For the Win
Cory Doctorow (2008-05-11)

Part I: The gamers and their games, the workers at their work

This scene is dedicated to Compass Books/Books Inc, the oldest independent bookstore in the western USA. They've got stores up and down California, in San Francisco, Burlingame, Mountain View and Palo Alto, but coolest of all is that they run a killer bookstore in the middle of Disneyland's Downtown Disney in Anaheim. I'm a stone Disney park freak (see my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom if you don't believe it), and every time I've lived in California, I've bought myself an annual Disneyland pass, and on practically every visit, I drop by Compass Books in Downtown Disney. They stock a brilliant selection of unauthorized (and even critical) books about Disney, as well as a great variety of kids books and science fiction, and the cafe next door makes a mean cappuccino.

Compass Books/Books Inc 9

Matthew Fong and his employees raided through the night and into the next day, farming as much gold as they could get out of their level while the getting was good. They slept in shifts, and they co-opted anyone who made the mistake of asking what they were up to, dragooning them into mining the dungeon with them.

All the while, Master Fong was getting the gold out of their accounts as fast as it landed in them. He knew that once the game Gods got wind of his operation, they'd swoop in, suspend everyone's accounts, and seize any gold they had in their inventory. The trick was to be sure that there wasn't anything for them to seize.

So he hopped online and hit the big brokerage message-boards. These weren't just grey-market, they were blackest black, and you needed to know someone heavy to get in on them. Matthew's heavy was a guy from Sichuan, skinny and shaky, with several missing teeth. He called himself “Cobra,” and he'd been the one who'd introduced Matthew to Boss Wing all those months before. Cobra worked for someone who worked for someone who worked for one of the big cartels, tough criminal organizations that had all the markets for turning game-gold into cash sewn up.

Cobra had given him a login and a briefing on how to do deals on the brokernet. Now as the night wore on, he picked his way through the interface, listing his gold and setting an asking price that was half of the selling price listed on the white, above-ground gold-store that gweilos used to buy the game gold from the brokers.

He waited, and waited, and waited, but no one bought his gold. Every game world was divided into local servers and shards, and when you signed up, you needed to set which server you wanted to play on. Once you'd picked a server, you were stuck there -- your toon couldn't just wander between the parallel universes. This made buying and selling gold all the more difficult: if a gweilo wanted to buy gold for his toon on server A, he needed to find a farmer who had mined his gold on server A. If you mined all your gold on server B, you were out of luck.

That's where the brokers came in. They bought gold from everyone, and held it in an ever-shifting network of accounts, millions of toons who fanned out all over the worlds and exchanged small amounts of gold at irregular intervals, to fool the anti-laundering snoops in the game logic that relentlessly hunted for farmers and brokers to bust.

Avoiding those filters was a science, one that had been hammered together over decades in the real world before it migrated to the games. If a big pension fund in the real world wanted to buy half a billion dollars' worth of stock in Google, the last thing they want to do is tip off everyone else that they're about to sink that much cash into Google. If they did, everyone else would snap up Google stock before they could get to it, mark it up, and gouge them on it.

So anyone who wants to buy a lot of anything -- who wants to move a lot of money around -- has to know how to do it in a way that's invisible to snoops. They have to be statistically insignificant, which means that a single big trade has to be broken up into millions of little trades that look like ordinary suckers buying and selling a little stock for the hell of it.

No matter what secrets you're trying to keep and no matter who you're trying to keep them from, the techniques are the same. In every game world there were thousands of seemingly normal characters doing seemingly normal things, giving each other seemingly normal sums of money, but at the end of the day, it all added up to millions of gold in trade, taking place right under the noses of the game Gods.

Matthew down-priced his gold, seeking the price at which a broker would deign to notice him and take it off of him. All the trading took place in slangy, rapid Chinese -- that was one of the ways the brokers kept their hold on the market, since there weren't that many Russians and Indonesians and Indians who could follow it and play along -- replete with insults and wheedles. Eventually, Matthew found the magic price. It was lower than he'd hoped for, but not by much, and now that he'd found it, he was able to move the team's gold as fast as they could accumulate it, shuttling dummy players in and out of the dungeon they were working to take the cash to bots run by the brokers.

Finally, it dried up. First, the amount of gold in the dungeon sharply decreased, with the gold dropping from 12,000 per hour to 8,000, then 2,000, then a paltry 100. The mareridtbane disappeared next, which was a pity, because he was able to sell that directly, hawking it in the big towns, pasting and pasting and pasting his offer into the chat where the real players could see it. And then in came the cops, moderators with special halos around them who dropped canned lectures into the chat, stern warnings about having violated the game's terms of service.

And then the account suspensions, the games vanishing from one screen after another, popping like soap bubbles. They were all dropped back to the login screens and they slumped, grinning crazy and exhausted, in their seats, looking at each other in exhausted relief. It was over, at last.

“How much?” Lu asked, flung backwards over his chair, not opening his eyes or lifting his head. “How much, Master Fong?”

Matthew didn't have his notebooks anymore, so he'd been keeping track on the insides of Double Happiness cigarette packages, long, neat tallies of numbers. His pen flickered from sheet to sheet, checking the math one final time, then, quietly, “$3,400.”

