Previous post on this panel: Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM
Art goes politics, the first panel of Positions in Flux, discussed how/whether media art has the potential to contribute to global and local problems such as religious and territorial conflicts, environmental or social crisis.
One of the three artists invited to participate to the discussion is Wafaa Bilal. Born in Iraq, Bilal gained worldwide fame in 2007 with his performance Domestic Tension (aka. Shoot an Iraqi) which enabled web users around the world to control a paintball gun and shoot at him 24 hours a day. For a whole month. His works are being exhibited and discussed internationally and he is currently Assistant Arts Professor at Tisch School of Arts, NYU.
The artist presentation was articulated around his artworks:
How can artists today make images mean something, stimulate people and provoke them? Problems that political art face: disengagement of the issue and tendency of some artists to express the issues at stake through aesthetic pain rather than aesthetic pleasure. Bilal grew up in an oppressed society and didn't have the leisure to meditate on aesthetic alone. He therefore works with both aesthetic pain and aesthetic pleasure.
On May 4, 2007, Bilal set up his living and working quarters in a Chicago art gallery to perform Domestic Tension - Shoot an Iraqi. The project was a way for him to deal with the grief over the death of his brother in his hometown back in 2004. Bilal realized that he lives a comfortable life in the USA while his family is still in Iraq. Americans have been relatively shielded of the pain and suffering people experience in Iraq in their name. What kind of ethical consequence would seeing the consequences of war trigger? Would it humanize the issue? How can an artist go beyond a mere street protest (which alienates people most of the time anyway)?
Bilal found out that internet enables an artist to enter the safety zone of people's house whether they like it or not. Domestic Tension ended up exposing more complex issues than the artist had imagined at first. It was also a bigger success than he had hoped for. By the end of the one month performance in the gallery, the Domestic Tension website had received 80 million hits. The results of the work were both healing and disturbing for him. Some took control of the paintball gun in a very aggressive way, hacking the system so that the gun would shoot non-stop but by day 21, Bilal noticed that the gun was going right and left, not aiming at him. It turned out that a group of 39 people had united force to prevent people from shooting at the artist. They called themselves 'the virtual human shield.'
On day 14 of Domestic Tension, a link to the project was posted on Digg.com and Bilal was bombarded non stop, he couldn't fill the paintball fast enough to keep up with the demand.
The themes Domestic Tension explored:
Domestic Tension embedded the horror in the experience and allowed webusers to participate. People invested their own narrative and integrated the one of the artist.
After Domestic Tension
In 2008, while he was in residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Wafaa created Dog or Iraqi, asking people to vote who -- a dog named "Buddy," or an Iraqi, himself -- would be submitted to waterboarding, a form of torture that consists in immobilizing the victim and pouring water into the breathing passages to have them experience drowning. PETA obviously went mad about the idea that a dog would be harmed in the project, they were quite undisturbed by the fate of the Iraqi. Bilal lost to the dog and was submitted to waterboarding.
The next project was Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi, a modified version of the first person shooter video game Quest for Bush, itself a "hacked" version of the commercial video game Quest for Saddam. In Bilal's version the artist inserted his personal narrative by casting himself as a suicide bomber who gets sent on a mission to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was intrigued by the idea that a terrorist organization had released a free game to recruit people. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had to cancel the show after governmental pressures. At the time, the College Republicans called the RPI's Arts department "a safe haven for terrorists" on their blog. A second exhibition of the project had to be shut down due to the fact that the gallery didn't comply with some regulation about the size of its doors.
The objectives of the game were many:
For Bilal, new media art and interactivity presuppose the active involvement of a public whose function was once limited to viewing only. If the audience takes an interest in the work, they are more likely to engage in a dialogue that might, in the best cases, be revolutionary.
I would, once again, like to recommend Waffa Bilal's book Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun to get to know more about his experience and art work. Previously: A few words with Wafaa Bilal and When interactive art becomes bored with you.
Spaces showing and/or supporting contemporary art which engages with digital and electronic media have started to pop up all over Europe. Very. Slowly.
[plug.in] is one of them but i see at least two reasons that makes [plug.in] stand out from the thin crowd of media art spaces.
