Physically there is nothing to distinguish human society from the farm-yard except that children are more troublesome and costly than chickens and calves and that men and women are not so completely enslaved as farm stock. - George Bernard Shaw
Most of my readers are probably familiar with FarmVille, a computer game available through Facebook in which one creates and tends a virtual farm. He raises virtual crops, which can be harvested for virtual money which is then used to buy more land, seed, tools, animals, etc. The farm is completely dependent on its owner; if crops are not harvested when ripe they wither and if animals are not fed they fail to grow. I say “animals” because they are shaped like animals, but of course they aren’t animals even in a virtual sense because they don’t do anything which characterizes animals. They don’t have individual differences, move on their own, escape from pens, get sick, fight with one another or anything else. In other words, they’re really just another type of virtual plant, passively remaining exactly where they’re placed by the game player, and they don’t need space or a particular type of habitat or even shelter from the elements because there aren’t any.
Of course, this doesn’t really matter because they’re just collections of data, electronic patterns which form the “pieces” of an electronic game, and can therefore be manipulated without moral consequences. And since it’s unlikely that many FarmVille players will ever own farms of their own, there’s very little chance of the sort of disappointment a naïve teenage mother may experience when it sinks in that her baby is not a doll and cannot simply be laid aside when she doesn’t feel like playing house any more. Real babies and real animals are often unpredictable, and unlike the cute little cartoon critters of FarmVille cannot merely be stacked up in neat little rows without any concern for what they might want…not without consequences, anyway.
Apparently, Nicholas Kristof doesn’t understand this; he imagines women and girls as passive, vegetable entities to be locked into compounds and “protected” like the electronic “animals” in FarmVille. Think I’m exaggerating? Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth; the following is from an interview with Kristof published on January 10th in Fast Company and called to my attention two weeks later by a “tweet” from Melissa Gira Grant:
I think gaming might be the next big platform for news organizations and causes…there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time playing games online, so we in the news business would do well to think about how we can use games to attract eyeballs. My wife and I are…creating a Facebook game…It will be vaguely analogous to FarmVille. You’ll have a village, and in order to nurture this village, you’ll have to look after the women and girls in the village. Actions in the game will also have real-world effects. In other words, there will be schools and refugee camps that will benefit if you do well in the game…
What fun! No doubt you’ll be able to arrange your little brown women and girls any way you like, and they’ll obediently and passively stay put until the bad old “traffickers” come to take them away. Then you can “rescue” them from little cartoon brothels, and put them right back in their little village where they belong. And your actions in the game will have real-world effects, because as godlike Western white people you should have the power of life and death over doll-like women and girls in third-world villages who will perish without your deific benevolence.
If Kristof had ever demonstrated some actual regard for the complex and often contradictory desires, needs and behaviors of real women I might not read this subtext into his silly game, but he hasn’t; females of every age are simply props to him, little game-pieces whose function is the aggrandizement of Nicholas Kristof. He treats the real lives of sex workers as FarmVille players treat the existence of their virtual creatures: as things to be manipulated for profit and “points”. He uses the stories of girls to build up his own reputation, exaggerating their lurid details and reworking them into enslavement porn from which he reaps the profit while condemning others as “pimps” (talk about pot calling kettle black…) He participates in Hollywood cowboy “brothel raids”, then never stops to wonder what happened to the women he “rescued” afterward. And he no more bothers to consider what the girls he “rescues” and writes about might want than a FarmVille player considers the desires of his digital farm animals. To Kristof, individual women are as interchangeable and passive as endlessly-duplicated digital beasts, and our function is to stay wherever he puts us and earn him money and status.
Fortunately, I’m not the only one who recognizes Kristof for what he is; there are actually quite a few (including some at his own paper), but most don’t dare to speak out because it isn’t politically correct to blaspheme Saint Nicholas right now. One who both sees and dares is Laura Agustín, who has written a number of columns against him; the most recent (and one of her best yet) appeared on January 25th in Counterpunch. It’s called “The Soft Side of Imperialism”, and I urge you to read it in its entirety; she, too, was struck by the paternalistic attitude inherent in “KristofVille”, but places it and its creator in a much larger (and even more disturbing) perspective.
One Year Ago Today
The third part of my interview with sex worker rights advocate and real sex trafficking survivor Jill Brenneman.