“Power outage in Venezuela causes economic crisis in Runescape.” What a headline.
At the end of last year, after presenting the final assignment for the Anthropology capstone, Monica held an informal gathering with former Anthropology students to find out what career paths they had taken. I met one person who had since taken the Juris Doctor and was now practising law, but had done his Honours thesis on the social life of World of Warcraft. I found out that he was interested in returning to university to undertake a Masters or PhD, so I asked him what he would research, and he introduced me to the fascinating practice of gold farming – where people “grind” in massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), spending hours intensively killing monsters or playing tedious minigames to acquire in-game currency, which they then sell in the real world for real money (and whose networking behaviours mimic that of drug traffickers). For some, this is considered full-time work. In Venezuela, gold farming operations are apparently so fundamental to the virtual economy of Runescape, a fantasy MMO role-playing game, that a nation-wide blackout in the real world has had serious repercussions on the virtual – thus illustrating the reality-virtuality continuum.
This event actually exemplifies the intersection of two of my anthropological interests – video games and precarious labour, the latter of which was piqued by the final assignment of the Anthropology capstone, in which we had to investigate and compare the imaginaries of two ethnographies; our primary was Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, and our secondary was Kathleen Millar’s Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump. Tsing is an incredible anthropologist and pioneers the multispecies ethnography methodology, alongside Cyborg Manifesto author Donna Haraway, but admittedly I found Millar’s ethnography more engaging – more human, perhaps.
Millar’s ethnography focuses on catadores, individuals who work on a dump called Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro, the largest in the world before its closure in 2012. The catadores sift through rubbish to collect scrap and other materials for resale and recycling. Their work arises from the precarity of life – when modernity, capitalism, industrialisation, poverty, and other inequalities make life so fragile and unpredictable that one ‘resorts’ to work at the peripheries of the formal economy. What Millar does, however, is reframe the catadores’ work as something that can afford freedom, flexible hours, and other benefits of unregulated operation that more “respectable” jobs would lack. In this way, precarity is illustrated as something that we should not shy away from, but rather look toward in times of increasing economic uncertainty. As Tsing might say, the freedom and flexibility permitted by undertaking informal labour arises not “in spite of” but “because of” the precarious economic conditions that the catadores face. Likewise, theorists Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson (together known as J.K. Gibson-Graham) promote the legitimisation of “informal” work; if society manages to adopt this shift in thinking, we can normalise and be prepared to adapt to escalating precarious conditions of life.
The article cites a tweet that reads, “they spend all day harvesting virtual gold to sell…to other players (more profitable than a job)” (kindly translated by the good people of Google Translate). So, in an illustration of Gibson-Graham’s point: why is this not a job?
At the end of the article, after stating that at least fifteen have died in hospitals as a result of the blackout, the author writes, “Hopefully Venezuela and its populace will be back on its feet – and back at the computer – soon!” These words seem particularly tone-deaf – is the author hoping that Venezuelans will recover from the blackout so that they can return to gold farming, making online money that is worth more than their own, and restore the virtual wallets of Runescape players, to whom – and I quote from another tweet included in the article – “Venezuela is truly a fantastic joke that never stops delivering“?
I do think precarious labour needs to be legitimised, but I think what I hadn’t considered until now is that legitimisation of work on the peripheries of so-called formal economies doesn’t address financial inequality or the discourses of power that operate between higher- and lower-income countries, especially when the outputs of such work are being sold to Western consumers at widely disparate margins to the time/labour input of precarious workers. What is legitimisation of work going to do if we just act like sweatshop work isn’t sweatshop work, but keep paying as if it is?
Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis MN, University of Minnesota Press.
Tsing, A.L. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press.
Millar, K.M. 2018. Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor in Rio’s Garbage Dump, Durham NC, Duke University Press.