First, the Basel gallery exists for much longer than most (it opened in 2000). Second, and more interestingly, its programme is one of the most appealing i've ever seen in the field. [plug.in] exhibits and often commissions new internet, sound, interactive and software art; organizes events on media art and digital culture; offers visitor a library and a bar.
So far i had been following their programme through the newsletter, but when i read that [plug.in] was hosting the first solo exhibition in Europe of Tokyo-based artists Exonemo, i decided it was high time to go up North and visit the gallery.
The main piece is an installation which unfolds over two floors:
UN-DEAD-LINK explores questions of digitized and symbolized death between the physical and virtual world. The audience can see, feel and hear the effects that a symbolic death in a computer game can have in the physical exhibition space.
You're welcome in the gallery by a bunch of objects the artists found on flea markets in Basel. An old sewing machine, a piano, reading lamps, a paper shredder on top of a mountain of paper ribbons, a turntable with a plastic dog sleeping on a spinning disk, an old recorder playing crap music, etc. Each of them is animated by an invisible actor.
The explanation lurks downstairs in a dark room. There, soldiers on a screen do what they are supposed to do: they run after each other, they shoot and sometimes they kill. Each time one of them is killed, its death is given an almost tangible echo upstairs by one of the devices: more paper is shred, a light goes on, the sewing machine makes a few stitches. When visitors push the red button in front of the screen, all the avatars die and upstairs every single device seem to 'scream.'
Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa from Exonemo modified the game Half-Life2 and connected the mod to the piano upstairs. The electrical objects are connected by midi/dmx (protocol) with custom devices.
The work is extremely uncanny: Seeing and hearing the 'consequences' of a virtual death in the real world gives them a sinister weight. It's more disturbing then seeing a real war massacre on television, probably because today tv death seems almost as virtual as the death of an avatar.
[plug.in] is also showing DanmatsuMouse, a sort of geeky snuff movie in which computer mouses (or should i write 'computer mice'?) are happily destroyed using all sorts of tools on hand: the mouse gets fried in a pan, another one is swirled and crushed in a blender, etc. But something subsists beyond the death of the plastic mouse: its cadaver (a couple of tortured mice were exhibited in the gallery) and the cursor, or rather the data. The motions of the mouse and the cursor were recorded simultaneously by a video camera and a computer programme.
A DVD, available in the gallery space (did i mention that they also have a shop selling artists' editions and electronic gadgets), allows you to play back the sinister event: the movie of the mouse murder unfolds in parallel with the movements of its cursor that takes over the ones of the cursor on your own desktop.
exonemo - UN-DEAD-LINK is on view until September 14 at [plug.in] in Basel, Switzerland.
Previously on exonemo channel: Interview with Exonemo, MobLab presentation - Transmediale, Origami bus pattern, their installation at Synthetic Times, Ryota Kuwakubo, exonemo and ressentiment in Liverpool, etc.
You might remember that a year ago Marc Owens designed the Avatar Machine, a system which replicates the aesthetics and visuals of third person gaming, allowing the user to view themselves as a virtual character in real space via a head mounted interface.
A real life manifestation of that practice, the Virtual Transgender Suit replicates the aesthetics of the typical virtual female form and catapults them within a real world context. The piece was specifically designed for men to wear in the real world, creating a bridge between real (where cross-dressing is not really socially accepted) and virtual.
Another of Owens' projects, Sabre & Mace - Second Death, was concerned more specifically with the online environment Second Life.
Collaborating with Tony Mullin, he created SABRE & MACE, a company that offers virtual characters the opportunity to experience death as a way to close their user account permanently. The project examines the notion of feeling sentimental toward a virtual character and examines the link between sentimentality and tangibility.
While researching the project, the designers discovered that a great deal of second life residents have multiple avatars, some stay in favour for a long time while others lose their interest. One guy who they spoke to had 14. He said that he used a many of them as platforms for different sides of his real life personality, and for others he invented entirely new fantasy personalities. However he admitted that some of his created avatars had fallen by the wayside and he no longer used them.
The service works as follows: Having discovered the Sabre&Mace site on-line (unfortunately the website had to be taken down after the show) or through one of the virtual adverts in Second Life, the prospective customer teleports to the company headquarters.
There, the client meets a manager who explains the full process and guides him or her through the signing of two contacts. Contract 1 - states that at some point (completely random) in their second life the avatar will be collected by a Sabre & Mace officer and taken back to the headquarters for termination.
