Play Hard, Work Hard: How Black-Market Games Discipline Their Staff
As the video game industry grows, the line between play and work is increasingly hard to define. Gamers invest significant time, energy, and effort into improving and publicizing their favorite titles, whether through modifying the game to make it more appealing and add depth, or through ancillary activities like streaming, reviewing, and producing game guides.
This work creates significant additional value for game developers and publishers, and occasionally players themselves. The popular first-person shooter “Counter-Strike,” for example, began life as a mod of Valve’s “Half Life.” More often, however, gamers do not receive any financial remuneration for providing gaming companies with new monetizable assets or helping them reduce their advertising or development costs.
The scholar Julian Kücklich coined the term “playbor” — a portmanteau of “play” and “labor” — to refer to this particular combination of work and leisure. In the West, where game companies have a firmer grasp of copyright protections and produce sequels at regular intervals, the acceptance and recognition of playbor arrangements is high, even as the financial rewards for players are often lower. In China, however, game developers often struggle to defend their intellectual property, and the rewards of turning mods into separate, monetizable games are more easily realized.
At the same time, although online games have been popular in China for over two decades, social acceptance of gamers and gaming remains low. Many people still look at playing games as a waste of time, and lump together gamers in the same category as addicts. Despite the emergence of a diverse array of new careers, from livestreaming hosts and gaming companions to tutors and private server administrators, awareness of labor and working conditions in these professions remains low.
Administrators on private game servers are a perfect example of how playbor works in China. These servers are run without permission from a game’s official developers. They are set up by individuals or groups who obtain the server program of an official game, whether through hacking or by buying it on the black market. The operator then modifies the game and runs it on private servers, through which players register, log in, and pay for in-game goods. The game’s content, graphics, and other elements are typically identical to what’s found on the official servers, but with adjustments to make it more convenient for players to play, upgrade, collect items, and level up.
Because they do not pay high licensing fees and skimp on operating costs, private server companies have lower overheads and can earn profits faster. But keeping multiplayer games active and engaging on a private server is not easy. To meet the needs of players, server operators often organize them into clans and appoint paid administrators to lead each clan’s players.
Take the long-running private server game “X Legend,” for example. (I have changed the name to protect my research participants.) A derivative of the well-known game “The Legend of Mir 2,” “X Legend” has a thriving player base that has supported the private server company operating it for four years. One of the game’s twenty-something clans, “H Clan,” employs more than 30 administrators, covering positions such as chiefs, commanders, and various team leaders. Together, they administer 31 clan teams and over 1,000 clan members as they strategize, fight battles, and conquer lands across a virtual world.
The H Clan administrators are all fans of “The Legend of Mir 2.” They generally live in towns and counties clustered around smaller cities such as Chenzhou, Changde, and Shaoyang, and typically earn from 4,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan ($562-$1,406) a month — good, if not great, money for where they live. They also make major contributions to the profits of the private server company: X Legend reached 30 million yuan in monthly revenue from in-game items in 2019.
Similar to formal workers, clan administrators have clear guidelines regarding their working hours, tasks, and pay structure. They work set hours every day, typically during peak periods like after lunch and in the early evening, and they are expected to play the game regularly, with private server companies requiring them to reach a certain level in the game. Their other responsibilities include managing chat groups for players, streaming the game, posting on related forums, and encouraging players to buy new equipment from the server company. Like other workers, they are subject to performance reviews that determine their salaries and bonuses.
Managing administrators spread across the country nevertheless poses a challenge for private server companies. The companies face the prospect of being closed down at any time due to copyright violations, but they also need to identify and retain a relatively small group of players with the experience, time, and willingness to become clan administrators.
In response, the server companies have introduced various methods to make playbor more stable and appealing to potential administrators. In particular, upper-level managers work to assuage administrators’ concerns about their occupational identity. Most clan administrators live in county towns and small cities and face frequent criticism from their families for not having a “real” job. It’s therefore vital for companies to offer a solid management system, a stable salary, and the chance to improve their skills, all of which reassures them that their work is respectable and that they are making a contribution to society.
In addition, the companies give clan administrators a privileged status within the virtual world, one that makes up for their lack of occupational status in the real one. The resource allocation strategy underpinning “X Legend” gives clan administrators access to equipment, levels, and ranking boards that are out of reach for the average player. Administrators not only get to enjoy the sense of superiority that comes from getting the best equipment ahead of other players, but also the right to make decisions for the team and enjoy the feeling of power over their peers. This privileged status deepens clan administrators’ loyalty to private servers, boosts their work enthusiasm, and indirectly encourages them to spend more time playing outside their normal working hours.
At the core of this system is the use of management methods that emphasize the importance of playing games, thereby pushing workers to exploit themselves. Because of the stigma attached to gaming in Chinese society, admininstrators and server companies mold a new form of “work” through games in order to obtain social validation for their gaming, all while compensating for their lower status in the real world with privilege in the virtual one.
When the private servers are growing, these “playbor” workers are well-paid and well-treated. But they enjoy few protections if their employer runs into trouble. Officially recognized or not, playbor arrangements are increasingly common, and the question of how to supervise and regulate these professions needs urgent attention from regulators, industry, and academics.
This article was co-authored by Cao Sijie.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.