Doctorow’s For The Win is full of fun ideas

I finished reading Cory Doctorow’s For The Win last night. I wanted to talk a little bit about it, because Doctorow has some ideas about the future of MMO gaming that I found pretty interesting.

If you haven’t heard of it, For The Win is a book about a group of gold farmers and other young people fighting to bring about better working conditions for themselves, and for other ‘invisible’ workers who’re treated terribly and work for tiny wages (notably Chinese factory workers). The book couldn’t be more timely with all the Foxconn suicides in the news these days.

The plot of the book itself was ok, but it wasn’t what had me turning pages. What I was really enjoying was glimpsing the future through Doctorow’s eyes. If a specific date for the happenings in the book was mentioned I missed it, but World of Warcraft is considered ancient history (as described by the ~20 year old characters) so I’m going to guess the year is 2025 or thereabouts. Also a lot of the book takes place in Mumbai & Shenzhen, two places which would be totally foreign to me today, being an untraveled Westerner.

So there are a lot of MMOs running in this future world. Four are mentioned often. One is Mushroom Kingdom, run by Nintendo. The other three are all run by Coca-Cola! Implied but not seen are other games run by companies that we don’t think of as gaming companies today. In the future, as now, gold farming isn’t legal, but there isn’t a lot the companies can do to stop it. There are “Pinkertons” running around in games to kill gold farmers (all worlds seem to be full PvP in the future) but they aren’t paid by the companies normally.

In this way For The Win feels a bit retro. Reminded me of Ultima Online with the PKK guilds trying to maintain order.

Most of the gold farmers work for mobsters stationed in India, China or Indonesia. Farming is big business and the games have gotten so big that there are people who really know nothing about the games but who make a living out of investing in virtual goods. The bosses drive their workers relentlessly at times when a particular item is selling for a lot.

Anyway, it’s a fun read, my biggest problem with it is that it makes gold farming sound fun (I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek). These gold farmers don’t stand around in a field alone killing trash mobs over and over. Instead they farm instances, both for the gold and for items. Generally they work in a PC bang together, shouting back and forth between terminals. They tend to be very good players rather than the rather mindless semi-bots that our real gold farmers seem to be today.

So let’s get to some of the ideas I thought were interesting. First, one of the games is called Zombie Mecha (Mecha Zombie??). In it, players pilot giant robots in a post-zombie apocalypse world. It’s a full-on PVP world with two rival factions, plus the zombies who’re AI controlled. Zombies can’t generally hurt someone in a mech unless it gets damaged or stuck, then they swarm all over it. Tales of battle in Zombie Mecha were really fun and I found myself wanting to play that game!

Second, the games are a lot more ‘complete’ than today’s games are. Most things in-world can be interacted with. Of course the programmers can’t think of everything, so when a player tries to perform an action that there’s no scripting for, the game pulls in a Mechanical Turk to take over. These turks are players who get paid a few cents per interaction. They generally run a bunch of sessions at a time so they’re able to juggle interacting with a bunch of players all at the same time.

I think this is a brilliant idea and one game companies need to incorporate asap. It needn’t be as elaborate as in the book, but imagine if every 50th orc you fought was actually being controlled by a person? How much more interesting could the game become? The person running the orc would have a goal of providing you with an immersive experience, not necessarily beating you. You get a better experience so you keep playing, and someone can make a few dollars while they’re hanging out at home playing games.

The next idea is a technology one. When Coke (in the game) is ready to roll out a new server cluster, they build it in a shipping container. They burn it in at their HQ, then ship it to somewhere very cold, and preferably somewhere near a renewable energy source, like a wind farm or a geo-thermal vent. By using the ambient environment to keep the servers cool, they save a lot of money (and energy). Every so often they rotate out one of these containers to bring it back to HQ for refurbing. This might seem trivial if you’ve never been in a big data center but trust me, those places spend a LOT of money and energy on air conditioning.

I had some more examples but this has run long enough for now. You can download a free electronic copy of For The Win if you don’t feel like paying for it. You might encounter some typos and such, but the (ePub) version I picked was very readable; it isn’t like it’s a first draft or anything.

If you’re an MMO player, you’ll probably get a kick out of the gaming aspects of the book. If you’re concerned about worker’s rights in Asia, then I think you’ll find the tale inspiring. Well worth a read.

5 thoughts on “Doctorow’s For The Win is full of fun ideas

  1. Peter F. Hamilton also had the very same idea (“turks”). But as he is very sex obsessed in his novels, the operators jump in if a virtual porn program has issues or if someone wants an “enriched” experience. Sigh… no, he did not think of a non-porn usage of this feature at all.

  2. Amazon has the “Mechanical Turk” thing right now — you can sign up with Amazon and get paid a very small amount for doing small bits of work.

    If every 50th orc showed intelligence, then every 50th orc someone would quit your game. MMO players HATE surprises.

  3. Yeah, that’s where the link on the phrase “Mechanical Turk” goes to. Have you ever looked at the jobs? Lots are about categorizing things for 2 cents/item. If it takes you a about a minute to do one, figure you could make $1.20/hour if you never take a break. So I dunno who does these things…

  4. This “mechanical Turk” idea is a new one on me! Thanks for the suggestion on the book pete, I may just add that to my ‘to read’ pile.

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