather than with one’s real family. While this situation was arguably a necessity for some Chinese gold farmers, given that migrants seeking work in city centers due to a paucity of local employment opportunities are unable to live with family in any case, even those South Korean esports players whose families lived nearby still resided in team houses, presumably as part of a team mandate. The documentary State of Play, for example, represents these players’ becoming members of the team brotherhood as a simultaneously instrumentalizing process of becoming digital laborers—itself, as we saw with the flashing router lights in Gold Farmers, a process of becoming-data, or, in familiar techno-Orientalist, cyborg fashion, a prosthetic amalgam of the machine. State of Play (2013), by Belgian filmmaker Steven Dhoedt, follows a handful of different South Korean players, among them fifteen-year-old Kim Joon Hyuk, a semiprofessional esports player, as he passes through the early, heady days of his recruitment to the Seoul-based Woongjin Stars to growing disenchantment and loneliness living among his new family. One scene begins at 7:00 a.m. in the team house on a morning we are meant to presume is like countless others: waking alone, a bleary-eyed Joon Hyuk wends his way around the bunk beds of his still-sleeping teammates, padding through empty rooms and down long, darkened hallways while pulling on his team jersey. As the light becomes so dim that we can barely make out the outline of the team logo emblazoned on his back, his voice-over begins abruptly: “The day I entered the team house, I was very excited.” A light appears at the end of the dark hall: the boy enters a room, emptied of people but filled with monitors, and throws himself down in a chair before one of the darkened screens. “But now, after three months, I’m lonely. I miss my parents and friends.” As these last words trail off, we are treated to the only other human(oid) face besides Kim’s we’ve seen in the entire scene: the loading screen of StarCraft, the game at which he competes (see fig. 5). This grim-faced, greenish creature, we are left thinking, this two-dimensional fantasy world and this cold machine, are this pitiful child’s most intimate human connection, at the very moment he joins a supposed brotherhood of like-minded teammates.

Figure 5

Kim Joon Hyuk and teammate practicing in the team house in the documentary State of Play .

Before we can comfortably settle into clucking sympathy at the tragic spectacle of this young man’s alienation from the human world, however, the face disappears from the loading screen, replaced with walls of text and a series of dialogue boxes. At the sight and sound of the rapid-fire, automatic fashion in which he inputs his log-in credentials and selects his server—it’s clear he’s done it innumerable times before—our sympathy begins to recede. The scene begins to resemble not a warm moment of proxy connection between human and machine—something like the plot of Her, or a liberatory mode of cyborg identity—but a mechanical act of a drone completing a work task. Now it is not the human-like possibilities of the game characters but the limited humanity of Kim himself that starts to come into view. The picture is completed by the appearance of one of his brothers, who is later depicted seated in an adjacent cubicle performing presumably exactly the same actions, his humanity and particularity so reduced as to be a headless body, face cut out of frame. Beyond the troubling techno-Orientalist resonances created by this particular scene of Asian players as robotic automatons—one which, like the bedrooms depicted in Gold Farmers and State of Play, ends up looking more and more similar across supposedly diametrically opposed industries—is the way that those resonances are further enforced in esports as one of the rules of play. Becoming a uniformed member of a professional esports league—an honor which is the dream of untold youth and a reality for only a minuscule number—is framed not as the beginning of a journey with an ever-expanding brotherhood but rather a midpoint transition between being wrenched from one’s family and transformed into an alienated face glued to the screen hardly distinguishable from the alien face peering out from it.