Contract 2 is in fact the client's 'Last will and Testament' where he or she outlines how they wish their virtual moneys, land and assests to be distributed once they have been terminated.
The client continues to live their second life until one day, a Sabre & Mace officer appears and informs them that the final proceedings are about to begin. The client is collected and taken to the Sabre & Mace HQ.
The client meets again with the client manager, to discuss the final process. At this point the client reveals their 'account password', which is the means by which the avatar is terminated.
The client is led through the cryogenic chamber, where the virtual physical forms of past clients are stored. Upon arrival at the 'Termination Room', the client is instructed to walk through the 'white noise' door. Once he crosses the threshold of the door his Second Life game crashes, giving a Sabre & Mace member of staff time to change the clients password - effectively terminating the character.
The client's former avatar is immortalised as a golden statue. Information about the avatar can be read on the plaque which sits on the monument. Should the client visit the Sabre & Mace memorial gardens he would see his own statue as well as the monuments of previous clients.
Images courtesy of Marc Owens (except the shot of his works at the RCA show.)
Related stories: Mourning and digital culture.
Born 20 years ago, ISEA, the International Symposium on Electronic Art has the objective of discussing and showcasing creative productions that apply new technologies in interactive and digital media. While i'm spending my last hours in quiet and sweaty Turin, Brisbane-based artist Priscilla Bracks is in Singapore because that's where ISEA takes place this year.
She kindly wrote this report from the main exhibition, AIR (Artists In Residence):
The juried show features 16 works arising out of a 3 month residency each selected artist undertook in Singapore, working collaboratively with local organizations.
Finally, We Hear One Another is a work by Kelly Jaclynn Andres that enables people to experience each other's soundscapes. Collaborating with the Mixed Reality Lab, Kelly made bonnet's fitted with a speaker and an extra 'ear' - a cone at the back of the bonnet that funnels sound to a microphone embedded in the fabric. Signals are transmitted to a speaker in the bonnet of a partner user, via mobile telephone blue tooth. This is a really cute idea that could - for a moment - draw users out of our regular ocular-centric approach to the world (though I would really have like the volume on my speaker to be louder as it was difficult to hear the sounds over the input of my own sonic environment. We can often readily remember things that we see, events that happen, or even the tastes of food, but how often can we recall sounds that we experience, beyond those deliberately injected into the soundscape such as music or words?
Run Silent; Run Deep by Nigel Helyer (UK/Australia) & Daniel Woo (Australia) collaborating with the Marine Mammal Research Laboratory, provides an 'audio portrait' of Singapore - in particular the area around the harbour. The interface of this work enables you to move through a stylized 'map' of the city, listening to sound recordings made using hydrophones in areas corresponding to coloured circles on the map. Surround sound in the installation space, gives the sense of a 3 dimensional map, and hand drawn images laid over the map gives it cartographic feel.
To create DIY GORI: seed_1216976400, Jee Hyun Oh (South Korea) collaborated with the Laboratory of Control and Mechatronics. The work focuses on the open source culture of the internet, and experiments with the idea that 'objects exist as evolving pieces of digital data in cyberspace where they are continually remixed by users.' To create the work, the artist selected the word 'Gori' - which in Koean means 'open hook' or the fastening and loosening of human relationships - and planted it as a 'seed' on the internet by posting the word and details of the project on a wiki. The word was then propagated on various sites. The many instances of its use on web pages was then printed on rolled corrugated for display in the gallery. The visual effect of the card is reminiscent of rolls of paper, and more conventional means of storing information.
Quartet by Tad Ermintano collaborating with HOMEVR at the Institute for Infocomm Research is an interactive quartet of instruments which are played by the audience acting as orchestral conductors. 4 video screens and photo-sensors are mounted above beautifully crafted traditional instruments. An audience member standing in front of the work is seen by photo sensors that trigger the conversion of their movements into sound.
