It’s somewhat well-known that Steve Bannon, before helping run Breitbart News and eventually joining the Trump campaign and administration, had a checkered career in Hollywood. (He got rich off Seinfeld syndication dollars, but never really saw much success as a producer, director, or screenwriter.) Less known is that he also helped a company raise millions of dollars for a gold-mining venture. Specifically, mining gold in the online game World of Warcraft.
Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Joshua Green’s new book, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, details Bannon’s involvement in a Hong Kong–based Internet Gaming Entertainment, a company founded by Brock Pierce, a former child actor, disgraced media exec, and World of Warcraft obsessive. Pierce was one of the first to recognize that the willingness of World of Warcraft’s players to pay real money for in-world items and gold could be scaled up into an industry. Pierce employed poorly paid Chinese “gold farmers,” who played in long, rotating shifts, repeating rote tasks in the game to gain gold and rarer items. These would then be sold with a significant markup to Western gamers willing to pay real-world dollars to avoid the grind of World of Warcraft.
Bannon joined the company in 2007, helping put together a $60 million investment in IGE, with a large amount of that coming from Goldman Sachs. Eventually, IGE was hit with a lawsuit, restructured, and sold — but his time in the video-game business left a lasting effect on Bannon. Per Green’s book, his time at IGE “introduced him to a hidden world, burrowed deep into his psyche, and provided a kind of conceptual framework that he would later draw on to build up the audience for Breitbart News, and then to help marshal the online armies of trolls and activists that overran national politicians and helped give rise to Donald Trump.”
What Bannon found was a world “populated by millions of intense young men” who may have been socially maladroit, but were “smart, focused, relatively wealthy, and highly motivated about issues that mattered to them.” While these were the same players who destroyed IGE’s business model, Bannon saw something he could use. “These guys,” said Bannon, “these rootless, white males, had monster power. It was the pre-Reddit.”
Bannon would go on to aggressively court this audience when brought on to help Andrew Breitbart build out his ultra-right-wing news-and-entertainment site. It was Bannon who hired Milo Yiannopoulos, recognizing him as someone who could whip up disaffected gamers. (Indeed, Yiannopoulos — who previously had no interest in gaming — rode Gamergate and its attendant rage to fame and page views.)
It’s only in the aftermath of Trump’s election that there’s widespread acknowledgement of just how powerful harnessing the online population of privileged but angry young men can be. Bannon’s genius was recognizing this long before the rest of the world caught on.