SWEATING THE DETAILS
"I'm a Chinese girl," the new resident tells me, by way of introduction. "My work is playing this game for my boss in real life, and my boss asked me for 500 Lindens a day, or I'll be fired, and I'm poor in Second Life and real life, so don't have any chosen.
"So," she concludes, "I'm in trouble now, sir."
"Why does your boss want 500 Lindens a day?"
"Because," she explains, "500 Lindens equals US$2, and US$1 equals 8 Yuan. So I have to finish this task… Do you know my job now, please sir?"
And of course I do know what her job is. The wonder is that I haven't met her kind sooner. At the moment, she's a voluptuous blonde woman with white angel wings, and a spear in her hand. But she's also the latest incarnation of an even more elusive figure-- and perhaps one that's just as fantastic.
"As some of you are probably aware," Persig Phaeton posted to the Second Life forums a few days ago, "other MMO titles over the years have had to deal with an influx of actual sweatshops in Third World countries. These sweatshops force young, underpaid workers to play [popular MMOs], not for enjoyment, but solely for the purpose of harvesting gold to be traded out... to be eBay'ed." This apparently happens on more traditional online role playing games, where it's possible, for example, to earn gold coins or whatever else the official currency of the realm happens to be, by having one's character perform some simple, mindless task like mining or fishing for hours at a time. With enough low-paid laborers doing these tasks on a battery of workstations, the theory goes, it's possible to auction off a large block of the currency on a site like eBay for a profit.
Since there's no simple, mechanical way of earning in-world money in Second Life, however, Persig believed the phenomenon wouldn't come here.
"Last night, however, I had a disturbing experience."
And Persig went on to tell the story of how he met a new Resident near a telehub, where she pleaded with him in fractured English to help her secure some land-- on pain of real world unemployment, if she failed.
"I could tell she was having trouble and she was in distress," he continued in his post. "Finally, she blurts something like, 'Please to be helping me! If I don't buy land in three days, my boss will fire me!'"
At this point, Phaeton sought help from Anshe Chung, one of the most well known (and controversial) personalities in Second Life. Because as it happens, Anshe is publicly known to be Chinese, in real life-- Chinese-German, to be exact-- and Persig hoped she could help translate.
"I just talked to her short time," Anshe tells me, when I follow up with her, "and tried help her with land buying. Finally got her buy First Land plot." (This is a program for new users who want to begin their Second Life career on a small, low cost square of property.) "She said her boss would want to play here or something." Anshe chatted with her in Romanized Mandarin, "and her pin ying (using Latin letters to spell Chinese) was quite good." So, she speculates, "Central or North China, as opposed to Hong Kong (Cantonese)."
On the Northern continent of Second Life, we search awhile for the land Anshe helped this new Resident buy, flying over fields strewn with For Sale signs, along the shore, and farther in-land, over untrammeled forests and fields. Meanwhile, Anshe forwards via IM my request to interview this new resident.
"'Eh, ni hao. Ne ge Hamlet Linden xiang gen ni tan hua. Wo jue de ta ke yi bang ni yi huir'," Anshe cites for me, quoting the message she just sent to her.
"For your records," explains, winking.
I ask her if she believes the new Resident's story.
Anshe shrugs. "Dunno. It sounded quite real.”
Finally, we arrive at the girl's half-built property.
"Oh! A money tree sponsored by her!" Anshe Chung exclaims, surveying her land. "I use this in my malls to give money to newbies. The tree spawns dollar bills that newbie can pick up and receive L$1 or L$5 payments. You pick up and the tree pays you. Maybe she hoped to use it earn money. Or to attract friends for her boss. I remember she told me her boss wants to invite guests."
In any case, a few hours pass, and Anshe tells me the Resident has agreed to my request for an interview. And that the Resident-- who I'll call Hsiao-Tsing, for this story-- happens to be online now.
