For the Win
Book: For the Win. Cory Doctorow. Tor, 2010
In the virtual future, you must organize to survive
At any hour of the day or night, millions of people around the globe are engrossed in multiplayer online games, questing and battling to win virtual “gold,” jewels, and precious artifacts. Meanwhile, others seek to exploit this vast shadow economy, running electronic sweatshops in the world’s poorest countries, where countless “gold farmers,” bound to their work by abusive contracts and physical threats, harvest virtual treasure for their employers to sell to First World gamers who are willing to spend real money to skip straight to higher-level gameplay.
Mala is a brilliant 15-year-old from rural India whose leadership skills in virtual combat have earned her the title of “General Robotwalla.” In Shenzen, heart of China’s industrial boom, Matthew is defying his former bosses to build his own successful gold-farming team. Leonard, who calls himself Wei-Dong, lives in Southern California, but spends his nights fighting virtual battles alongside his buddies in Asia, a world away. All of these young people, and more, will become entangled with the mysterious young woman called Big Sister Nor, who will use her experience, her knowledge of history, and her connections with real-world organizers to build them into a movement that can challenge the status quo.
The ruthless forces arrayed against them are willing to use any means to protect their power—including blackmail, extortion, infiltration, violence, and even murder. To survive, Big Sister’s people must out-think the system. This will lead them to devise a plan to crash the economy of every virtual world at once—a Ponzi scheme combined with a brilliant hack that ends up being the biggest, funnest game of all.
Imbued with the same lively, subversive spirit and thrilling storytelling that made LITTLE BROTHER an international sensation, FOR THE WIN is a prophetic and inspiring call-to-arms for a new generation. (http://craphound.com/ftw/about/)
"Extrapolating from the relatively benign present of massively multi-player online creations like World of Warcraft, the novel imagines a future of exponentially more sophisticated games where three of the world's 20 largest economies are virtual play environments controlled by the Coca-Cola corporation. Within these, vast Third-World labour forces serve the illegal but lucrative market of Western clients willing to pay hard currency for someone else to undertake the grinding labour of winning in-game gold and possessions; a shadowy profession that has come to be known as "gold-farming".
While this may sound like dystopian fantasy, the passages on gold farming come pretty close to reportage. As writers like American author Julian Dibbell, whom Doctorow cites, have witnessed, digital sweatshops really do exist in China and elsewhere. Labourers work long shifts for a pittance, sleeping in dormitories and returning in their spare time to play the very games that are their jobs.
Doctorow's interest is in where all this leads: what the grand lessons, consequences and, above all, actions to be taken are. "The thing that got me starting thinking about this was when American auto jobs started to move to Mexico. The United Auto Workers responded to that with basically racism: those dirty Mexicans have stolen our jobs. Now, the forbears of the auto workers movement saw industrial jobs move from town to town across America as trade unionists took hold, and also move from ethnic group to ethnic group, and their response wasn't to demonise other workers, but to unionise them, to say we all have common cause. It is undeniably hard to go and organize a trade union in Mexico if you are an American. But once you get into videogame labour contexts, everyone is playing in the same virtual world. And they are playing in a world their bosses rarely venture into and have less proficiency in. This, I thought, is a really interesting turn of events."
Where this leads, in the novel, is solidarity, won in the teeth of brutal oppression by an alliance of gamers that spans the Pacific: a disaffected American teenager, Chinese, Indian and Singaporean workers who are literally earning their way out of the slums. Solidarity, here, gains a critical mass when the tightly-knit groups of players begin to realise their collective power, and use it to force the hands of the companies running the actual games by calculatedly wrecking their massively profitable virtual economies.
It's a scenario that Doctorow makes painfully real, skimping on none of the details of slum living in Mumbai, of Chinese factory conditions, or of gang brutality and the potentially lethal consequences of protest. Not for him a digital era that dissolves human relations into a swamp of relativism and unreality. Perhaps the novel's key insight, and its great advantage over so many other tales of cyber-derring-do, is its insistence on the intransigent social and moral realities that lie behind the networks.
