Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Paid to Play - Club Penguin Recognizes Playbour

Wow...I'm so impressed by Club Penguin's most recent developer blog post, a.k.a. Community news post, announcing that they will soon be "paying" members who perform community services in-game. They're not giving many details yet, but the post is titled "Penguins Getting Paid!", and includes the following teaser description:
"Have you ever thought about taking the quizzes to become a tour guide or PSA (Penguin Secret Agent)? If your penguin is old enough, and you're interested in helping out around the island, you might want to consider the challenge... It's going to be announced in the newspaper later this week that starting May 1st, penguins will get paid every month for doing those jobs!"

Payment will no doubt come in the form of coins or items, of course, but it's a payment nonetheless. The reason I'm impressed is that by "paying" players for their contributions Club Penguin is acknowledging the value of the players' "immaterial labour". Players' willingness to perform (virtual) community services is often an important of part of virtual worlds -- it helps to ensure that in-game communities run smoothly, and fosters inclusiveness and camaraderie among players. Many games "offload" community building activities onto players. Well, offload is perhaps a strong word, since determining the nature of one's own "community" is empowering and a huge part of what makes virtual worlds so appealing. But even if the tasks are undertaken voluntarily, that doesn't mean they aren't also productive, generating a form of immaterial labour or "playbour" necessary for "producing" the virtual world experience, which is then promoted and sold to other players (via membership fees, etc.). Recognizing the value of this labour is a key step in preventing its exploitation, so kudos to Club Penguin for further empowering its young players and communicating to them that their time and energy is a valuable and important part of the site (and a key component of its business model).

With the spread of virtual communities and player-generated content, immaterial labour is becoming an increasingly relevant area of debate and study. Check out the following sources for further discussion of the various issues involved:

Julian Kücklich (2005) "Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry", Fibreculture Journal, issue 5.

Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford (2005) "A Playful Multitude? Mobilising and Counter-Mobilising Immaterial Game Labour", Fibreculture Journal, issue 5.

Andrew Herman, Rosemary J. Coombe & Lewis Kaye (2006) "YOUR SECOND LIFE? Goodwill and the performativity of intellectual property in online digital gaming", Cultural Studies, Vol. 20, Nos 2/3, pp.184-210.

Terranova, Tiziana (2000) "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy", Social Text, 18(2), pp.33-58.

Pybus, Jennifer (2007) "Affect and Subjectivity: A Case Study of Neopets.com", Politics and Culture, issue 2.

Côté, Mark and Jennifer Pybus (2007) "Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks", Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 7(1), pp.88-106

Or (if you have subscription access) my own paper from a couple of years ago: Grimes, Sara M. (2006) "Online Multiplayer Gaming: A Virtual Space for Intellectual Property Debates?", New Media & Society, 8(6), pp.969-990.

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