And within minutes, I'm standing with Hsiao-Tsing at her new home in the mossy tundra.
"What kind of company do you work for that your boss wants you to make Linden Dollars?" I ask her.
"Computer Internet Game company," Hsiao-Tsing replies. "There are many in [China]. Just like the Lineage 2 or World of Warcraft or Heaven 2 game, they all can make money for him. But we learn this game just five days [ago], so no one know how to play [Second Life], and get more money, so I'm in troubles, in a big stress... The life in China is so hard to live on thank you." She worries that her account will be cancelled, if her moneymaking purpose comes out; and though that's not true, I promise not to reveal her Second Life name, for this story.
"Could you help me please, sir?" Hsiao-Tsing persists.
For awhile there, I consider paying her L$500 from my own account, to allay her fears for today. After some deliberation, I decide to avoid the ethical tangle of that option. Instead-- give an avatar a fish, she eats for a day, teach an avatar to fish, she eats for a lifetime-- I tell her that I'll explain how Residents usually earn their Linden Dollars.
"Thank you sir," she says. "If [you do] that I won't worry... For I must work hard overtime day to night day and night."
"In Second Life," I say, "people do not make money as they do in [traditional MMORPGs.] It's not possible to sell gold pieces, etc. to make real US$. To do that, most people make clothing or weapons or other items. People buy them, and they take the Linden Dollars and convert them to US$. Also, some people buy land, improve it, and then sell it to other Residents at a profit. That's another way. Anshe Chung, who you met, does this."
There's a pause, as Hsiao-Tsing absorbs this information.
"So I must take your advice," she says. Then, "Please help me sir, tell me what shall I do, please?"
"Another way to make money," I continue, "is to be a dancer at the nightclubs. Or another kind of entertainer."
"You mean I have to find some job [in] the first place, sir?"
"Also, you can make money by playing games like Tringo," I add.
"Thank you, but my boss' office seems doesn't have this game."
"No, Tringo is a game inside of Second Life. If you like I can show you."
"Sir, you mean that game can make money please?"
"Yes," I caution, "if you win at it. You have to be a good player." I ask her if there are other online games people in her company are paid to play.
"A xing Qiu Da zhan xing ji," Hsiao-Tsing answers. "Just a moment, I'll search its English name." There's momentary silence from her side. "Star Wars, sir. Do you hear and play?" I tell her that I have. She apologizes for her poor English. "So sometimes will communicate slowly." I tell it's way better than my Cantonese, which is next to nil, beyond what I've learned from Hong Kong movies-- even though my own grandfather immigrated from Canton. She tells me that she lives in a province near Canton, but it's not one I'm immediately familiar with.
"So please help me to find some jobs can make more money to finish my task," Hsiao-Tsing says, "then I'll try to build and trade. Please, sir? I must over work and my health is get bad quickly... and I work in big city, have no house, live in my Company, and the bed is so bad, and so dark and so cold, and my meals are also well, often yucky. And I search for how to play this game, and can't sleep and eating well. Do you understand my hard condition sir?”
I tell her that it does sound hard. Though something about the tone of the plea seems off, somehow.
I'm having trouble with my computer, so I tell her to wait while I log off, and that I'll be back in a few minutes to take her to a Tringo contest. But the technical troubles persist, and I'm not able to return into Second Life for another half hour or so.
And when I return, Hsiao-Tsing is no longer in-world. Leaving me to wonder how much of her story was true, and how much of it might have been clever role playing. Almost exactly two years ago, shortly after taking on New World Notes, I left off with similar questions, wondering whether the story of a homeless hacker with a Second Life mansion were true, or an admirably elaborate fiction. Then again, that was before the third party exchange of Linden Dollars for real money was permitted; that was before the stakes had been raised so much higher.
For Persig Phaeton's part, since meeting Hsiao-Tsing, he's had some time to think about the story she told him, too.