These characters are neither post-modern nor post-anything much else; they are not bored, disengaged, ignorant, amoral. They are young people caught up in a global struggle for justice in a manner impossible even two decades ago, thanks to the new transnational space they inhabit.
It's an arena whose unintended effect is to offer its players a crash course in the game-like nature of the political and economic battles waged around them – as well as providing a context within which friendships can grow irrespective of race, nationality, wealth, age, gender or creed. Doctorow's American teenager teaches himself Mandarin in his spare time, the better to play alongside his guild buddies, even while his parents bemoan the uselessness of his gaming habit.
While For the Win doesn't ignore the gulf between a virtual battle and real-life incarceration in the filth of a Chinese jail, it does insist that this divide can be crossed, and that the real people meeting each other and training themselves within virtual arenas can take these skills into other parts of their lives. There's an element of fantasy, of course; but Doctorow insists that there's more than wishful thinking to it. "I think that the physical action is not a rare or an extremely high hurdle to cross. Physical action happens a lot. People do stuff to change their world a lot. Perhaps partly because I grew up in protest politics, it has never seemed odd to me that someone might go out and join a march." (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/manifesto-for-a-virtual-revolution-cyberactivist-cory-doctorows-new-novel-imagines-a-revolt-of-online-slaves-1978233.html)
"Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not a gamer, and have never seen the appeal of gaming. So the world Doctorow describes in this book is utterly foreign to me–although I think I’ve pretty well managed to use contextual cues to get a handle on the basic ideas involved in the plot.
Even though I’d have said a novel about gamers would be near the bottom of my list of interests, I found myself getting caught up in this story in the first few pages of reading. And selling me on a story about gaming makes Doctorow the storytelling equivalent of the guy who can sell a Frigidaire to an Eskimo.
For the Win, like Doctorow’s Young Reader Award winner Little Brother, is a novel aimed primarily at teenage and young adult readers, and it’s quite good from that standpoint. The characters, a collection of teens living in areas ranging from California to China, are sympathetic and engaging. The setting, apparently, is a near future quite similar to that described in Makers: containerships rotting in dock and Chinese factories abandoned because of Peak Oil and a collapse of Western purchasing power, the continued downhill slide of the housing market, relentlessly creeping unemployment and homelessness, and monster storms at sea from global warming.
Despite my lack of interest in gaming, the story hinges on one thing that’s been a central preoccupation of mine for a long time: labor organizing.
The story’s about an attempt, via the “Industrial Workers of the Worldwide Web,” or “Webblies” (when I saw that I thought Cory owed Ken Macleod a beer, and sure enough Ken’s mentioned in the acknowledgements), to organize gold farmers. Gold farmers are people who get paid to play games, working in internet cafes under sweatshop conditions, to earn virtual currencies or advance their characters to higher levels–all so their employers can sell the harvested “gold” or characters to gamers in the West. The people who buy such currencies or characters, as far as I can tell, are something like the rich businessmen who pay to “hunt” caged animals.
The IWWWW, in addition to organizing gold farmers and other Web-based workers, is also fighting to build alliances with manufacturing and textile workers in Shenzhen, Guangdong and Mumbai. The story’s climax is a general strike of gold farmers and factory workers around the world, which meets with uneven success (although the story ends in a hopeful tone).
The central principle involved in the organizing effort is something I’ve been harping on for years: the potential that the network revolution offers for new models of labor struggle. As I’ve argued repeatedly, the kinds of networked resistance described by writers like David Ronfeldt at Rand Corporation are very much like the kinds of “direct action” described in the old Wobbly pamphlet “How to Fire Your Boss“–only on steroids. For example, just consider the implications of the “Streisand Effect” for what the Wobs traditionally called “open mouth sabotage.”