Aurora Consergens (2008) is a collaboration between Hora Cosmin Samoila, Marie Christine Driesen and the Mixed Reality Lab. Gorgeous patterns are created on a video screen from visualizations of electro-magnetic energy given off by audience members wearing head sensing gear. I spent a long time playing with this artwork and found that the patterns do actually change radically, as I thought of different things. I was told that it works better with two people, so I sat with artist Clea Waites and we tried to think of similar things at the same time. The finer patterns apparently come from detecting the brain's alpha waves, and funnily enough thoughts about the beauty of the patterns, and other beautiful things like trees and sex, seemed to generate clear, defined, unusual patterns, which the attendant remarked he had not yet seen generated by other users of the work. At other times patterns ranged from noise to bigger less defined patterns.
There were a couple of works in the show dealing with water as their subject matter. One might be forgiven for thinking that has something to do with the fact that it rains all the time here, and the assumption is that water must therefore, be plentiful. But in truth water is as scarce here in Singapore as it is an many more arid parts of the world. A huge percentage of the water used is recycled back into drinking water, but much of the new water released into the drinking supply, is imported from Malaysia. Whilst there are a few storage reservoirs, Singapore simply does not have enough room for a centralized water catchment area, and tanks are built into apartments (though I have seen it done in Brisbane where I usually live).
The Sourcing Water project by Shiho Fukurara, Georg Tremmel and Yousuke Nagao in collaboration with the Singapore-Delft Water Alliance looks at the ancient practice of dowsing to find water across the island. Dowsing is a practice of using a forked rod (usually wooden) to find underground water. A dowser walks around with the rod which responds by tilting up or down if water is present (in response to magnetic energy). In this work the dowsing rods were enhanced with GPS and motion sensors, with a view to collecting data and creating a map of potential water sources. This map, and other interesting visualizations of data relating to Singapore were presented as a video projected map laid over a three dimensional plinth in the shape of Singapore island. However, the artists were not able to make any findings about the scientific validity of dowsing as they discovered that all maps of Singapore's ground water are 'classified' documents which authorities weren't able to release.
Clea White's The Water Book: An encyclopedia of water, looks at all water's properties both creative and destructive. The artwork is an interactive film installation where words relating to water are projected through a tank of water. This projection changes as people touch the water's surface. The effect is visually beautiful as the light streams through the water and up onto the darkened ceiling above the tank. Even the ripples on the water surface caused by touching can be seen in these reflections, and on a screen projection also in the gallery space. This clever use of light transforms a tank of water - a substance often taken for granted and rarely considered in an aesthetic sense - into a precious object of beauty.
The Eastwood - Real Time Strategy Group (Vladan Joler and Kristian Lukuc) have created another modification of the commercial version of the game Civilization. In this work, Civilization V, game play centres around the contemporary dream story of building a technology company empire. Players choose their company and instead of warriors and generals, employ CEOs and lawyers to build an army to win the war for market-share dominance.
The work critiques the use of affective labour by gaming companies and social networking sites, to produce profit for shareholders without any real benefit to the creator/user. These concepts are brought to the fore in the games various interface options such as Advisors where you can build your company's proficiency in Folksonomy (the art of classifying people into demographics), Viral Marketing, and Love Bombing (heaping love onto new members of a social group ( a technique most often associated with religious cults that is now used increasingly in social networking web forums.
The underlying code and logic of this game is the same as the original commercial version so the underlying strategy remains essentially the same: find the resources in the economy that make you successful. However unlike the original game these resources go beyond the obvious to include resources of the new economy such as loneliness, depression and boredom, which are a key to the popularity of social networking sites. This version was completed just 11 days ago so it's not yet available for download, but I'm told that it will be available from www.eastwood-gropu.com within a week or so.