"I hope it's a practical joke," Persig writes me. "If this girl really is buying land for her boss," he says, "I hope it isn't in a sweatshop atmosphere... I hope [her boss]... pays her better than a subsistence living wage. I hope. I hope... I hope."
In recent weeks, it's worth pointing out, noted game journalists and academics have begun to wonder if the stories of sweatshops for online worlds in developing nations were apocryphal, to begin with-- or if they exist, whether they merit the term "sweatshop". Since, after all, sweatshops usually involve industrial machinery, toxic chemicals, dangerous equipment-- not people sitting at computers in an air-conditioned office, endlessly (but not miserably) clicking away. Not necessarily something deserving of an in-world labor uprising, in other words-- as tantalizing as that hypothetical is.
In any case, as Linden Lab CEO Philip Linden posted in the official forum yesterday, "We will make sure to the greatest of our technical abilities that simplistic money-mining (buy account, give stipend to other person, make profit) doesn't work."
No doubt true. Though for my part, I can also imagine an entire office floor of a skyscraper in Shenzen or Shanghai or cities unnamed, housing an endless stream of highly skilled, underpaid college students at their workstations, devoted 24/7 to the business of beating all comers at big pot Tringo.
"By the way," Anshe Chung tells me, when we're flying over the new continent, in search of Hsiao-Tsing's land, "I have ten sims ordered now. Going expand my continent to fourteen sims as soon as Ryan [Linden] can deliver… different themed sims, making use of land deeding feature and the first sims were successful." So her own in-world holdings continue to grow.
"You all know Anshe Chung and you know how the poor situation of my own family in China was one motivator for me to work hard in this space," the real estate tycoon wrote in the Second Life forum. "The 'sweatshops' will come, yes, and I admire the people who will work in those sweatshops."
For confidentiality's sake, some descriptive details of "Hsiao-Tsing" and her property may have been changed for this entry.
THE FLAT WORLD DANCERS OF CHINA (Published April 13, 2005)
A hard luck survivor from the fringes of the global economic revolution finds a place with the outcast denizens of a sexy nightclub...
I wonder what Thomas Friedman would make of the girl with the giant blue butterfly wings dancing with the gray man from China who spews hearts and magic bunnies in the nightclub run by a guy whose day job is keeping a watchful eye for illegal immigrants and Al Qaeda infiltrators along the Southern border.
The New York Times columnist’s latest book, after all, is about how shifts in technology and international logistics have had a “flattening effect” on the global economy. (Excerpt here.) What with Google, UPS, and outsourcing coupled to a rising class of highly educated technical workers in the developing world, especially China and India, Friedman’s thesis goes, we’re barreling locomotive-fast into a new world we’re not ready for, where the old economic assumptions just don’t play.
That’s good, as far as it goes. But then, my guess is Tom Friedman still never dreamed of Hsiao-Tsing, the Chinese girl who came to Second Life on orders from her boss to make the Linden Dollar equivalent of two bucks a day, or be fired. When I profiled her a couple weeks ago, I left off wondering how much of the story she told me was true. (The reality behind the “virtual sweatshop” meme being so ephemeral, as it is.) I went so far as to seek out Lala Lumiere, officer of Second Life's Mandarin Chinese Club, and without quite explaining why, asked her to contact Hsiao-Tsing in pinyin Chinese. She did, and got more or less the same story Hsiao-Tsing gave me. (Lala’s hoping to bolster membership in the Club, so I asked her to write out her request for Chinese-literate readers; it’s featured in the screenshots here and here.)
At this point, then, I’ve decided to assume the story is true, that Hsiao-Tsing logs into Second Life from a Chinese Internet company for the sole purpose of harvesting Linden Dollars for her employer. (And to anticipate the question, “Why not just ask Linden Lab to run an IP trace on her account, to find out for sure where she's really from?”: my assignment is reporting on Second Life, from within Second Life. Peeking at Second Life server data would be like Bob Woodward suddenly getting to riffle through the mind of God.)
