Some work is born digital: from gold farmers to game masters

June 1st, 2010 by

Much has been said about the influence of information technology on work, and yet little of it has turned out to be overstated. The introduction of personal computers and local area networks to offices around the developed world in the late 1970s started a revolution in processes, which later translated to clear and measurable advances in productivity. The rapid adoption of the Internet since the 1990s has similarly had a profound influence on the way work is organized and conducted. This influence continues today: the latest step is a trend towards crowdsourcing, or digitizing existing tasks such as design and development, and distributing them to a global labor pool via the Internet.

One aspect of the digitization of work has received less attention than it perhaps deserves. This aspect is the emergence of work that is “born digital”. “Born digital” is a term originally used to denote products such as books and music that are created directly in digital form, as opposed to being digitized versions of analogue materials. It has also been applied to the generations of consumers who have grown up with digital technology around them. Both are now so ubiquitous that they are hardly worth mentioning. But what is less recognized is that there is now also an increasing variety of work tasks that are born digital: not just digitally enhanced versions of existing office and production tasks, but tasks that never even existed before the penetration of ICT (information and communication technology) into everyday life.

Digital agriculture and other shady bits
Perhaps the most extreme example of born-digital work is gold farming: harvesting valuable assets inside a massively-multiplayer online game and selling them for real money. A similar service is powerleveling, which involves charging a fee for playing another player’s character, so that the character gains experience points. Another is boosting, which refers to making one’s own character act as a sort of bodyguard to another player’s character. Professor Richard Heeks estimates that at one point these tasks provided employment to as many as 400,000 individuals around the world. Every aspect of this work is born digital: it is conducted entirely through digital channels, its fruits are digital, and the demand for it arises from people’s fascination with digital environments and the goals and objectives they provide. In sci-fi author Cory Doctorow’s new novel, gold farmers even organize into labor unions and become a force in digital politics.

Still, gold farming and its neighboring industries are for a large part a grey-market activity, often (though not always) taking place against the wishes of the game operator. Other grey – if not outright black – market born-digital tasks include defeating tests designed to prevent spam and resource overuse (CAPTCHAs), and linking/liking/friending individuals and companies in order to enhance their standings in rankings and search engine results. The latter type of work is even offered on Amazon Mechanical Turk, one of the earliest crowdsourcing platforms. The active job market for such tasks reflects the fact that they can be seriously valuable to many entities in the digital economy. But the reason why we consider them grey-market is because they can simultaneously destroy value for other actors in the network.

Heroes of digital labor
How about born-digital work that represents an unambiguously positive contribution to society? There are many kinds of it: from helping to organize the ever-growing mountains of information into more accessible forms through tagging and labeling, to providing help and advice to the millions entering the new digital arenas where we increasingly work and socialize. For example, the biggest expense category in operating World of Warcraft, an online game with 11 million subscribers, is providing customer support to the players. There is now an entirely new global profession, known as Game Masters, who specialize in helping people with stuck characters, missing items and abusive co-players in virtual game worlds. This, if anything, is work born digital!

Studies of time-use indicate that the time spent with digital media continues to grow even in countries where it is already high. As we think about the possible future impact of increasing ICT adoption on work and society in general, it makes sense to consider not only how existing processes will change because of our engagement with digital environments, but also what new phenomena will arise from it. Born-digital work and born-digital consumption, or virtual consumption, are two such phenomena that have taken off on a massive scale.

Vili is a guest blogger at our blog. He is an economic sociologist based at the University of Tokyo. Since 2004, Vili has been conducting pioneering research on virtual goods, currencies and economies in collaboration with major online game publishers.