Fiverr is an online platform that advertises itself as one of the web’s leading marketplaces for “freelance services,” a catch-all term for providers who hock a wide variety of products, often far below standard professional rates. At $5 for a minute of amateur voice acting, $20 for a Photoshopped logo, and less than $100 for a “targeted SEO campaign,” a nascent (and miserly) small business could probably purchase the vast majority of their early promotional material through a site like Fiverr — though it’s unclear how far that money would take you. Considering the vast majority of providers are offering work that is aspirational in nature, perhaps as a way to break into industries that are notoriously fickle, such as acting, it’s not at all clear that Fiverr’s sins extend beyond existing as a reflection of the hellish and precarious world of freelance pseudo-employment.
Still, as with any online marketplace, one need only peel back the first layers of minimalist gloss and stagey stock photos to find some very strange or niche wares on offer. For example, one of the highest-rated providers on the site, with over 200 five-star reviews, is an actress who will record anything you want “in an anime girl voice,” starting at $5 for “personal use only.” (Commercial rights will run you an extra $15.) Another offers to drop stacks of consumable “soul” items in the PlayStation 4 version of Dark Souls 3, ostensibly to make the notoriously-punitive game just a little bit easier. But by far the most popular genre of gaming work on the site is the promise of simple companionship — for $5 an hour, these sellers will play a game of your choice with you and talk to you throughout.
Over the past month, I interviewed six of these providers, along with several buyers, all in the service of understanding why exactly a small contingent of people would pay real money to play video games with perfect strangers. And while the accounts differ in the particulars, the overall portrait they paint is of surprisingly pleasant interactions between otherwise bored or cash-strapped providers and lonely customers. Amidst all this, though, is an endless deluge of low-grade hostility that sometimes flares up into overt harassment, which slowly but surely pushes sellers away from the platform.
Uber, But for Delivering the Payload
Like many of the sellers I talked to — who are overwhelmingly young women, most in college — “Alice” first heard about Fiverr from YouTube. While she initially thought it would be an easy way to make money, she was skeptical until a friend vouched for the legitimacy of the service. Since she spends a fair portion of her free time playing popular games like Overwatch, she views Fiverr as an opportunity to get paid for something she was going to do anyway. But three months into her career in the gig economy, she describes the experience as bittersweet.
“As with most things in life, you draw focus to the negatives and the positives seem insignificant,” she says. “Fiverr is like that. I get a lot of uncomfortable requests, and a few situations that taught me a lot about the target audience of these kinds of ads. While it varies, I receive around 3-6 messages a day requesting anything along the lines of ‘nudes,’ ‘phone sex,’ and even a couple of requests for feet pictures. It’s pretty easy to spot a troll or indecent request, so I can easily ignore them, but there’s so many that it can be hard to deal with at times. I could definitely go without receiving unsolicited nude pictures, that’s for sure.”
This treatment is echoed by “Sheila,” who says that around two-thirds of the messages she receives are from people asking for explicit materials such as nudes or cam shows. While she views it as an unfortunate part of the job, she says it’s the only real mark against Fiverr as a service.
“Other than people confusing me for a sex worker, all my experiences have been great,” she says. “I don’t know why they’re asking me that while there are a ton of camgirls out there who would be happy to help them.”
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Looking for Group
While Alice says her Fiverr work has bordered on traumatic at times, both she and Sheila note that some of the requests they receive are so bizarre that they come off as humorous. One interaction saw a person ask Sheila to become his “permanent gamergirl” on his YouTube channel. When Sheila pointed out that she could just start her own channel, the person simply replied: “How would it grow? You could play for years without anybody ever noticing.”
Another customer asked Alice to record a video of herself covered in green slime. “He specified the color of the slime and the fact that it had to be ‘professional-grade’ (whatever that means) and that he would be willing to provide said slime, as long as I gave him my address,” she says. “Needless to say, he received a swift block and report. In general, I like to take the creeps with a hearty giggle and move on. I believe that if you get too hung up on them, you’ll likely go insane.”
Once these sellers manage to cut through the stream of filth to talk to actual customers, they say their interactions are usually positive. Alice divides her buyers into three main groups: “inquisitives,” who hear about the gaming section of Fiverr somewhere and decide to drop $5 for the sake of novelty; “lonelies,” who are legitimately seeking someone to play with and talk to; and “duos,” who seek good players to help them climb the ranks in competitive play, and who occasionally ask for pointers or coaching.
The providers say that those who fall into the middle group are the most likely to ask for repeat services. While most prefer to keep a bright line between business and friendship, like Alice, some have a more relaxed view. One seller told me that if she really likes a customer, she’ll eventually just tell them to stop paying; she’s even integrated a few of her former buyers into her regular gaming group.
Playing in the Gig Economy
Regardless of the particulars, it’s clear that nobody is getting rich off this, or even deriving a living wage from it. That said, all of the sellers I contacted said that they were happy with the amount of money they were earning from their owrk, finding it consistent with the amount of time and effort they were putting into the platform. (One told me that she had made $140 total after a few months; another told me that she makes about $70 a month.) “It’s not really about the money,” one said. “I’m a social person, and I started doing this because I wanted to meet more people to play games with. Any money I make is just an extra bonus.”
The two customers I talked to mostly echoed the seller’s opinions of Fiverr as a service, noting that they were both fully satisfied with their purchases. That said, they both noted the stigma that they felt reaching out to strangers in order to procure a better gaming experience.
“It’s not that I don’t have friends, it’s that none of my friends are still playing Overwatch,” one told me. “Playing by yourself is sometimes a bad experience, and I was willing to pay $5 to see if I could do better… It was really fun, and I still play with her sometimes, though I don’t pay her anymore.”
Both buyers — themselves men — said the fact that the providers were women didn’t influence their purchasing decision in the slightest; they simply wanted somebody to play with. The fact that there are so few men offering these services and so many seeking them out makes one wonder about that, though.
Like any kind of similar exchange, it’s hard and maybe not useful to come down definitively on what the gamer for hire phenomenon means. These transactions are many things — meager sources of money for people in the gig economy, sites of connection for lonely customers, and a further integration of commerce into all aspects of our lives. But one thing is certain — in a culture in which everyone is expected to be an entrepreneur and in which plenty of people feel lonely and isolated, the fact that some people pay other people to play video games with them is maybe the least surprising thing in the world.