Hsiao-Tsing has contacted me several times since the profile, still looking for help to earn an income, and I've advised her as best I could. I took her to a Tringo match, and tried to explain how someone could make money off winning. I told her about fashion designers and real estate speculators, and how they sold their in-world currency for real cash on the third party exhanges sites. I even bought an image of the Great Wall of China which she’d uploaded into Second Life, to sell. (Taken on a family vacation, she told me.)
I was wondering how she’d been faring since then, when the manager of a Mature-themed nightclub contacted me one night at around 2AM, to let me know.
“[She] approached me two nights ago and asked me in broken English if I was hiring,” Dwight Roark tells me. “She was very excited when I paid her about L$125 for her dancing… [she] told me she needs more money, so I told her she can host.” (“Dwight Roark” isn’t the manager’s true in-world name, which I’ve changed on his request, concerned that the interview might somehow antagonize a competing nightclub owner, who, he says, might send "people to try to terrorize us, threaten us out of Second Life and then the sim we were in.")
In many Asian cities, the only work a young woman without evident job skills can get is performing for foreign tourists in a red light district. For now at least, Hsiao-Tsing's economic opportunities are constrained to running a dance script on her avatar, while acting as hostess to nightclub patrons. Which is what she's doing, when I visit Dwight's club. A visitor is standing at its edge, flatfooted.
"Welcome you Timmy," Hsiao-Tsing tells him. "Dance."
"Yes, we are working Hsiao-Tsing," Dwight tells me, "but she is getting fair pay, just like our other employees, and opportunity. We do not sweatshop our employees." To dance, he pays her L$25 an hour plus tips dancer, and L$100 an hour to host events.
"I'm not sure about the tips they make," Dwight adds. "At our old club, dancers could make several L$1000... [T]his club is slower, but it is very possible to make L$1000 a day with hosting and dancing. If that is what she is aiming for." Dwight initially contacted me because he'd found out Hsiao-Tsing's China story, after he'd hired her, and he wanted me to investigate further. ("Being forced to work for Linden Dollars at any cost or be fired, that is very unethical," he says.)
In any case, he's happy with her efforts on behalf of the nightclub. "The one and only problem is the mild to moderate language barrier," he allows, but "she is very polite and friendly. Well, there was a fight earlier, but due to the language barrier, Hsiao-Tsing did not realize it. But it's no big deal, there is often bickering or rowdiness in the clubs."
As Dwight tells it, adding Hsiao-Tsing to his roster is just one more hire to his already unconventional nightclub staff. "We are also equal employment opportunity, and have disabled employees, one of whom has fairly severe cerebral palsy and was fired by [another club]." That Resident has been working as a host for several months, Dwight says. "He types very slow because he has hemiplegia. So back when we had to report the events, we got special permission to assist him with that, but he does fine. A few spelling errors, but he is reliable, nice to guests, etc. He is trying his hardest to get the Bingo system down, too. He has 'hotkeys' he's trying to set up for the commands." (Dwight's club features Bingo and a few casino games.) "[I]f any special needs people approach you due to the article," he tells me, "feel free to send them to us... we [also] have a mall and other ventures they can work at. We have a Puerto Rican host/dancer but her language deficiency is not so profound as Hsiao-Tsing’s...
"Like I said," he finishes, laughing, "we take 'em all in... language barrier or physical/mental disability is not an issue, so long as they can serve some purpose for business, even if it is just as a 'door greeter'."
I talk to Hsiao-Tsing in Instant Message, as she whirls and twists with a few patrons around her. Streamed music booms through the room-- 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" ("I'll take you to the candy shop/I'll let you lick the lollypop"), at the moment-- as I approach.
I ask Hsiao-Tsing how she's been doing.
