Its one thing when people outsource the most painful work they can think of to sweatshop labor overseas. While there are moral issues involved in using prison labor to toil for free to make geegaws Wal-Mart can sell, the rationale of the sweatshop labors buyers is understandable from the strictly “me first” point of view.
But wheres the logic of outsourcing pleasure to sweatshops?
According to a recent story from the International Herald Tribune, Americans are paying Chinese sweatshop labor to … play video games for them.
Theres a logic to that as well, however twisted; but there are two reasons the phenomenon is important, and one directly affects IT work.
For those of you fortunate enough to be ignorant of “gold farming,” it consists primarily of third-worlders laboring in rural virtual sweatshops, plugged in as peasants in character-based games such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft. Their job is to simply exist in the virtual world, and perform small tasks that will help them build up credit or “gold,” or whatever currency is internal to the game.
Their employers can then sell this virtual gold to other players for real money. They can also create entire characters, build them up with specific characteristics or items with magical powers, and sell them to other players as well, mostly Americans.
This means that people are willing to pay other people to play games for them, but also means the American buyer views playing games not as fun, but as drudgery (like mowing the lawn or scraping the paint off the house or debugging that circa-1978 Fortran code so it works with the new ERP system tweaks).
Pleasure outsourcers are not uncommon. There is, apparently, so much demand for this “service” that there are hundreds of factories producing game currency to resell, and some of these sweatshops have as many as 300 computers hosting workers to feed the consumer demand.
Factories have beds on-site so workers dont have to leave between shifts. One gaming worker in the International Herald Tribune story said he works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He makes about $3 an hour, but most make under 25 cents an hour.
The “industry” has gotten so big that third parties are setting up operations to act as broker-bankers to skim part of the pelf flowing from buyer to seller.
As mentioned above, the offshoring of pleasure, unhinged as it seems, is actually an important trend worth noting for two reasons:
First, this says a lot about the character of the buyers.
Its not specifically a moral issue; most Americans experience no moral qualm about buying slave-made or sweatshop-made goods if the product is something they feel they want.
The little turkey-thermometer character indicator thats popped up here is that some individuals so desperately feel the need to own and display “success” that they are willing to spend money to achieve a fake one.
Were not talking about something as significant as lying about military decorations or job history or college awards. Were talking about a video game.
Widespread gross personal inadequacy feeds this kink and drives people to behave in ways that undermine even their own chances to experience the pleasure of learning the games system or getting the adrenaline jolt or even the satisfaction of winning their own “battles.”
Its a bit like the Roman Coliseum, where all the excitement is vicarious, lived through others. Maybe, as Robin Williams once said about cocaine use, “Its Gods way of telling you you have too much money,” but more likely the drive to outsource recreation is the sign of neurotics under stress.
Why Gold Farming Portends
Bad Things for IT”>
The second reason this trend is worth understanding is that the offshoring of computer-related activity has moved from the corporate to the personal.
Its individuals who are contracting out their keyboarding, pointing and other interactions to China.
And once this market is vibrant (it may already have reached this point), how long can it be before developers, data entry specialists and other IT people start contracting out the content of their actual paid jobs to sweatshop labor, merely acting as broker-bankers and perhaps (if were lucky) QC agents to tune it or mark it as their own, like a dog marking a fire hydrant?
The offshoring of pleasure indicates that the sellers will adapt quickly to whatever buyers feel they want, so there wont be constraint on the seller side.
And as one of my bosses, Sean Gallagher, pointed out to me, there was a Doonesbury cartoon a couple of years ago that portrayed individual IT employees secretly offshoring their actual work—some people may already be running with this model.
Would that be a bad thing?
Probably. On the good side, it would require initiative and entrepreneurial creativity to build and maintain such an offshore relationship, and those aptitudes are useful if you can harness them for your departments purposes.
But, as Ive written before, outsourcing functions to outside the building the end users work in is the death of high-quality potential.
If people actually farm out their work surreptitiously (and the trend makes the attempt, at least, seem inevitable), IT management will lose both some quality and the ability to affect it. It could become a management hassle of major proportions.
In a culture where surreptitious outsourcing of pleasure is becoming common, the surreptitious outsourcing of drudgery seems almost inescapable.
Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, “Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader.” Jeffs columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.