As the video game industry grows, the line between play and work has become increasingly difficult to define. Gamers invest a great deal of time, energy, and effort into improving and releasing their favorite titles, whether by modifying the game to make it more attractive and adding depth, or through additional activities such as streaming, reviewing, and creating game guides.
This work creates significant value for game developers and publishers, and occasionally for gamers themselves. For example, the popular first-person shooter Counter-Strike began as a mod of Valve’s Half Life. More often, however, players do not receive monetary compensation for providing gambling companies with new monetizable assets or for helping them reduce their advertising or development costs.
The scholar Julian Kücklich coined the term “playbor” for this special combination of work and leisure time – an artificial word made up of “play” and “work”. In the West, where game companies have a better grip on copyright protection and produce sequels on a regular basis, the acceptance and recognition of playbor arrangements is high, even if the financial rewards for players are often lower. In China, however, game developers often struggle to defend their intellectual property, and the benefits of turning mods into separate, monetizable games are easier to realize.
Although online gaming has been popular in China for over two decades, societal acceptance of players and games remains low. Many people still consider playing games as a waste of time and put gamers in the same category as addicts. Despite the emergence of a variety of new careers, from live streaming hosts and game companions to tutors and private server administrators, awareness of work and working conditions in these professions remains low.
Admins on private game servers are a perfect example of how Playbor works in China. These servers are operated without permission from the official developers of a game. They are set up by individuals or groups who obtain an official game’s server program, whether by 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, login and pay for in-game goods. The content, graphics and other elements of the game are usually identical to what can be 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 don’t pay high license fees and save on operational costs, private server companies have lower overheads and can turn a profit faster. However, keeping multiplayer games active and engaging on a private server is not easy. To meet players’ needs, server operators often organize them into clans and appoint paid administrators to run each clan’s players.
Take the long-running private server game X Legend, for example. (I changed the name to protect my research participants.) A derivative of the well-known game The Legend of Mir 2, X Legend has had a thriving player base that has supported the private server company that runs it for four years . One of the game’s twenty-plus clans, “H-Clan” employs more than 30 administrators, covering positions such as chiefs, commanders, and various team leaders. Together they manage 31 clan teams and over 1,000 clan members as they strategize, wage battles and conquer lands in a virtual world.
The admins of H-Clan are all fans of The Legend of Mir 2. They generally live in towns and counties clustered around smaller cities like Chenzhou, Changde, and Shaoyang, and typically make between 4,000 and 10,000 yuan ($562-$1,406) a month — good, if not great, money for theirs Residence. They also contribute significantly to the profit of the private server company: X Legend achieved monthly income of 30 million yuan from in-game items in 2019.
Similar to formal workers, clan administrators have clear policies regarding their working hours, duties, and salary structure. They work set times each day, typically at peak times like after lunch and early evening, and are expected to play the game regularly, although private server companies require them to reach a certain level in the game. Her other responsibilities include managing chat groups for players, streaming the game, posting on related forums, and encouraging players to purchase new devices from the server company. Like other workers, they are subject to performance reviews that determine their salaries and bonuses.
However, managing distributed administrators across the country poses a challenge for private server companies. The companies face closure at any moment due to copyright infringement, 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 attractive to potential admins. Upper-level executives in particular are working to allay administrators’ concerns about their professional identity. Most clan administrators live in county towns and small towns and are often criticized by their families for not having a “real” job. Therefore, it is crucial for companies to offer a solid management system, a stable salary and the opportunity to improve their skills that give them the confidence that their work is serious and that they are contributing to society.
In addition, the companies give clan administrators a privileged status in the virtual world, which compensates for their lack of professional status in the real world. The resource allocation strategy underlying X Legend gives clan administrators access to gear, levels and rankings unattainable for the average player. Admins enjoy not only the sense of superiority that comes from having the best gear over other players, but also the right to make decisions for the team and a sense of power over their peers. This privileged status deepens clan admins’ loyalty to private servers, increases their enthusiasm for work, and indirectly encourages them to spend more time playing outside of their normal work hours.
At the heart of this system is the use of management methods that emphasize the importance of gaming and push workers to exploit themselves. Due to the stigma attached to gaming in Chinese society, administrators and server companies are shaping a new form of “work” through gaming to gain social validation for their gaming, while at the same time balancing their lower status in the real world with privileges in the Society compensate virtual.
As the private servers grow, these “playbor” workers will be paid well and treated well. But they have little protection if their employer gets into trouble. Whether officially recognized or not, playbor arrangements are becoming increasingly common, and the question of how to oversee and regulate these professions requires urgent attention from regulators, industry and academia.
This article was co-authored by Cao Sijie.
Translator: David Ball; Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(header image: HaseHoch2/VectorStock/VCG)