Made in China: Gold Farming as Alternative History of Esports

Fickle, Tara

This essay intervenes in current conversations about the history of esports by uncovering the demographic, economic, and discursive intimacies between esports and gold farming—the practice of harvesting in-game items or currency to be sold for real money. The essay analyzes a series of documentary films about the rise of South Korean esports and of Chinese gold farming during the early 2000s, showing how the reigning narrative of East Asian gaming as simultaneously model and threat to aspiring North American and European game scenes is secured through complementary discourses about the denigrated “cheapness” of Asian play. Drawing on the insights of critical race studies, specifically theories of racial capitalism and ludo-Orientalism, the author demonstrates how the legitimation of global esports as a real sport—a fundamental concern of the Western esports industry—relies on the racialization and disavowal of gold farming as an exceptional site of precarity and exploitation. The essay further demonstrates that recentering the role of virtual Asian labor in esports history helps challenge existing Eurocentric methodologies and exposes the limits of binaristic or hybridized definitions of the relationship between play and work, material and immaterial labor, and race and nation commonly found in contemporary game studies.