There was a stunned silence. “How much?” Lu had his eyes open now.

Matthew made a show of checking the figures again, but that's all it was, a show. He knew that the numbers were right. “Three thousand, four hundred and two dollars and fourteen cents.” It was double the biggest score they'd ever made for Boss Wing. It was the most money any of them had ever made. His share of it was more than his father made in a month. And he'd made it in one night.

“Sorry, how much?”

“8,080 bowls of dumplings, Lu. That much.”

The silence was even thicker. That was a lot of dumplings. That was enough to rent their own place to use as a factory, a place with computers and a fast internet connection and bedrooms to sleep in, a place where they could earn and earn, where they could grow rich as any boss.

Lu leapt out of his chair and whooped, a sound so loud that the entire cafe turned to look at them, but they didn't care, they were all out of their seats now, whooping and dancing around and hugging each other.

And now it was the day, a new day, the sun had come up and gone down and risen in their long labor in the cafe, and they had won. It was a new day for them and for everyone around them.

They stepped out into the sun and there were people on the streets, throngs buying and selling, touts hustling, pretty girls in good clothes walking arm in arm under a single parasol. The heat of the day was like a blast furnace after the air-conditioned cool of the cafe, but that was good, too -- it baked out the funk of cigarette-mouth, coffee-mouth, no-food-mouth. Suddenly, none of them were sleepy. They all wanted to eat.

So Matthew took them out for breakfast. They were his team, after all. They took over the back table at an Indian restaurant near the train station, a place he'd overheard his uncle Yiu-Yu telling his parents about, bragging about some business associate who took him there. Very sophisticated. And he'd read so much about Indian food in his comics, he couldn't wait to try some.

All the other customers in there were either foreigners or Hong Kong people, but they didn't let that get to them. The boys sat at their back table and played with their forks and ate plate after plate of curry and fresh hot flatbreads called naan, and it was delicious and strange and the perfect end to what had turned out to be the perfect night.

Halfway through the dessert -- delicious mango ice-cream -- the sleeplessness finally caught up with them all. They sat on their seats in their torpor, hands over their bellies, eyes half-open, and Matthew called for the check.

They stepped out again into the light. Matthew had decided to go to his parents' place, to sleep on the sofa for a little while, before figuring out what to do about his smashed room with its smashed door.

As they blinked in the light, a familiar Wenjhou accented voice said, “You aren't a very smart boy, are you?”

Matthew turned. Boss Wing's man was there, and three of his friends. They rushed forward and grabbed the boys before they could react, one of them so big that he grabbed a boy in each hand and nearly lifted them off their feet.

His friends struggled to get free, but Boss Wing's man methodically slapped them until they stopped.

Matthew couldn't believe that this was happening -- in broad daylight, right here next to the train station! People crossed the street to avoid them. Matthew supposed he would have done so too.

Boss Wing's man leaned in so close Matthew could smell the fish he'd had for lunch on his breath. “Why are you a stupid boy, Matthew? You didn't seem stupid when you worked for Boss Wing. You always seemed smarter than these children.” He flapped his hand disparagingly at the boys. “But Boss Wing, he trained you, sheltered you, fed you, paid you -- do you think it's honorable or fair for you to take all that investment and run out the door with it?”

“We don't owe Boss Wing anything!” Lu shouted. “You think you can make us work for him?”

Boss Wing's man shook his head. “What a little hothead. No one wants to force you to do anything, child. We just don't think it's fair for you to take all the training and investment we made in you and run across the street and start up a competing business. It's not right, and Boss Wing won't stand for it.”

The curry churned in Matthew's stomach. “We have the right to start our own business.” The words were braver than he felt, but these were his boys, and they gave him bravery. “If Boss Wing doesn't like the competition, let him find another line of work.”

Boss Wing's man didn't give him any forewarning before he slapped Matthew so hard his head rang like a gong. He stumbled back two steps, then tripped over his heels and fell on his ass, landing on the filthy sidewalk. Boss Wing's man put a foot on his chest and looked down at him.

“Little boy, it doesn't work like that. Here's the deal -- Boss Wing understands if you don't want to work at his factory, that's fine. He's willing to sell you the franchise to set up your own branch operation of his firm. All you have to do is pay him a franchise fee of 60 percent of your gross earnings. We watched your gold-sales from Svartalfaheim. You can do as much of that kind of work as you like, and Boss Wing will even take care of the sales end of things for you, so you'll be free to concentrate on your work. And because it's your firm, you get to decide how you divide the money -- you can pay yourself anything you like out of it.”

Matthew burned with shame. His friends were all looking at him, goggle eyed, scared. The weight from the foot on his chest increased until he couldn't draw a breath.

Finally, he gasped out, “Fine,” and the pressure went away. Boss Wing's man extended a hand, helped him to his feet.

“Smart,” he said. “I knew you were a smart boy.” He turned to Matthew's friends. “Your little boss here is a smart man. He'll take you places. You listen to him now.”

Then, without another word, he turned on his heel and walked away, his men following him.



SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022