As mentioned earlier, the legitimating logic of documentaries constitutes an implicitly rationalizing logic: the value of what is being documented is inherently justified by the fact of it being the subject of a documentary, and vice versa. Yet a documentary like State of Play (one of many of its kind) would seem to complicate this equation by demonstrating how esports’ legitimation itself relies on the reobjectification of its subjects, their delinking from natural social networks, and their insertion into the world of information capitalism under the guise of an artificially constructed filiality. This process is racialized and nationalized—indeed, one might even argue that Orientalism has long paved the way for an easier acceptance of esports’ reobjectification of specifically Asian subjects as depicted in figure 5—but also sharply gendered. While the number of renowned women esports players is pitifully low, the invisibility of women on the outward-facing side of esports belies their number and centrality as the domestic and affective labor infrastructure of both enterprises. Indeed, critiques of esports as a male-dominated industry can inadvertently reproduce the erasure they wish to undo—and reinforce the seeming naturalness of the brotherhood—by rendering tangential the extent to which the livelihoods of these young men, and hence the esports industry as a whole, are dependent on a highly segregated support network of women of various ages playing a diversified set of roles.

I elsewhere examine this gendered support network at length through the figures of the women who are frequently positioned to clean up the messiness of the industry by countering economic alienation with the affective language of care work.69 Here we might consider just one example of this by returning to Kim Joon Hyuk, whose team house, like every other team house we see in these documentaries, employs a house mother or ah-yee figure, an older woman who oversees the majority of shopping and meal preparation. We learn that Team B (second-string) players like Kim, seeking to be elevated to Team A, are required to prove themselves. Yet this happens, he explains, not by laboring in the game world (as in fig. 5), but in the real world, through assisting the quasimaternal figure in domestic duties; thus, these young men, under the house mother’s direction, “clean up, do the laundry, all those things” (34:40). That menial, feminized labor—so-called women’s work—would fall to the lowest-ranked and youngest male players is not uncommon (indeed, it can be found in a number of other homosocial institutions, such as the military); that it is framed as a means of proving one’s worth to be promoted to a higher rank of esports player (as opposed to, say, putting in additional hours in front of the computer screen), however, underscores that the two types of labor—domestic and digital—are not quite as distinct as they may seem. Nor should this ultimately be that surprising: just as the distinction between, say, filial son and good worker is conflated in the team house as a means of securing the labor of the latter in emotional rather than crudely economic terms, the language of filiality—of the boys helping their mother and the mother cooking for her sons—distances the scene from the vulgar language of economic transaction even as it extracts additional material and immaterial labor toward securing the notion of the whole group as a heteronormative family unit.

Disposable Futures, Enduring Pasts

Embodied social conditions, as underscored through architecture, kinship norms, and gender roles, obscure exploitative labor hierarchies by humanizing them and in turn rationalizing labor instrumentalization. Indeed, the alien concept of making a living at video games, which is made sense of in part through its racial and national displacement as an Asian innovation, is simultaneously a form of alienated labor whose apparent novelty can function as further cover for the very old forms of inequality and insecurity it traffics in. This leads to the perpetuation of forms of labor injustice often discussed in critiques of digital labor in contemporary capitalism—specifically, the experience of disposability and the emergence of a “precariat.”70 I conclude this essay by considering other messy truths (and discursive clean-up efforts) of the esports industry. Job insecurity, below subsistence-level wages, and subpar living and working conditions are hard to square with the fantasy of esports rock stars dating supermodels popularly represented in mainstream media; indeed, such exploitation sounds much more akin to the virtual sweatshops with which gold-farming operations have been pejoratively associated. Yet this is also why a gold farming-esque investigation of the role of racialized labor and global capitalism, as performed in the preceding sections of this paper and inspired by the pioneering work of a handful of courageous game journalists over the last several years, is useful for locating critical footholds in the otherwise glossy surface of the esports industry veneer. Ironically, given the extremely low probability of succeeding as a professional esports player, the very short period of time at which players are at their peak, and the substantial stress and threat of being replaced, esports could be considered even more precarious than gold farming. Although it may appear—and, indeed, ample marketing efforts are expended to create the appearance—that esports athletes are celebrities living the good life, in fact, as game journalist Cecilia D’Anastasio wryly put it, the esports industry from the very beginning has “looked luxe from the outside, but like any McMansion, it had some structural issues.”71