"Just so bad than you," she tells me, "for boss is add my task to be L$2000 per day. If can't finish, he will ask my money." But for now, she brings money in as a dancer and hostess-- and though Dwight's club is decidedly adult-oriented, she hasn't resorted to stripping or anything racier beyond dancing. (She'd expressed moral qualms over engaging in in-world sexual activity, and made that boundary plain to her boss, from the begining.)
"If you have interesting," she continues, "I'll show you my money tree in my new land. When you wanna? Tomorrow OK? Or after while?" If I understand her right, she's afraid she may have to leave Second Life soon, if she can't continue making a substantial income. "[B]ut I like here, like this Second Life and friends include you. So wish I can Surive. I can get money way."
Hsiao-Tsing's attention wanders over to jin Gupta, the gray man in short shorts dancing next to her.
"What do you think about jin that guy please?" she asks me in IM. "He looks so strange. But he maybe good forums here."
They strike up a conversation over the bunnies and hearts that occasionally emerge from him, while he dances.
"Hey jin," Hsiao-Tsing begins, "why you always do that?"
"I like it," say Gupte, and laughs. "Where are you from?"
"China, what about you?"
"Oh, me too."
"Really?" says Hsiao-Tsing. "What's your job?"
"Which? Second Life or real life?"
Hsiao-Tsing answers the former.
"I'm a teacher," says Gupte. "I like Second Life. Peoples here always very friendly."
Hsiao-Tsing affirms that. "I like teacher," she adds.
jin Gupte turns and notices me standing next to them.
"Hi lidens," he says, greeting me. "Why you don't dance?"
No particular reason not to, so I do. And while I dance, I ask him where he's from, in China. He names a coastal city within the country's fabled enterprise zone, where limited capitalism is state policy. He discovered Second Life, he says, through "my comrade. But my English is not good." I ask him if I can take a screenshot, and he nods.
"I'm dazzling," Gupte announces. "I'm dazzling."
I agree that he is dazzling.
"I feel it's unfair, the education in China," he tells us suddenly. "Do you agree with me?
"You mean the teachers?" Hsiao-Tsing asks him.
"For the children's parents always indulge students," jin continues, heedless. "The parents not allowed teacher rebuke the students... often students don't learn hard. They are often lazy. Although I try my best." So they go on talking and dancing, a Chinese tech worker paid scant wages to be here, and over in another, more developed province, a Chinese teacher with enough disposable income to afford entre to the same space-- a nightclub that really only exists as a configuration of electrons on a server in downtown San Francisco.
"We take in lots of the dancers and hosts other clubs kick out," Dwight Roark tells me earlier. "Seems they may have unrealistic standards or expectations. It makes an eclectic mix. But that is not a bad thing." In his first life, Dwight describes himself as a border patrol officer on America's Southern border, interdicting illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists attempting to cross into the United States through Mexico. The area of the border he patrols, he says, "is very much a weak point, and the problem is, the Mexican population is accustomed to open crossing. Even on 9-11, when we tried to lock down or tighten the border, they did not cooperate and we had riots and uprisings."
In here, however, he cares for his eclectic staff of the abandoned and the exiled and the people looking for another chance.
"Maybe now I will have to protect Second Life against communism and unethical labor practice?" he asks, laughing.
NOT SWEATING THE DETAILS (Published August 3, 2005)
When she first came to Second Life, her story seemed so strange, and so unbelievable (and unsettling to some), I was reluctant to even reveal her SL name. She said she had come here on orders from her boss, the head of a Chinese Internet gaming company, for the sole purpose of acquiring Linden Dollars to convert into US currency-- a worker for a fabled virtual sweatshot. Inspired by the Hong Kong fantasy classic A Chinese Ghost Story, I chose "Hsiao-Tsing" as her pseudonym, named after the film's beautiful temptress spirit, who reluctantly serves a tree demon that drains the souls of its victims with a giant tongue. In a later update, the story of "Hsiao-Tsing" seemed a touch less strange-- another milestone of the next global economic revolution.