Another great work in the show is Gendered Strategies for Loitering by Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan. This work features dual video screen images, a game and a sound recording of the artists discussing the differences between women's freedom to loiter in Singapore and Mumbai. I felt the sound recording was actually the best part of this work as the artist's discussion prompted me see a gendered approach to being in public space I had never thought about before. Their basic premise was that in Mumbai whilst men regularly loitered in café's, on the street etc, smoking, chatting and enjoying the act of doing nothing, women were generally denied this pleasure because a woman seen to be doing nothing in public was viewed suspiciously, or worse, as a prostitute. This attitude I think speaks volumes of the objectification of women when a women cannot simply 'hang out' without casting doubt upon her respectability. To be in public, women must be seen to be moving with a purpose. Ie she should have some reason for being there. So if a woman is waiting for a friend on the street, she would stand at a bus stop and not on the street corner, to clearly demonstrate she is waiting for something. The artists contrast this with loitering behaviour in Singapore which is apparently gender neutral. The difference in Singapore they say, is that no-one loiters. Everyone must have a purpose and move about the city in a very defined, well regulated way. Extra cold air pours out of ducts above the entrances to railway stations to discourage loitering at the doors. Little footprints painted on paths direct on which side one should walk. Even foreigners living in the city who have a culture of loitering, do so in regulated way - the Indonesians gathering in City Plaza on a Sunday, the Indian and Tamil constructions workers in Little India on a Sunday. I actually experienced this work on a Sunday and went out to Little India to test the theory. Though the streets were a sea of humanity, I was one of only 4 women I saw walking around Little India that evening - an uncomfortable, but revealing experience.
Together with Erich Berger and Laura Baigorri, Daphne Dragona curated Homo Ludens Ludens, an exhibition about play in contemporary culture and society which runs until September 22 at LABoral, Spain. I've been blogging the exhibition over the past few days but i wanted to end the coverage with a couple of questions to Daphne.
Daphne Dragona is an independent new media arts curator and organiser, based in Athens with a special interest in the game arts field. She was the Programme Curator of Gaming Realities (Medi@terra, International Art and Technology Festival) which took place in Athens in 2006, and the Associate Curator of Gameworld which was hosted in Laboral in 2007. She has been involved as an organiser or as a participant in different new media events and since 2004 she is also collaborating with the International New Media Collective Personal Cinema.
HLL presented 4 different themes: previous art movements which incorporated play in their discourse, play in everyday life, contents which invite to reflect on political and social issues and finally an introspective look on games and video games. Why did you decide to adopt such a broad approach?
Well, truth is that there are much more themes being discussed. We referred to these 4 categories at some point because the need appeared, as it happens for all exhibitions, to speak of a particular kind of structure. But in reality we were against the idea of grouping and categorising. Works can be categorised according to this scheme or some other schemes. The form of the exhibition is quite fluid actually, with no rigid clusters and units. To come back to your question, yes the theme is broad, but the issue of play in our digital times is huge anyway. Naming the event Homo Ludens Ludens was in a way an intro for a broad approach. Huizinga was already talking about the diffusion of play within culture back in the late 30s. We wanted to explore and present how things have changed, flourished and altered since then; to bring in as many aspects as possible through our exhibition and our conference. There have been a lot of misunderstandings regarding play nowadays: for instance, you speak about play and everyone things you refer to videogames, you refer to play and the issue is considered merely joyful, entertaining and lacking content. We wanted to escape from this, to present play's multifaceted character and raise consciousness about it. So, the approach could have been even broader, but maybe then the risk of its good presentation and perception would be higher.
Which strategies did you adopt to have works which have very different backgrounds and characteristics (the interview with Muciunas, the installation levelHead, the Objects of Desire chase, etc.) cohabit and dialog with each other? You and your fellow curators Erich Berger and Laura Baigorri must have met with many challenges when preparing such a big and multi-faceted show. How did you manage to keep your head(s) above the water?
I would not really speak of strategies. Let's say that we located the areas of our interest on one hand, and works we consider interesting and inspiring on the other. We knew that we wanted to have a show that would be playful and critical at the same time. The criterion for all cases of works was not their form, for instance to be game applications as it happens in most game art shows, but rather their playfulness, their ludic mode and the ability to express different situations and notions through it. There were no constraints regarding any types of works - the exhibition was to be explored as a territory, a playground of various contemporary magic circles. This is maybe where the challenge and the difficulty was: trying to avoid usual paths and groupings that exhibitions tend to follow and still aiming to have a perceivable context and content. This is how we came up with dialogues and adjoining of certain works that were implied but not explained or framed. I believe that this kept the flow much smoother and more open.
So this way, for example, Wegman's dogs could go next to Stockburger's Tokyo gamers to show play's omnipresence and utter seriousness; Ludic Society's chase based on the desires of particular objects and Savicic's wifi map of gijon as read by his special corset could be adjoined by a magnified copy of Debord's psychogeographical map of Paris; Klima's pink elephant on the war of Afghanistan could sit next to Sanchez's Atari modification for the civil war of Peru.