Given the historical context of esports’ emergence in South Korea in the early 2000s, we might further understand these structural issues in light of Jeon’s description of South Korean youth entertainment celebrities in the post–Asian financial crisis era as a form of “subsistence faming,” a “smaller-scale survival tactic in a labor environment increasingly oriented toward human capital” and beset by financial insecurity.72 Economic precarity is further multiplied by the radically low probability of achieving fame, for the likelihood of becoming an elite esports player—that is, to make it into the professional leagues, or within the top 1 percent of players—is extremely low. (Zhongxuan Lin and Yupei Zhao, comparing it to the competitive national college entrance exam held annually in China, suggest it’s “more difficult than the gaokao.”73) Even among those who do make it, precarity remains a defining feature of the profession. Signing bonuses and tournament prizes may be high, but base salaries are often low.74 Disposability, in the form of planned obsolescence, is also an inevitability of the industry, and one that gains particular significance given that, as David Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta Niu remind us, the “US techno-Orientalist imagination has its roots in the view of the Asian body . . . as a form of expendable technology.”75 Recent scandals have additionally emerged around exploitative contracts, wage theft, and mental-health issues arising from living and work conditions—stories of attempted suicides, of import players not being provided translators, and of teams turning to match fixing in order to feed themselves, an especially tragic example of the subsistence part of “subsistence faming.”76 (Most recently, the racialized dimensions of this experience have finally begun to make headlines, as with Asian esports players in the US reflecting on the verbal and physical racism they have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.77)

Scandals like these have increasingly exposed esports as a high-risk industry in every sense of the word—not only in the miniscule probability of becoming a professional, the uncertain nature of competition, or the volatility of consumer interest and the brief shelf life of celebrity, but of the lack of standardized oversight in terms of contract negotiation and worker protection from occupational hazards that include racist violence. In this, esports can and should be thought of as highly unexceptional. And, like other members of the precariat, esports players, and the esports industry, consistently turn to discursive means, particularly the language of pleasure and novelty, to rationalize or reframe their precarity. As with professional sports, where one often hears the notion of the love of the game invoked as a motivation for working in the industry independent of remuneration, one finds numerous actors in the esports industry—players, coaches, tournament organizers, journalists, and so on—using such affective rhetoric to narrate their decision to pursue esports as a career. Given the lack of celebrity status associated with gold farming, however, it is surprising to find that gold farmers, too, deploy similar rhetoric, speaking both of their love for, and the profound novelty of, making a living playing video games. Indeed, the comments of esports athletes and gold farmers are nearly interchangeable across innumerable sources, describing the same idea using the same words and the same tone of marvel, particularly regarding the pleasure derived from the perceived novelty: “I never imagined that one can play games and earn money at the same time,” as one puts it in Gold Farmers.

Strikingly, both sets of interviewees tend to speak about their own industry (whether gold farming or esports) as itself an ex nihilo occupation that essentially invented the monetization of video game playing.78 That gold farmers do not see themselves as aspiring esports athletes and vice versa might be taken, ultimately, as evidence not of their mutual ignorance of the Other’s existence but of the extent to which these two enterprises have been forcibly and artificially separated in mainstream and scholarly discourse precisely because of the need to displace the messiness of exploitation onto gold farming rather than esports. In truth, as Sahoon Kim and Michael Thomas point out, it is not uncommon for esports athletes to provide free labor as glorified game testers; an analogously shadowy industry of “ELO [i.e., game rank] boosting” has also arisen where players of esports titles like League of Legends can increase their account level or rank by farming out the labor to third-party sources that claim to employ professional players.79 Revivifying the language of mechanization described in the above scenes of becoming-data and Kim’s cyborgization, Kim and Thomas have compellingly schematized the life cycle of the South Korean professional esports player as one that inevitably shifts from enjoying to slumping stages—exemplified in the near-monotone delivery of highly successful esports players like Lee Jae Dong in State of Play, who remarks, “We don’t really play for fun anymore. Mostly I play for work. My work just happens to be a game.” (Aptly, State of Play follows Lee’s transition from one of the most famous and successful faces of esports to a slumping member of the precariat.) In contrast, several interviewees in Gold Farmers smilingly note as a job perk their access to the latest video games, or speak of the thrill of collectively creating a high-level character to complete in-game missions and defeat enemies. Even though they may remain at the enjoyment stage longer, however, even gold farmers, as Lin and Zhao found with the majority of their interviewees in China, eventually complain that “the originally pleasurable gaming had become boring training.”80 In other words, from both directions, the inevitable slide is toward industry indistinguishability.