But that was four months ago, and so much has changed since then. During that time, the largest online world acquired 1.5 million Chinese subscribers in a few weeks, and the Chinese government itself has earmarked $1.8 billion to develop online worlds of their own. And just like that, "Hsiao-Tsing" didn't seem mysterious at all. Just one more explorer from the new China, navigating the digital ocean that's reached its shores.
In reality, Hsiao-Tsing is a Resident named "liangmj Coffee". Lia (as friends call her) now makes her real life living by hosting Slingo matches at Shashe Neva's Belmondo Family Mall, and selling pool tables created by Chrischun Fassbinder (she gets a commission.) She's since uploaded a real life photograph into her in-world First Life profile. It depicts a very young, slender Chinese woman with the kind of fresh-scrubbed farmgirl prettiness that you'd see in old school Communist propoganda posters. (Were she wearing a worker's apron and not blue jeans, that is.) Though she's here to make a living, her profile warns, Ms. Coffee has moral standards. "i'm poor," it announces, "but i don't sell my self i cant sexy with men here."
Since coming to Second Life last Spring, Lia's grasp of the world and her ability to interact within it has improved immeasurably. Enough to be comfortable with discussing her Second Life identity without fearing that her efforts to earn Linden Dollars for cash would somehow jeopardize her subscription.
"I think the SL boss won't cancel my account," she decides. "I think they can allow me survive here."
Since then, liangmj Coffee has befriended several other Residents from China, who've come here for reasons of their own. She tells me about one of them, who's become a dedicated Don Juan in-world. "As far as I know," Lia says, "he is upsetting with SL ladies now. He has at least four-five girlfriends. He always in love but didn't marry with any one."
Another, Yiren Byrd, is a statuesque brunette who like Lia has become a hostess at the Belmondo mall. Both of them have uploaded demure real life photos of themselves, and display them on a wall there, with a tipjar set nearby.
"Tiptip me if you like my photo," Yiren coaxes me, when she joins us in Belmondo. "I'm pretty poor."
Yiren plays Second Life after hours from the offices of the tech company where she works as a typist, she says. "We use Internet with selling our company's product," she tells me. "So typing with bills, the stuffs of Chinese computer soft. Some are [products you] can take walk away, can use it freely."
"Wireless computers?" I ask.
"Yes, some of them," Yiren answers. "Sorry, my English is pretty poor, I can't get the meanings."
She doesn't just come to Second Life to be a casino hostess. "I like script and make stuff or building," says Yiren. "I always go sandbox. I just learning." She's also been in Second Life long enough to know something about its thriving economy, and the players in it. "[A] tricky [person]," she says of one well known entrepeneur. "Ruthless. Don't have love heart." Like Lia, she works in one of China's enterprise zones-- in a city, as it happens, where I myself have distant relatives.
Despite the demands of her in-world work, liangmj Coffee still has time to socialize; she tells me she'd like a Second Life boyfriend, someone who "can help me and let me feel safe." She's met a lot of would-be suitors from America in here, "men and boys asked me want me go their USA", but so far, she hasn't found one to win her heart. A born romantic, Lia had a friend set up an Internet audio stream that endlessly plays Marx on her property-- not Karl, Richard. "Right Here Waiting" streams endlessly on her land. She often types along to the lyrics.
"Yes some men after her," Yiren assents, glancing at her friend. "You cute Lia." They consider themselves Second Life sisters, and have since become friends in real life, too-- Yiren once rode the railways of China to visit her.
But liangmj's main role here is employee, and though she's become better at earning the requisite Linden Dollars her boss demands, still, "it's hard to finish my task."
"Lian's job is not perfect," Yiren tells me, sympathetically. "I always helped her."
I ask Yiren if she's knows the kind of work she does.
"A sweating shop. I know it's hard to find a good job to live. It's hard to live in China."
I wonder if Yiren would also want to try and make a living here.
