The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it…It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself. – Jean Baudrillard

In Henry Jenkins’s “Origami” chapter, he discusses the transmedia trend, where producers create, instead of media productions, media “worlds.” The Wachowski’s “The Matrix” exemplifies this best, a blend of films, comics, videogames, and anime, all built on a foundation of metaphysics and mythology. And while I’ll admit to be completely caught up in the Matrix media world as anyone else (just like I’ve rummaged across the Internet looking for clues to an equally in-depth world, the world of LOST), I think it’s important to also keep a critical distance to these works.

At the top of the criticality list, in my opinion, is what Julian Dibbell has called “ludocapitalism”:

I’m suggesting that when the economic system of the world has come to such a pass that the labor of online gamers can contribute more to the global GDP than 2 out of 3 sovereign nations, then no proper account of that system can neglect to account for its relationship to play. And I’m arguing, finally, that that relationship is one of convergence; that in the strange new world of immateriality toward which the engines of production have long been driving us, we can now at last make out the contours of a more familiar realm of the insubstantial—the realm of games and make-believe. In short, I’m saying that Marx had it almost right: Solidity is not melting into air. Production is melting into play.”

Dibbell’s essay is excellent, and provides many examples of production melting into play, such as TopCoder, a business that offers programming competitions and sells the winning software (no profits go to the game winner, just the thrill of victory).

But this idea of ludocapitalism can exist in much more subtle ways. In cyberspace, the line between public and private is, necessarily, made obscure. There are no secrets in a networked culture, and there is a monetary value to this openness, but it doesn’t end up in our pockets. It’s essentially free labor.

Take the example of Google — they use our “work,” that is, the searches that make up the zeitgeist of the web, and sell it, in the form of ads. There’s also an element of marketing — what price can Google put on the word “google” becoming a verb?

This is the flip side, then, the mirror image of what Jenkins talks about in “Convergence.” The fun we have spoiling “Survivor” translates to higher ratings, higher ad rates, more profit. The clues to LOST planted across the net create a buzz around the show. Again, more profit. Each click of our mouse in the spirit of play can be monetized in the spirit of capitalism.

It’s summed up here, in another piece by Dibbell, on China’s gaming workshops:

“When I was a worker,” Fan Yangwen, who is now 21 and in Donghua’s main office providing technical support, told me, “I loved to play because when I was playing, I was learning.” But learning to play or learning to work? I asked. Fan shrugged. “Both.”

Production, melting in play.


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