That even the most elite esports players eventually find that the novelty of playing for work gives way to the drudgery of working at play is, of course, arguably why the industry needs to constantly replenish its workforce with new, starrier-eyed children. The burgeoning field of esports studies that is growing up alongside the industry must, however, avoid complicity with those self-legitimating endeavors that rely on erasure and alienation. Many who study gold farming and esports have tended to frame these industries as worthy of study insofar as they ostensibly present a novel challenge to artificially enforced binaries of work and play—an erosion that has itself, as mentioned earlier, productively generated a great amount of definitional wordplay, whether through critical portmanteaux like playbor, exploitainment, and presumption, or idiomatic article and documentary titles like Free to Play (2014), All Work All Play (2015), and the like. As declarations of a phenomenon’s novelty have historically risked obscuring its continuity with older forms, however, the ease and delight of coining such expressions valuably reminds us of the need to ground this work by historicizing these forms of domination and exploitation. The current study has sought to do this through a comparative global framework of racial capitalism that shows how the twin mechanisms of rationalization and racialization legitimate the “disposable futures,” to borrow Lin and Zhao’s term, both gold farmers and esports players face.


The author would like to thank the two anonymous journal reviewers, as well as Brendan O’Kelly and Keita Moore for their generous feedback in improving this article.


1. ^ Jeremy Reimer, “Blizzard Bans 30,000 World of Warcraft Accounts,” Ars Technica, June 12, 2006,; and David Barboza, “Ogre to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese,” New York Times, December 9, 2005,

2. ^ For an overview of these debates, see Tara Fickle, The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities (New York: New York University Press, 2019), chap. 6.

3. ^ Fickle, The Race Card, chap. 6.

4. ^ Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 214.

5. ^ The term racial capitalism, originally coined by Cedric Robinson, captures the history whereby, in contrast to the presumptions of Marx and Engels, “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, [and] so too did social ideology.” Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 2. My use here cleaves to the exhortations of Jodi Melamed, Denise Ferreira Da Silva, and others in critical ethnic studies, who use the term to remind us that “capitalism is racial capitalism. Capital can only be capital when it is accumulating, and it can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups.” In this respect, the “racial” of racial capitalism that I refer to here means something more global and expansive than the concept of race as an index of skin color, or within a Black-white binary, has often come to be used in the US context, instead encompassing broader ideas associated with racialized categories such as nationality, language, religion, citizenship, and so on. Jodi Melamed, “Racial Capitalism,” Critical Ethnic Studies 42, no. 4 (2015): 77.

6. ^ For a discussion of affect and love in gaming and livestreaming as a “grammar of neoliberalism,” see Nicholas Taylor, Kelly Bergstrom, Jennifer Jenson, and Suzanne de Castell, “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online,” Games and Culture 10, no. 4 (2015): 365–88.

7. ^ This is not to suggest that gold farming is itself novel: indeed, early ludic theorists like Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois were already discussing the pathologization or contamination of play when it becomes remunerated or rationalized into work. Recent scholarship that has considered esports and playbor in relation to Huizinga and Callois includes Tom Brock, “Roger Caillois and E-Sports: On the Problems of Treating Play as Work,” Games and Culture 12, no. 4 (2017): 321–39; and Yuri Seo and Sang Uk Jung, “Beyond Solitary Play in Computer Games: The Social Practices of ESports,” Journal of Consumer Culture 16, no. 3 (2016): 635–55.

