Redartifice takes a look at some recent novels that have used games as part of the plot
For a medium that’s been in popular culture for 20 years or so, there’s been surprisingly few novels about games as they stand. There’s been quite a few set in game worlds (such as StarCraft tie ins) and a few that deal with games or online stuff in the future, but only a couple that deal with modern games and the culture that surrounds them.
Two novels released in the last few years have stood out as dealing with modern games. Cory Doctorow’s 2010 young adult novel For The Win, and Neal Stephenson’s techno-thriller REAMDE. Both deal with MMOs, and both feature MMOs and especially gold farmers as part of the plot.
For the uninitiated, a gold farmer is a player in an MMO that focuses on the aggregation of valuable in game items and currency that are then sold for real cash on grey markets to players that either don’t have the time or don’t want to put in the effort to earn it themselves. Usually based in third world countries, gold farmers can literally make money for playing games but are often tied to other less salubrious activities.
I’ll talk about REAMDE first. The titular REAMDE is in fact a computer virus, a virus sent to your computer that encrypts your hard drive and holds it to ransom. The story really centres around ‘Dodge’ Forthrast, a Marijuana smuggler turned video game billionaire. Dodge made his billions through an MMO called the T’Rain, which explicitly encourages in-game crafting and goldfarming. When his niece Zula’s boyfriend screws up a deal with the Russian mafia to sell a database of stolen credit cards, Zula is taken hostage as the mafia try to reclaim their lost file. It turns out that the database has fallen victim to Reamde, with the encryptors demanding a payment in T’Rain gold which they can convert to real-world cash. The mob, decidedly unhappy about this, decide to track down the gold farming gang that they’ve fallen victim to, dragging Zula with them to Xiamen, China with Dodge trying to track them down. The plot then includes such diverse characters as an ex-Spetsnaz officer, a Hungarian IT geek, a Black Welsh terrorist and the gold-farming extortionist Marlon.
While the plot takes a left turn away from the MMO hijinks, it’s an interesting treatment of the topic matter. In setting up T’Rain, Stephenson draws on many current games including WoW (of course) and Minecraft to make a game I’d like to play. Fantasy fans will also probably appreciate the friction between the two creators of T’Rain’s lore- one a trashy doorstop fantasy writer, the other a Tolkienesque scholar.
Stephenson also acknowledges what I’m sure that many MMO developers know in their hearts- that there’ll be no stopping gold farmers so you may as well build the practice into the game’s mechanics. Marlon the gold-farmer/extortionist is presented pretty much as a guy trying to make a living, and his means of doing so being just a guy exploiting his natural talents. Gold farming is presented pretty much as just a means to an end, with the hacker gang making enough to get by but not a great living.
For The Win, then, could almost be seen as what happens to these gangs of goldfarmers 10 years later. Matthew Fong, a gold farmer in Shenzen, is an expert at speed running and looting a dungeon in the MMO Svartalfheim Warriors, but he’s forced to give 60% of his earnings to a local gang boss who’s also taking advantage of a number of other local boys. In Mumbai, a girl from remote village has a natural talent for Mecha games, earning the nickname General Robotwallah. She begins to work for a man named Banerjee, who uses her to disrupt the in-game operations of other gold farming gangs. Finally, in Los Angeles, a high school runaway works as an in-game moderator for a Coca Cola owned MMO. The plot then follows the interaction between these parties, as the all come into contact with efforts to unionise workers within online games and how traditional labour movements can teach relevant lessons to people working in entirely virtual economies.
Doctorow has a very specific political point that he’s trying to make, but by using online gamers as heroes he’s very specifically saying that goldfarming is as legitimate a job as anything. Indeed, that argument is had with more traditional unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World over the course of the book. The Goldfarmers repeat the same pattern as workers everywhere, dealing with corrupt or insensitive managers and coming to the realisation that they control the means of production. Doctorow also well captures the feel and dialogue of online gamers, with their in-game slang and, at the hardcore end, slavish devotion to tactics and numbers. While the idea that chunks of the economy in the future will be indexed to in-game items is a stretch, the struggle between labourers and corporations is a very old tale.
Overall, these two novels probably capture a specific part of gaming culture better than many others, although you may notice some parts of the actual games described that are a little odd. In using goldfarmers specifically, both Stephenson and Doctorow are looking forward at what one day could be an even bigger industry, and some of the challenges and issues that workers in future economies could face. Given these two authors are at the cutting edge of tech and sci-fi, I imagine we’ll see more diverse treatments of games and gamers in books going forward.
For The Win is available as a free eBook from Doctorow’s website, www.craphound.com