China's newest sweatshops

What was science fiction in Salon a year ago is now front page New York Times news.

Published December 9, 2005 5:01PM (EST)

Hard to miss this morning's front page New York Times article on the outsourcing of online role-playing-game labor to China. The worldwide demand for magical items and fully developed characters is so great that people will play real money for them, which has led to offshore operations in which latter-day sweatshoop coolies plug away at the games all day so as to accumulate things to sell.

It's a great story, lending itself to all kinds of philosophizing about virtual economies. And it's something worth paying a lot more attention to. Game playing in Asia is occuring on a vast scale -- the kind of scale, in fact, one venture capitalist told me a few months ago, that has the potential to push serious innovation in technology development. The first time I realized that Asian countries were beginning to seriously get online was back in the late 90s, when a press release from Blizzard (the gaming studio that makes "World of Warcraft") made much of how popular "Starcraft" was in South Korea.

There's a lot to think about there, but all I want to point out right now is that almost exactly a year ago, the amazing Cory Doctorow published a short story in Salon, "Anda's Game" that captured in prescient detail the essence of what the Times is reporting today. A chilling tale of virtual exploitation (with doses of virtual heroism thrown in ) Doctorow's story was so good author Michael Chabon chose it for his "The Best American Short Stories 2005." Read it and marvel, as I do nearly every day, how here in the 21st century, science fiction and reality are never more than a hair's breadth apart.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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