8. ^ Beyond the brilliant but few-page discussion mentioned in Boluk and LeMieux’s Metagaming, the only other academic reference I have found is Florian Schneider and Dal Yong Jin, “The Dynamics of Digital Play in Asia: Introduction to the Third Special Issue of Asiascape: Digital Asia,” Asiascape: Digital Asia 3, nos. 1–2 (2016): 5–15, which in passing pairs the two to illustrate that digital games in Asia “are a serious affair . . . no longer just a hobby” (8).

9. ^ Michael Borowy and Dal Yong Jin, “Pioneering ESport: The Experience Economy and the Marketing of Early 1980s Arcade Gaming Contests,” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 21; and Brett Hutchins, “Signs of Meta-Change in Second Modernity: The Growth of E-Sport and the World Cyber Games,” New Media and Society 10, no. 6 (2008): 851–69.

10. ^ For an overview of global esports and its relation to ICT (information and communications technology) in South Korea especially, see Dal Yong Jin, Korea’s Online Gaming Empire (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010); and Jin, “Emergence and Transformation of Global Esports: Competitive Perspectives of Korean and Canadian Esports Scenes,” in Global Esports: Transformation of Cultural Perceptions of Competitive Gaming, ed. Dal Young Jin (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).

11. ^ Interestingly, the continued viability of gold farming may in part be due to the conditional acceptance of online gaming in China and shifts pre- and post-2009 toward gaming. However, there remains a clear distinction there between acceptable and unacceptable forms of video game play, and hence between gaming and esports. See, for example, Milan Ismangil and Anthony Fung, “Esports: A Chinese Sport?,” and Paul Martin and Wei Wong, “Framing eSports in Chinese university campuses,” both in Jin, Global Esports. See also Marcella Szablewicz, “From Addicts to Athletes: Participation in the Discursive Construction of Digital Games in Urban China,” AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research 1 (October 2011),; Lu Zhouxiang, “From E-Heroin to E-Sports: The Development of Competitive Gaming in China,” International Journal of the History of Sport 33, no. 18 (2016): 2186–2206; and Haiqing Yu, “Game On: The Rise of the Esports Middle Kingdom,” Media Industries Journal 5, no. 1 (2018): 88–105.

12. ^ Zixue Tai and Fengbin Hu, “Play between Love and Labor: The Practice of Gold Farming in China,” New Media and Society 20, no. 7 (2018): 2370–90; and Mat Ombler, “How RuneScape Is Helping Venezuelans Survive,” Polygon, May 27, 2020,

13. ^ Bonnie Nardi and Yong Ming Kow, “Digital Imaginaries: How We Know What We (Think We) Know about Chinese Gold Farming,” First Monday 15, no. 6 (2010),; and Sheila Jasanoff and Sang Hyun Kim, “Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea,” Minerva 47, no. 2 (2009): 119–46.

14. ^ “76 Esports Documentaries You Should Watch,” Esports Marketing Blog, March 7, 2016,

15. ^ Will Partin, “The Loneliness of the Professional Gamer,” Kill Screen, March 31, 2016,

16. ^ John Caldwell, Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 38.

17. ^ Caldwell, Production Culture, 38.

18. ^ Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017), xii.

19. ^ Lily Zhu, “Masculinity’s New Battle Arena in International E-Sports: The Games Begin,” in Masculinities in Play, ed. Nicholas Taylor and Gerald Voorhees (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 246.

20. ^ Foreigners seems to have initially been a term used within South Korea, but later adopted by esports culture more broadly. One senses the indignity as well as the rampant Orientalism this produced in such Western-produced documentaries about esports as The Foreigner, which opens, seemingly in earnest, with a quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. For an important discussion of the role of esports in nationalist affect, see Henry Lowood, “ʻBeyond the Game’: The Olympic Ideal and Competitive e-Sports,” in Play and Politics: Games, Civic Engagement, and Social Activism, ed. D. Thomas and J. Fouts (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming).

