Empire@Play: Virtual Games and Global Capitalism
by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter
Global Game Factory
Let's first reframe some conventionally celebratory factoids about virtual play. The global game factory is now a major cultural-industrial complex, dominated by the console corporations--Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo--and a cluster of super-publishers, such as EA, Activision, Konami, Ubisoft and THQ. Control of game finance, licensing and marketing enables these giants to harvest the creativity of thousands of game developers, from big third party studios to microenterprises, all around the world. The global revenues of this industry are about $57 billion, five times the annual additional expenditures necessary to provide basic primary education to every child on the planet.  It is often claimed videogames are "bigger then Hollywood," but while North American sales rival the cinema box office, games lack the film's ancillary streams from advertising, DVD, and cable TV release, though advergaming and DLC sales may change this. Game factory revenues are, however, overtaking those of the music business, and growing faster than those of both film and music. More significantly, games are integrated with film, music, and other media: Spiderman, Saw and The Simpsons become games, Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy, films; EA's Madden games are part of the sports-media nexus; Guitar Hero and Rock Band are the new music platform.
Most of the sales of this "global" media are concentrated in rich planetary consumption zones: North America, Europe, and Japan, with the US still the largest single market; some 53% of Americans, 97% of college students, play; gaming is no longer a youth pastime; and while its testosterone bias has not vanished, it is declining, as online casual gaming and the Wii attract more girls and women.  The diffusion of online cybercafé pay-per-play from South Korea--the most game-intensive culture in the world--to China is opening vast new player populations in Asia. For the majority of the world's inhabitants, and especially the 2 billion who subsist on less than 2 dollars a day, a mint copy of Gears of War, let alone the $400 Xbox 360 on which it plays, remains an unthinkable luxury. But the market in old consoles and computers and mass pirating of game software give games a wider circulation into Latin America, the Middle East, and Southern Asia. Nonetheless, access to the game metaverse remains stratified by wealth, and by energy and Internet infrastructures. A quarter of the world's population lacks electricity. Meanwhile in Second Life--whose parallel universe, though free at the most basic level, is populated by the avatars of Europeans, North American, and Japanese with annual real life incomes of $45,000 or more--the average resident uses about 1,752 kilowatts of electricity a year, as much as an average Brazilian, and generates CO2 emissions equivalent to a 2,300 mile journey in an SUV.  Virtual play is thus firmly embedded in Empire's unequal, destructive consumption of global resources.
In production, too, situating games in Empire shatters myths. For millions of young men (and many aging ones, and some women) from Shanghai to Montreal, a job making virtual games seems employment nirvana--a promise of being paid to play. And it is true that for designers, programmers, and producers the industry offers creative, well paid work involving the most positive possibilities of "immaterial labour" : scientific know-how, hi-tech proficiency, cultural creativity, and workplace cooperation. But just as game development studios typify the gloss of new media labour they also expose its dark side. The slogan of work-as-fun legitimates the perpetual "crunch-time" culture whose revelation in 2004 by the disenchanted partner of a programmer, EA Spouse, unleashed an industry wide scandal. Game studios, small and large, stratify permanent employees and a low-paid, precarious testers and contract workers. Behind these well-known studio labour flashpoints, however, lies the architecture of the digital play business organized, as part of Empire, in a "global hierarchy of production." 
What enables publishers to extract extreme hours is not only internalization of responsibility, but the threat of outsourcing. The global game factory, no longer constrained to a 'core,' comprises an increasingly distributed meshwork of satellite offices, subsidiary studios and contracted out work. A design team conceives a new game sipping espresso on the mountain vista patios of EA's Vancouver studio, then sends elements of the game's design to a World-Bank-funded company, Glass Egg, in Ho Chi Min City, where programmers earn about $4000 annually, rather than $60,000 in Canada; Lyon-based Infogrames (current owner of Atari), negotiating the game rights to Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible, dispatches the graphics work on NPC's to Dhruva, a Bangalore studio, paying a fraction of North American rates, shrewdly cushioning itself (but not its Indian workers) when the deal turns sour.
Labour in such peripheral studios is far closer to the all-too material processes indispensable to the game factory, though far less glamorous, and less visible, than studio work. The abyssal depths of this ladder were glimpsed in the coltan scandal of 2000. Prices for columbite tantalite, a rare mineral vital for cell phones, computers and game consoles were driven to extreme heights by the launch of the PS2, setting off a frenzy of resource grabs on the open pit, child-labour mines of the Eastern Congo by the armies fighting Central Africa's ongoing multi-million death war. But the low-cost, no-care human infrastructure of the play industry has many other rungs: maquiladora plants where hand-helds are made up by nimble-fingered female labor; the regimented electronics assembly lines of South China from which Xbox 360s and PS3's pour; and the toxic e-waste sites of Nigeria and Delhi, where the products of Sony and Nintendo are amongst the most noxious disassembled by subsistence-wage scavengers.
Perhaps the best single demonstration of the game factory's stratified planetary space is, however, the online fantasy game World of Warcraft (WoW). Of the 11.5 million participants of its virtual continent of Azeroth, about 25% play in North America, 20% in Europe and some 55% in Asia, mostly from Chinese cybercafés.  WoW was brought to Beijing and Shanghai by the partnership of its US developer, Blizzard, with Chinese game company The9, at once a neo-colonial penetration and a boost to China's own MMO (Massive Online Game) industry. Where Empire's inequities transform WoW, however, is via virtual trading. A "ludocapitalism"  by which virtual goods or skills exchange for real currencies generates an interdependence between North American players and as many as half a million planetary poor country "gold farmers," the majority probably in China, for whom looting monsters round the clock is an alternative to labour on the strike-swept assembly lines of the Pearl River cranking out the very computers on which WoW is played world-wide. Such migrant avatar-service work  at once sustains the gaming habit of time-stressed North Americans, incurs their racist antipathy for "ruining the game", and is repressed by Blizzard to control the property rights to its game world. It thus typifies the bipolarity of "Chimerica,"  the current US-China axis of Empire, virtually replicating a relation where one side is all play, the other all work. Such are the biopolitical forces mobilized in the global game factory.
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