The Rise of Platform Game Work in China

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Chinese workers
digital labor
future of work
game work
platform economy
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Zhao, Mengyang

This dissertation examines the history, organization, and social implications of platform-based video game work in China. Platform game work examined here goes far beyond the paid work of game developers and the unpaid labor of gamers, encapsulating a burgeoning intermediate space where workers earn a living through gameplay and the facilitation of gaming relationships. Platform game work encompasses a broad range of online video game services, such as live game streaming, paid boosting, and game companion that match customers’ demands with workers who provide entertainment or assist play via digital platforms. China’s rapidly evolving video game service industry is the largest in the world, with an estimated seven million young and precarious workers employed in this field in recent years. Drawing upon longitudinal interviews, participatory observation, and archival research conducted from 2019 to 2022, this dissertation shows both the high embeddedness of platform game work in Chinese society as well as its potential to diffuse globally. Platform game work as a case study is significant in its own right, but it also raises questions about many of the central themes in current debates regarding technology and work. The unique positionality of platform game work—which is often both game work and gig work—calls into question common assumptions about algorithmic systems, the platform economy, and the future of work. It reveals new circuits of labor control and resistance that are irrevocably inflected by platform ecology, gender, and class. This dissertation addresses the central debate of labor control in the post-Fordist era, where the ever-sophisticated digital platforms have supplanted traditional shopfloors as the dominant point of production and surveillance. Interrogating the algorithmic-centric tendency of platform studies, it proposes the concept of “netlike control” to illustrate the uneven and decentralized platformization of video game services in China, a process that could characterize the broader trajectory of digital platforms in the Global South. The decentralization of control calls for a re-examination and re-imagination of working-class solidarity, transcending the binary of resistance and subordination and conventional forms of mobilization. In addition to investigating the labor processes of platform game service, this dissertation illuminates gender and class segregation within and beyond productive gameplay. It reveals the mechanisms through which women workers are culturally, socially, and algorithmically disadvantaged along the entire service supply chain. By exploring the career trajectories of game service workers, this research also uncovers the deeper proletarianization of the urban lower middle class, a theme that resonates with realities in other capitalist societies. Overall, the rise of platform game work epitomizes Chinese workers’ active maneuver of their life conditions amid the ongoing metamorphosis of platform capitalism. It has set in motion a series of reverberations that could profoundly shift the landscape of work, leisure, care, and labor activism on a planetary scale.

Yang, Guobin
Grazian, David
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