Regarding the references to the old movements of the fluxus and the situationists we felt like we ought to include them, not only as a "tribute" to them but also as an additional element for the audience to perceive the contemporary works we present. For instance, it is important to see that certain notions that are presented in this show such as those of the transdisciplinarity, the appropriation, the detournement, the idea of highlighting the importance of everyday life as opposed to art, they all have their roots way back, in important modern movements.
Many of the works on show at HLL demonstrate a keen observation of the rules and mechanisms of commercial games but do you think that the opposite is true? Have you ever noticed any interest from the commercial scene for what artists are doing with the game medium?
My understanding is that they do follow what happens in terms of creativity. The innovations and the approaches that are often introduced by artists and independent creators are of their interest either in terms of design, content or programming. And they do tend to hire artists often as part of their team, which makes sense of course. But on the other hand, judging from my experience, game companies still hesitate to support game art exhibitions, festivals and conferences. The commercial and the independent/artistic scene have not really merged yet. Probably they are not meant to merge, if we take what happened with cinema as an example. Different works and productions attract different audiences. Not a lot of gamers go to game art exhibitions for instance. The audience for these shows is mainly people interested in the arts and the technology. But at the end, it all works perfectly well for the industry as games are assigned new roles and are being accredited new values. This is the tricky point. As Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn had said, how about if the artistic / independent gaming scene at the end becomes the alibi for the commercial one to keep its character intact?
If i'm not wrong, you distinguish play from game. Can you explain us what makes them different from each other?
Yes, we tried to make this distinction visible in Homo Ludens Ludens, although there is no "formal" differentiation between the two terms and there is of course a lot of overlapping. In reality, it is easy to describe games but rather difficult to frame play.
I would say play reflects more the idea, the notion, the vivid and spontaneous basis for the action as well as its relation to fantasy, whereas games are closed systems and environments governed by rules which demand discipline and a constraint space and time. Play is in a way the presupposition for the games that are its expressions and forms.
Play as a notion is much more open and therefore it may even embrace elements that come in opposition with a game's structure. For instance play has no death or end; but games do, otherwise there s no meaning into it. Or think of cheating. While it can destroy a game by breaking its rules, it is still a part, an act of play. On the same line, while any game forms hierarchies, play creates interrelations between them.
It is all up to the play instinct I guess. We can be playful anytime anyplace, not only through games. Games are basically a construction which is made possible because of this playfulness that already exists in any aspect of life.
Nowadays, with the explosion of the videogame industry games have also become a product, a commodity and a subject of control. Accordingly, play became work and life itself started looking more like a complicated game environment. So the question is what happens with the notion of play at such times? This is really interesting: how we have been led from the total invasion of play that the situationists were dreaming of to the gamespace phenomenon Wark describes.
What is your personal relationship with video games? Are you a gamer yourself?
I mostly enjoy following what s happening in the online virtual worlds and trying out practices and applications by the independent and artistic scene. I also do try to keep up with the commercial games popping up but sometimes this is not so easy in terms of time and energy. Generally, however, if you ask me about the last months, I must say that -maybe influenced by homo ludens ludens- I also got carried away and inspired by other types of play; from children's make believe play to play being approached by philosophy as a tool for political change... This practically means that I really liked playing a lot with my 2 year old niece on one hand and reading Agamben and Vaneigem on the other. It was quite a weird combination now that I think about it...
Gold Farmers are young people who earn their living by playing MMORPG games. They acquire ("farm") items of value within a game, usually by carrying out in-game actions repeatedly to maximize gains, sometimes by using a program such as a bot or automatic clicker.
They sell the artificial gold coins and other virtual goods they've harvested to players and/or farming organizations and get "real" money in return. Players from around the world will then use the golden coins to buy better armor, magic spells and other equipments to climb to higher levels or create more powerful characters.
Many companies have attempted to block the use of gold-farming services by specifically stating in their End User License Agreements and Terms of Service that any and all game assets (from the player's characters themselves, to any items that they may be carrying) remain the sole property of the company itself, and taking aggressive action to close the accounts of any that are found to be using gold-farming (or similar) services.
Although there are gold farmers or gold farms in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico, Chinese are by far the most dynamic. There, young players typically work twelve hour shifts, with just a lunch break somewhere in the middle.