21. ^ As Jonathan Lee observes, esports is in many ways comparable to the racial and class dynamics of sports like basketball and baseball, “another arena run by American corporations where young men of color are disproportionately represented as the dominant competitors, to the point where they are appraised as the best on the planet.” “Why So Many Esports Pros Come from South Korea,” Wired, October 27, 2020, The pursuit of sports as a survival strategy for disenfranchised or multiply constrained communities also dovetails importantly with discussions of domestic race relations; see Robin D. G. Kelley, “Playing For Keeps: Pleasure and Profit on the Postindustrial Playground,” in The House That Race Built: Original Essays by Toni Morrison, Angela Y. Davis, Cornel West, and Others on Black Americans and Politics in America Today, ed. Wahneema Lubiano (New York: Vintage, 2010), 195–231.

22. ^ Contemporary examples of this abound in relation to China specifically; see Fan Yang, “Fiscal Orientalism: China Panic, the Indebted Citizen, and the Spectacle of National Debt,” Journal of Asian American Studies 19, no. 3 (2016): 375–96. For a discussion of the longer history of this phenomenon, see Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893–1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); and Iyko Day, Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

23. ^ Richard Heeks, “Understanding ‘Gold Farming’ and Real-Money Trading as the Intersection of Real and Virtual Economies,” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 2, no. 4 (2010): 1–27; and Julian Dibbell, “The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer,” New York Times Magazine, June 17, 2007. See also Edward Castronova, Dmitri Williams, Cuihua Shen, Rabindra Ratan, Li Xiong, Yun Huang, and Brian Keegan, “As Real as Real? Macroeconomic Behavior in a Large-Scale Virtual World,” New Media & Society 11, no. 5 (2009): 685–707.

24. ^ That is, such discourse draws on a longer history of notions of Asian, especially Chinese, moral failings in terms of counterfeiting and piracy; see Bjarke Liboriussen, “Amateur Gold Farming in China: ‘Chinese Ingenuity,’ Independence, and Critique,” Games and Culture 11, no. 3 (2015): 316–31.

25. ^ For an extensive discussion of these racial capitalist dynamics in Galloway’s essay (which appears in his book, The Interface Effect [Malden, MA: Polity, 2012]), see Fickle, The Race Card, chap. 6.

26. ^ See, for example, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); and Constance Steinkuehler, “The Mangle of Play,” Games and Culture 1, no. 3 (2006): 199–213.

27. ^ Zhu, “Masculinity’s New Battle Arena,” 229.

28. ^ Partin, “The Loneliness of the Professional Gamer”; and T. L. Taylor, Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 29–30.

29. ^ Nerfing in this context means to reduce the strength of a character. Duncan Shields, “Western Pro-Gamers Shouldn’t Want to Be Like Koreans,” Dot Esports (blog), October 18, 2014, The “Nerf Koreans” image appears in the film The Foreigner (2016), directed by Jonathan Sutak. “China Slayers” is referenced in Free to Play (2014).

30. ^ Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002). The term image economies comes from Boluk and LeMieux, Metagaming.

31. ^ Dean Chan, “Negotiating Intra-Asian Games Networks: On Cultural Proximity, East Asian Games Design, and Chinese Farmers,” Fibreculture Journal 8 (2006); Christopher B. Patterson, Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games (New York: New York University Press, 2020); Todd Harper, The Culture of Digital Fighting Games: Performance and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2013); and Lisa Nakamura, “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 26, no. 2 (June 2009): 128–44.

32. ^ Boluk and LeMieux, Metagaming, 214.

33. ^ As Gargia Bhattacharyya reminds us, racial capitalism is especially useful as a lens to understand not merely how capitalism is racialized or race is capitalized upon but how this mechanism proceeds through other artificial binaries, such as the differential value of work vs. nonwork. See Bhattacharyya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018).

