Displaced or Relocated Digital Labor? Studies on Chinese Game Play-Workers and Transnational Labor Mobility in the Virtual World

This essay studies Chinese game play-workers in the World of Warcraft, a worldwide popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game, and transnational labor mobility between China and the United States in the virtual world.  Chinese play-workers are recruited to play on behalf of American or European players and/or to carry out mundane tasks and earn in-game money or items.  These in-game moneys and items are available for sale to American players. Focusing on this particular group of digital labor, the author seeks to answer two questions: 1) whether geographical location still matters for labor mobility in the virtual world and 2) in the context of network society, how the notions of space, place, and locations can be deployed for understanding Chinese game play-workers’ labor mobility.

It is widely acknowledged that the marriage between economic globalization and advancement in information and media technologies facilitates the laborers traversing national borders virtually as well as physically. For some theorists, the increasingly significant role played by information and communication technologies (ICT) worldwide implies a radical shift in people’s perception of locations and space. Authors like Barry Wellman argue, for creative laborers and white collar professionals in the developed countries, constant connectivity forms a mobile and distributed workplace which enables them to work anywhere and anytime. On one hand, Chinese game play-workers who make dollars out of the gaming activities attest to the concept of displaced labor since they are connected to game servers thousands of miles away from their workplace. Nonetheless, whether the displaced network fully captures this transnational labor mobility in the virtual world remains an open question, precisely because of their geographical concentration in China. In this sense, the notions of border-crossing and of geographical locations, dislocations, and relocations are complicated because the virtual world overlays and intersects with geographical locations.


Yujie Julie Chen
University of Maryland