The Ethics of Virtual Sweatshops

Double Happiness Manufacturing from Second Life
Double Happiness Manufacturing from Second Life

The early twenty-first century has been a time of rampant technological innovation. With the rise of online tutorial companies like, free educational tools like Khan Academy, and of course, massive open online courses (MOOCs), a good deal of this innovation has been geared toward improving education which, we all know, improves job prospects, which improves overall quality of life. So compelling has been the link between technology, education, and personal (which often, in the U.S., translates into financial) betterment that Udacity, a prime provider of MOOCs, recently announced that the company would begin charging students to receive completion certificates. In a time where technology + education = better jobs, two artists have used technology to encourage people with enough resources and leisure time to play video games not to expand their skill sets, but instead to play at being sweatshop workers.

Invisible Threads is a mixed reality performance installation that was put into action by Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothenberg:  The two artists put together a virtual sweat shop in the online world Second Life. While in the virtual world, avatars are able to complete menial, repetitive tasks in exchange for a salary of Linden dollars.

If we place a bubble around the e-verse, the term “sweatshop” does not seem to apply. The avatars are able to purchase houses and live a life comparable to a middle-class citizen with the income acquired by working at the Double Happiness factory. Leisure time and personalized décor are indications of the affluence that the workers of the Double Happiness factory/sweatshop enjoy. It is only in the translation from the e-verse to real world that the term sweatshop becomes applicable. As previously mentioned, the avatars work for virtual currency called Linden dollars. A US dollar is worth approximately 250 Lindens; meaning that the average worker in the factory is earning $ 0.90 an hour.

The question that then comes into play is:  why do the people who play this game, who choose jobs at the Double Happiness factory, spend hours of their time for little to nothing in return? There seems to be an immense disconnect between work and play. The people who work in the Double Happiness factory do not see themselves as laborers.  It is also for this reason that labor laws don’t apply in the e-verse. This means that a player of any age may apply for a job as an avatar. Second Life asks for a birthday upon registering, but there is no way to verify someone’s age over the internet. This opens up the can of child labor laws; a 12-year-old could be working a couple hours in Second Life each day to earn only a couple dollars.

While it is a choice to work at these so-titled sweatshops, it is questionable whether the people making these decisions are fully aware of what they are choosing. Are virtual sweatshops ethical? It’s a question that is up for debate. What do you think?


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