As the characters in For the Win learn, it’s now possible for workers around the world to talk to each other as easily as it used to be for their employers. Can’t you see it? We finally have the same tools as the bosses! For a factory owner, all places are the same, and it’s no difference whether the shirts are sewn here or there, so longas they can be loaded onto a shipping container when it’s done. But now, for us, all places are the same too! We can go anywhere just by sitting down at a computer. For forty years, things have gotten harder and harder for workers–now it’s time to change that.
Speaking of open-mouth sabotage and the Streisand effect, the Webbly campaign finds an indispensible ally in “Jiandi,” whose illegal Factory Girl radio show (podcast with the help of Falun Gong proxies) goes out to a cult following of tens of millions of sweatshop workers every night. Listener feedback comes via comment threads on randomly chosen blogs announced at short notice on the program, with the venue changed as frequently as the police shut each one down. Remember that old quip about the Internet treating censorship as damage and routing around it?
Here’s Jiandi’s impassioned appeal to her listeners on the eve of the general strike:
Sisters, for years now I’ve sat at this mic, talking to you about love and family and dreams and work. So many of us came here looking to get away from poverty, looking to find a decent wage for a decent day’s work, and instead found ourselves beating off perverted bosses, being robbed by marketing schemes, losing our wages and being tossed out into the street when the market shifts.
No more. No more. NO MORE!
No more asking permission to go to the bathroom! No more losing our pay because we get sick! No more lock-ins when the big orders come in. No more overtime without pay. No more burns on our arms and hands from working the rubber-molding machinery–how many of you have the idiotic logo of some stupid company branded into your flesh from an accident that could have been prevented with decent safety clothes?
No more missing eyes. No more lost fingers. No more scalps torn away from a screaming girl’s head as her hair is sucked into some giant machine with the strength of an ox and the brains of an ant. NO MORE!.
Tomorrow, no one works. No one. Sisters, it’s time. If one of you refuses to work, they just fire you and the machines grind on. If you all refuse to work, the machines stop.
If one factory shuts down, they send the police to open it again, soldiers with clubs and guns and gas. If all the factories shut down, there aren’t enough police in the world to open them again.
As cops in Columbia, Missouri have already learned to their grief, we’re now watching Big Brother. One example of this phenomenon in the story is especially priceless. Jiandi and a handfull of IWWWW organizers abandon a safe house just ahead of the Chinese police, leaving a hidden camera to capture them tossing the house. The footage is streamed online to many millions of viewers, with real-time annotations of the value of property destroyed added on-screen–not to mention the drawing of cartoon moustaches and eye-patches on the police.
When the Chinese men took out their dicks and began to piss on the wreckage, he leapt to his trackpad, circled the members in question, drew arrows pointing to them, and wrote “TINY!” in three languages before they’d finished.
They watched as one of the policemen answered his phone, listened in as he said, “Hello?” and “What?” and “Where?” and then “Here?” “Here?” feeling around the place where the wall met the ceiling, until he found the video camera. The look on his face–a mixture of horror and fury–as he disconnected it was priceless.
As I said before, the strike achieves only mixed results. And as I also said, the story ends in a note of optimism. The strikes are defeated in China, but strikers achieve modest collective bargaining rights in India (for manufacturing, dock and transport workers as well as Web-based) and the United States.
The mood is captured perfectly by this statement from Big Sister Nor, the founder and leader of the Webblies, at the climax of the general strike:
Comrades, comrades. This is the moment, the one we planned for. We’ve been hurt. Our friends have been hurt. More will be hurt when this is over.
But people like us get hurt every single day. We get caught in machines, we inhale poison vapors, we are beaten or drugged or raped. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget what we go through, what we’ve been through. We’re going to fight this battle with everything we have, and we will probably lose. But then we will fight it again, and we will lose a little less, for this battle will win us many supporters. And then we’ll lose again. And again. And we will fight on. Because as hard as it is to win by fighting, it’s impossible to win by doing nothing." (http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/cory-doctorow-for-the-win-3/2010/05/21)