"I want play SL for fun," she retorts quickly. "I have job."
liangmj Coffee says, "What's your real job please, Hamlet."
"This is my real life job."
"Yes, so you work for Governor Linden please," she realizes. "Cool."
A tan man named Stevo Pierce has arrived in Belmondo, and has overheard the conversation. "That sounds fun," he tells me, "getting paid to play Second Life." He turns to Ms. Coffee. "When do you next have Slingo game here, Lian?"
"Soon. Need wait more players join."
Stevo Pierce nods. "I have only played it a couple of times, but I am already addicted." In his first life, Steveo tells us, he's a nuclear engineer living in the UK. And I note how amazing it all is, me in San Francisco at 3:30AM, him in England at 11:30AM, standing here with two Internet workers from China, where it's dinner time of the next day.
"Wonderful things," Yiren agrees.
Wonderful, but come to think of it, not amazing at all. Just the way things are.
UPDATE, 8/5: Some questions in Comments (below) have been raised as to whether it's even possible to access Second Life from China, so I asked Second Life CEO Philip Linden to confirm this for the record.
"According to our [server] stats," he e-mails me, "we have 22 users in China."
"From what I understand," Internet protocol wizard Aaron Linden adds, fielding my follow-up question on access through "the Great Firewall of China", the Chinese government "engages in IP address blocking, so it's likely that any request to a blocked IP address results in a null route... For the vast majority of cases, web content is the only way you get on the blocked IP list."
LOSING THE DETAILS (Published November 15, 2005)
A farewell to Second Life's first virtual sweatshop worker.
Few days ago, I got an urgent series of Instant Messages from liangmj Coffee:
"hello Hamlet, i'm considering maybe i can't play very long Sl, maybe i'll quilt my job..."
Because for her, as it happens, playing in Second Life is her job. She warns me that others may be taking control of the Coffee account-- her boss (who actually own it), or another employee, tasked like her with earning Linden Dollars to convert into cash.
I quickly reply to her IMs, but those go unanswered. And that's the last I hear from the person I've come to know as liangmj Coffee.
A day or two later, however, I get an e-mail from 163.com, a Chinese language Internet portal. It's a message from the girl who was once liangmj Coffee:
"I'm at hometown stay with my parents now, they discuss about my future with me," she informs me. "they said that I can't play game for money all my life, so they decide to let me go to school or find other jobs, and i'm still thinking and considering, I can't do a decide..." She's hoping to get a computer of her own that'll let her return to Second Life-- only this time, with her own account. She wants to come back to Second Life, that is to say, as herself. And I write back to tell her she should.
So the young woman I've only known as liangmj Coffee becomes another disembodied identity-- someone with a different name, represented not as an avatar but an e-mail signature. And I wonder if I'll ever see liangmj in Second Life again-- and if I do, who'll be inhabiting her. Not the liangmj I've gotten to know and like, first as a bewildered and frantic newbie, then growing confident and enterprising, and always, throughout her eight month career in-world, a sweet, chatty, disarmingly modest girl whose odd occupation involved pole dancing in Mature nightclubs, but who still refused to compromise her personal moral standards in the process. ("i'm poor," her profile firmly announced, "but i don't sell my self i cant sexy with men here.")
In her e-mail, she wonders if there are others like her, working in online worlds, turning a virtual wage into something like a real one. "I want to know if there has same peoples in USA or other countrys play game for money too as me," she says. "I want to know if playing game is a new pattern job all over the world or only appear in China." And I respond to her that it is a new kind of job, and not just in China. (Her question makes me suspect she was kept in the dark by her old employer, able to go on the Internet to earn Linden Dollars and other online world currency, but not to learn she was part of a much larger cottage industry.)
"If do that means game still has future," she reasons. "can be a good way to get money to me." And I reply to her that it can be. Only now, I tell her, if she can come back with her own account, the wages she earns will be hers to keep, and her identity hers to own. I hope she does.