34. ^ Whitney Pow, review of Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, ed. Jennifer Malkowski and TreaAndrea M. Russworm, and Woke Gaming: Digital Challenges to Oppression and Social Injustice, ed. Kishonna L. Gray and David J. Leonard, JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 59, no. 4 (2020): 205–9,

35. ^ Rachel C. Lee and Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, eds., Asian America.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace (New York: Routledge, 2003), 26; and Mimi Nguyen, “Queer Cyborgs and New Mutants: Race, Sexuality, and Prosthetic Sociality in Digital Space,” in Lee and Wong, Asian America.Net, 281–306. There has been a substantial amount of important work on how the racialized, gendered infrastructure of the IT industry is rendered invisible or irrelevant; see, for example, Curtis Marez, “Chavez and Star Wars,” in Race after the Internet, ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2012); Sareeta Amrute, Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); and Lisa Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture,” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2014): 919–41.

36. ^ While the film was highly anticipated and played at a series of well-known festivals, very little information is available about it despite exhaustive research on the part of this writer. It was either never finished, or the last of the four parts was simply never published. The first three parts have been published on YouTube.

37. ^ “Tie Tou” is likely a pseudonym or nickname; although it is not written on-screen in Chinese characters, the phrase “Tie Tou” is a homophone for “Iron Head.” Since he is called “Brother Tie” (presumably铁哥) by his employees, however, I refer to him here as Tie for simplicity.

38. ^ Julie Yujie Chen and Ping Sun, “Temporal Arbitrage, the Fragmented Rush, and Opportunistic Behaviors: The Labor Politics of Time in the Platform Economy,” New Media and Society 22, no. 9 (2020): 1561–79.

39. ^ The language of spending time also irresistibly evokes parallels with the sex-work industry, another service industry with a historical valence in West/East relations.

40. ^ Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 203.

41. ^ Chun, Control and Freedom, 242.

42. ^ André Bazin, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage,” in What Is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 1: 51.

43. ^ Bazin, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage,” 1: 51.

44. ^ The most extensive account of this legal battle is depicted in Anthony Gilmore’s Play Money (2017).

45. ^ Scott Rettberg, “Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft,” in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity, ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 19–38.

46. ^ Nick Yee, The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us—and How They Don’t (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

47. ^ Nakamura, “Don’t Hate the Player.”

48. ^ Namakura “Don’t Hate the Player,” 130.

49. ^ See Liboriussen, “Amateur Gold Farming in China”; Fan Yang, Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015); and Long T. Bui, “Monetary Orientalism: Currency Wars and the Framing of China as Global Cheater,” Global Society 33, no. 4 (2019): 479–98.

50. ^ Mary Ann Doane, “The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space,” Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 37.

51. ^ Doane, “The Voice in the Cinema,” 37.

52. ^ See, for example, Trebor Scholz, ed., Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (New York: Routledge, 2013).

53. ^ Taylor et al., “Alienated Playbour.” See also Aleena Chia, “Productive Leisure in Post-Fordist Fandom,” Journal of Fandom Studies 8, no. 1 (2020): 47–63.

54. ^ See Fickle, The Race Card.

55. ^ Lin Zhang and Anthony Y. H. Fung, “Working as Playing? Consumer Labor, Guild and the Secondary Industry of Online Gaming in China,” New Media & Society 16, no. 1 (2014): 41.

56. ^ Mark Andrejevic, “Estranged Free Labor,” in Scholz, Digital Labor, 197.

57. ^ Yujie Julie Chen, “Production Cultures and Differentiations of Digital Labour,” TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique; Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 12, no. 2 (2014): 663.

58. ^ This term comes from Grace Kyungwon Hong’s, Death beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

59. ^ Heather Newman, “World of Warcraft Exec: We Do Things Now We Would’ve Shot Down 10 Years Ago,” Venture Beat, November 23, 2015,

60. ^ “A Golden Opportunity,” Shop, accessed April 29, 2021,

61. ^ See Tai and Hu, “Play between Love and Labor”; and Jin, Korea’s Online Gaming Empire.

