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playbourer

noun [countable]

a person employed to play on a computer game and win virtual gold or other goods which can then be sold for real money

'Understanding the rise of the 'playbourer' is vital if retailers want to bridge the digital divide … Did you know that nearly 500,000 people are employed in the developing world to 'earn' virtual goods from playing online games that are then sold on to more time-pressured players in wealthier parts of the world? …'

Retail Bulletin29th August 2008

For many years now we've been familiar with the sad concept of sweatshops – workplaces, commonly located in poorer countries, where people toil for long hours and receive very little pay. However it has recently come to light that, just like all aspects of commerce and money-making having become part of the online universe, the sweatshop too, has a virtual counterpart. Describing the people who scrape a living in this context has given birth to a new term: the playbourer.

it is estimated that there are now as many as half a million playbourers employed in so-called virtual sweatshops

In popular online games like World of Warcraft, players acquire virtual gold by fighting monsters and completing quests. Instead of struggling to do this themselves, players in richer nations can simply get someone else to do it for them via a playbourer, a person employed to play the games all day long.

A playbourer is therefore a person employed to earn points, equipment or other goods, especially 'gold', in an online game. These virtual commodities can then be sold over the Internet to make money.

It is estimated that there are now as many as half a million playbourers employed in so-called virtual sweatshops. The majority are based in China, though the workforce also includes young people from Romania, Indonesia and Mexico.

This 'industry' is now often described as gold farming, with the workers themselves sometimes referred to as gold farmers. They are correspondingly employed on gold farms, which provide meals and basic accommodation. Typically aged between 18 and 24, playbourers often work a 12 hour shift with only a short break. Their average earnings are £80 a month.

Background to playbourer

Playbourer is a portmanteau word which cleverly exploits the same initial vowel sound in the words play and labourer. It was coined in 2008 in a report published by researchers from the Institute for Development Policy and Management, Manchester University. The report gives a detailed discussion of the concept of gold farming and its economic and sociological impact, claiming that it heralds a new trend in online employment. It identifies gold farming as one of a few emerging examples in developing countries of jobs associated with digital technology which are on or just below the threshold of what should be considered legal or socially acceptable.

The concepts of playbourers and gold farming are a direct consequence of the widespread popularity and economic potential of the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game, sometimes also abbreviated to MMORG). The term MMORPG was coined by computer game designer Richard Garriott in 1997. Yearly revenues for MMORPGs are currently in excess of 1 billion US dollars.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 29th April 2009.

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