There are gold farmers or gold farms in other countries as well, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico. However, they do not approach the scope and scale of the Chinese farm industry.
Ge Jin, a 30-year-old Shanghai native and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego, has shot a Gold Farmers, a documentary that delve into the background and lives of Chinese gold farmers.
Gold farming puts down the mechanisms that govern a universe in which everyone starts at the same level, no matter how rich their parents are, no matter how many degrees they've collected at the university. Players trying to work their way up according to the rules and in all fairness are the ones who get hit hardest by the practice of gold farming.
Watching the documentary, you can't help but feel some compassion for the gold farmers: they have very little free time, they are paid quite poorly to feed the whims of the Western consumer, they have to deal with the ire of a family who doesn't approve of what they do for a living, they must face the hostility of other players as soon as these realize that gold farmers are on their turf, their english is not good enough to enable them to communicate with other players, and they work hard. Don't be fooled, they don't sit there for hours just for the fun, most of their activity is extremely repetitive. In fact they would sometimes end their day at the "factory" by playing a real game in WoW. Just for the fun.
Chinese Gold Farmers Preview video (Ge Jin has uploaded more video previews):
I asked Ge Jin to discuss his documentary for the blog:
First of all, is the video on show at laboral only part of the documentary you are making or is it the full version of it?
I have another 40 min. long version, but this one is complete in itself as a short version.
Gold farmers have the challenging task of constantly navigating between clandestinity and the need to advertise their service. i suspect that finding and getting the "gold farmers" to talk must have been difficult. how did you locate the players and how did you gain their trust?
It is indeed difficult to get into the exclusive "gold farming" circle. But I was lucky to have an old friend in Shanghai who was running gold farms from 2003 to 2005. This friend introduced me to some gold farm owners. But the reason that the gaming workers/gold farmers trusted me was mainly because I treated them with respect. They face discriminations from non-gamers who see them as game addicts who are losers in real life as well as discriminations from gamers who think they care about more about money than gaming itself. I tried to be a good listener for them and they can see I didn't approach them with many assumptions.
How much has the phenomenon evolved since you started working on this documentary in 2005 (it think)?
Yes I started following this phenomenon since 2005. I think the market become much more competitive and the profit margin for gold farmers are much smaller now. Meanwhile, more sophisticated services like power-leveling have become the mainstream of real money trade. Also, the domestic demand for in-game goods in China has risen so much that Chinese gold farmers no longer just work in foreign games.
You are right that I'm not taking a stand. And I try to let the people involved in real money trade to tell their own stories in my documentary. But I think some of my "biases" do make their way into the documentary. For example, I don't really care if real money trade changes the regular gaming experience, I'm more concerned with how people's virtual life and real life affect each other, so you don't hardly hear the game industry's point of view in my documentary.
Is gold farming regarded differently in China than it is in the USA, Europe or Japan for example? Is the practice seen as more acceptable by the public and the government? How much does China try to tax and regulate the business?
Culturally, real money trade is indeed more accepted in China than in other countries. For example, the successful game Legend from Giant. Ltc thrives on incorporating real money trade in game design. Western game companies dare not do so blatantly because many gamers may think the game is not a level playing ground that way. But the Chinese gamers seem to accept this inherent unfairness, as if they see so much injustice in real life that they don't expect the virtual world to be better. The government doesn't seem to have any problem with the gold farming business. It has not figure out a good way to tax virtual trade yet, in some rare cases, some gold farms pay a fixed amount of tax based on very rough estimation of trade volume. There is currently no policy directly regulating this industry. Though there are regulations generally aiming to purify content of games and limit how long people can play online games.
Did your research on gold farming sparkle the interest of Western commercial gaming companies? Asking your help to crack down on farmers? Or asking for your opinion on how to make the most of this new form of economy?
To my surprise, I was contacted by gold selling websites who want to use my website to advertise themselves, by gold buyers who are looking for a steady supplier, and by market researchers who want to measure the supply and demand of gold trade. I wish I could seize such opportunities to make some money for myself. But unfortunately I was occupied by exploring the social implications of this economy.
Thanks Ge Jin!
Another documentary part of Homo Ludens Ludens is the fantastic 8 bit movie.