62. ^ Jin, Korea’s Online Gaming Empire, 84; and Aphra Kerr, The Business and Culture of Digital Games: Gamework and Gameplay (London: Sage Publications, 2006).

63. ^ See Boris Pun, Yi Yi Yin, and Anthony Fung, “eSports Gamers in China: Career, Lifestyle and Public Discourse among Professional League of Legends Competitors,” in Video Games and the Global South, ed. Phillip Penix-Tadsen (Pittsburgh, PA: ETC Press, 2019), 183–98.

64. ^ Both representations arguably read differently to Asian viewers than they would to North American ones, to whom the notion of sleeping on the floor, multiple people to a single room, is more likely to be perceived as an inevitable response to privation.

65. ^ In the Chinese context, the most famous of these narratives of adopted brotherhood is perhaps the novel The Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh or All Men Are Brothers).

66. ^ As Eve Sedgwick and others remind us, homosociality does not imply homosexuality but rather tends to reinforce heterosexuality as the norm and encourage sexism. While video game discourse often touts the value of a global village or the notion that race and country are irrelevant, there seems to be hardly any room in these spaces or these documentaries for queer, gay or lesbian, transgender, or nonbinary individuals, or in fact anyone that falls outside of cisgender, heterosexual categories. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985; repr., New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). For a specific discussion of this homosociality in video game spaces, see Michael Kane, Game Boys: Professional Videogaming’s Rise from the Basement to the Big Time (New York: Viking, 2008).

67. ^ Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, Vicious Circuits: Korea’s IMF Cinema and the End of the American Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).

68. ^ The term Confucian capitalism comes from Emiko Ochai’s “Introduction: Reconstruction of Intimate and Public Spheres in Asian Modernity,” in Transformation of the Intimate and the Public in Asian Modernity, eds. Emiko Ochiai and Leo Aoi Hosoya (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 1–36.

69. ^ Unpublished conference papers: Fickle, “The Support to His Carry: Gendered Fan Labor in South Korean Esports” (paper presented virtually at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, April 1–5, 2020), and “Neoliberal e-Filiality” (paper presented virtually at the Association for Asian Studies, March 19–22, 2020).

70. ^ Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt, “In the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work,” Theory, Culture & Society 25, nos. 7–8 (2008): 1–30.

71. ^ Cecilia D’Anastasio, “Esports Pros Have ‘Dream’ Jobs—but Game Publishers Have All the Power,” Wired, September 10, 2020,

72. ^ Jeon, Vicious Circuits.

73. ^ Zhongxuan Lin and Yupei Zhao, “Self-Enterprising eSports: Meritocracy, Precarity, and Disposability of eSports Players in China,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 23 (2020): 582–99,

74. ^ See Tai and Hu, “Play between Love and Labor.”

75. ^ David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 10.

76. ^ Emily Rand, “Culture Shock: The Multinational Mosaic of Overwatch League,” ESPN, July 22, 2018,; and Will Partin, “A ‘Dota 2’ Matchfixer’s Plea Shows What’s Really Rotten in Dota Esports,” Vice, December 14, 2017,

77. ^ Shannon Liao, “Korean Esports Players, Staff Speak Out on ‘Unspeakable’ Racism, Harassment in America,” Washington Post, April 7, 2021,

78. ^ Gold farming dates approximately back to the late 1990s as a cottage industry, but was widely known about by the early 2000s; the Korean Esports Association (an arm of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism) was established in 2000. The documentaries in which these interviews are taking place date from 2006 (for gold farming) to the 2010s (for esports).

79. ^ Sahoon H. Kim and Michael K. Thomas, “A Stage Theory Model of Professional Video Game Players in South Korea: The Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Development of Expertise,” Asian Journal of Information Technology 14, no. 5 (2015): 176–86. For additional examples, see Ergin Bulut, “Glamor Above, Precarity Below: Immaterial Labor in the Video Game Industry,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 32, no. 3 (2015): 193–207.

80. ^ Lin and Zhao, “Self-Enterprising eSports,” 592.