Julian Dibbell in the New York Times Magazine:
It was an hour before midnight, three hours into the night shift with nine more to go. At his workstation in a small, fluorescent-lighted office space in Nanjing, China, Li Qiwen sat shirtless and chain-smoking, gazing purposefully at the online computer game in front of him. The screen showed a lightly wooded mountain terrain, studded with castle ruins and grazing deer, in which warrior monks milled about. Li, or rather his staff-wielding wizard character, had been slaying the enemy monks since 8 p.m., mouse-clicking on one corpse after another, each time gathering a few dozen virtual coins — and maybe a magic weapon or two — into an increasingly laden backpack.
Twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three nights off per month, this is what Li does — for a living. On this summer night in 2006, the game on his screen was, as always, World of Warcraft, an online fantasy title in which players, in the guise of self-created avatars — night-elf wizards, warrior orcs and other Tolkienesque characters — battle their way through the mythical realm of Azeroth, earning points for every monster slain and rising, over many months, from the game’s lowest level of death-dealing power (1) to the highest (70). More than eight million people around the world play World of Warcraft — approximately one in every thousand on the planet — and whenever Li is logged on, thousands of other players are, too.