A conversation with Cory Doctorow plunges into the matter at hand so quickly that it's almost impossible not to imagine yourself falling through an internet-era rabbit hole of pop culture and technology. Doctorow is all about synthesizing ideas and spitting them out in as accessible a fashion as possible, and the ground he manages to cover in a single stride can be mind-boggling; he's a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger, father, gamer ... A former WoW player and husband of gaming standout Alice Taylor (also previously profiled here in 15 Minutes of Fame), he's widely known as the co-editor of Boing Boing and author of the bestselling young adult novel Little Brother.
Doctorow's latest young adult novel, For the Win, pries open the seams of the shady scene behind MMO gold farming. Its young protagonists are gold farmers and gamers themselves. Doctorow has woven his own experience and sensibilities with focused research to outline a world of gold farming that sprawls far beyond the lines of cartoon-image gold farmers that most of us have painted in our heads. We chatted by phone with Doctorow for this lengthy conversation on gold farming and game economies, plus a companion piece at our sister publication Massively.com on gaming culture and his recent fiction.
15 Minutes of Fame: Gamers are so tired of reading articles about gaming written by some academic who's never played a game in his or her life. You bring a whole different spin to For the Win, as someone with that personal experience.
Cory Doctorow: And without a university degree!
You've been to plenty, from what I gather ...
Yeah, I just never finished any of them.
Now, didn't you play WoW for a time on Linux?
I did. That was kind of my job for a while, was playing WoW. Being a science fiction writer's cool. When I was writing books about Disney World, my job was to go to Disney World. When I was writing a book about MMOGs, my job was to play MMOGs. So that was pretty fun.
So how long has it been since you've played?
Oh, I haven't played ... I finished the book almost a year ago, and I probably stopped playing three months before I finished the book. So it's been more than a year.
I understand that you talked with a lot of gold farmers themselves during your research for the book, is that right?
That's right, yes. I was able to work with contacts I had to talk to people who owned gold farms, and some people who worked in gold farms, and then a lot of people who'd studied gold farms and had spent time in different ones all around the country. One of the things that I rapidly learned about gold farms is that if you ask five different people who have studied them or worked in them or owned them to describe how gold farms work, you'll get five different answers. I couldn't figure this out at first; it wasn't like I thought they were lying. And what I realized was that because it's not an organized industry, because it's against the rules to gold farm, nobody knows how gold farmers do it. So every gold farm sort of works out their own way of doing it. They invent their own techniques. They invent their own economics. They invent their own whatever, right?
We talk about gold farming as though it's a monolithic activity, but it's actually lots and lots and lots of fairly dissimilar activities, from what I can work out.
It seems you were looking specifically at gold farming as it pertains to going into instances and actually playing the game rather than -- I think most WoW players consider gold farming to be things like repetitive farming in a non-instanced area.
I considered both; the book's really about both kinds, and I talked to people who did both. The distinction that I would draw is not between instanced and non-instanced play but between bots and humans. I think from a security analysis perspective, you can think of gold farming as what happens when it becomes cheaper to actually hire people to play the game than it is to hire programmers to write bots. And viewed in that way, it's a kind of predictable outcome. If you take enough countermeasures to stop bots, eventually, it'll be cheaper to hire people.
Are the gold farmers you spoke with actual lovers of gaming, then, or are they just looking for an easy buck?
Certainly one of the clichés of gold farming is you play for 16 hours for your job and then you play another four hours to unwind. I think that's really true. There probably are players who play just because it's a job, but I don't think that's the signal character of a gold farmer. I guess what I would say is just like regular players, there are some players who play because they really enjoy it, and then there are some players who play because they just kind of can't stop -- they don't want to abandon their investment, that's where all their friends are, whatever. And they sit down at their keyboard every night and they think, "Well, there's a million other things I could be doing," but they end up playing anyway. Just like players who aren't gold farmers, there are gold farmers who would rather not be playing the game. But I'd stipulate that there are players who would rather not be playing the game.
The best example of this isn't Warcraft, you know, it's in FarmVille. I talked to some neuroscientists, too, when I was working on this book, about fun and reward and kind of what happens when we play games. One of the things that neuroscientists talk about is there being two different reward systems. One is what they call the limbic system. You can think of that as the autonomous nervous system, maybe what your body wants when you say, "My brain craves caffeine." That's what we're talking about when we're talking about the limbic system. And then there's the hedonic system, which is things like, "I get a warm glow when I think about my daughter lying peacefully in bed."
Normally, those two things go together. There's usually some physical thing and some mental thing that kind of coincide and they feel good together. Sometimes, they are separated by time. Like I think that grinding is pretty limbic. I don't think that anyone goes, "Huh! This grinding was really fun. I wish I could do some more!" But I think that there are some hedonic pleasures that you get from grinding after the fact like, "This quest is more epic because the items that I'm using to go on it I got through a lot of really drudgy, not-very-fun work. " The absence of fun before makes the presence of fun sharper. It's kind of like it doesn't feel good to hit your head against a wall, but it does feel good to stop.
And I think that FarmVille's really interesting in that FarmVille seems to have captured a purely limbic reward without any hedonic. It's kind of like compulsive slot machine playing or smoking or any of those other things where we're like, "God, I wish I could stop doing this," but you can't really stop doing it. It just seems to be just totally limbic. I think that it's actually brave new turf in game design in that someone's finally figured out how to make a game that gives you no actual pleasure – but you can't stop playing. (laughter)
That's why I talked about all this limbic stuff, because actually I think it isn't. If there is fun in it -- and it's not always fun, I hasten to add; there are lots of times it's merely compelling, it's not fun at all -- but when it is fun, it's often fun because you stopped doing it. Because the game rewarded you.
The reward of doing something that is fun is sweeter when it comes after a period during which you could stop doing something that wasn't fun. A hot dinner's better after a long walk in the freezing rain. And so you might as well ask, "If we all know that dinner tastes better after a long walk in the freezing rain, why don't we walk home when there's freezing rain out? Why do we call taxis?" We do it because although we know you can make the dinner more delicious by enduring privation on your way to it, it's kind of hard to work up an appetite for privation itself.
I'm curious about the specific games you used in the book. Were you looking for representations of particular types or genres of games? How did you choose those?
It wasn't nearly so premeditated. Usually what happened was, I would come to a bit of the book where I would have to list off some game titles, you know: "Oh, now he was overseeing four games: X, Y, Z and Z-Prime." And so I'd have to come up with four game titles, and I'd just kind of come up with four absurd ones. And then later on, I'd have to show a scene in which someone was playing the game. In between those two moments, my subconscious would be thinking of what that game might mean. So it was kind of like playing a game with myself, a mental game.
I'm intrigued, too, with the idea of including the Mechanical Turks in the GMing and the gaming tasks.
I thought that was a pretty safe bet, given that GMs are already kind of outsourced, poorly paid, bring-them-in-when-you-need-them, lay-them-off-when-you-don't, semi-skilled labor who often feel lucky to be having a job at all because they love the game so much -- a little like AOL moderators in the old days. I thought it was a pretty safe bet that they would find a way to make them even more disposable.
Yeah. I read a really interesting essay – I wish I could remember who wrote it; I think Raph Koster linked to it -- about heroism and tabletop RPGs. In some tabletop RPGs, if you rolled like two natural 20s, kind of any hit would be fatal. Or in some of them, the DM would get some discretion to decide whether or not some heroic, really improbable firing an arrow at the dragon as it flies overhead, just happening to hit the one soft spot in its armor kind of thing, (would work). It made it fun and plausible for you, at a moment in which you were totally overrun, to give that one Hail Mary shot, and almost always it just wouldn't come to anything and your character would die. But every now and again, the fates or the DM would smile on you, and you would get these really heroic, epic victories.
You can't really do that programmatically -- at least, no one's figured out how to do it convincingly, programmatically. I guess the closest would be the Hail Mary AI that underlies the Left 4 Dead weapons-dropper, that figures out when you're most desperate and really need weapons and then slightly increases your chance of getting like a BFG and a health kit. If you've ever seen it happen, it's breathtaking. You've got these really intense games that are going really badly for the player-characters, and in most games, that's the point at which the game would become least interesting, because it's like, "OK, now I know what's going to happen; it's a foregone conclusion when your health has dropped below a certain level, you're out of ammo, there's the zombies ... It's game over." And that's the moment at which the Hail Mary AI gives you a BFG. That's pretty cool. It makes your heart leap. And so I think that giving human beings some judgment, having some things that are nonprogrammatic, nondeterministic in the game creates a certain kind of drama that you can only get that way.
Much more fun that way, hmm?
Yeah. And better art.