Steve Bannon had been involved in a number of financial opportunities before beginning his contentious tenure at the White House. In his earlier corporate years he worked as investment banker with Goldman Sachs; in the ‘90s he began financing films and documentaries in Hollywood. But it was a foray into the world of gaming, detailed in the Washington Post Friday, that may have inspired him to mobilze the readers of Breitbart, the media go-to for white nationalists.
In the early 2000s, Bannon was turned on to a new financial opportunity. Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE) was an upstart online gaming-related company in Hong Kong that had started capitalizing off of the massive popularity of role playing games like World of Warcraft. One area the company dealt in was selling sought-after virtual items within games to real life players for real life money. According to the Post, Bannon joined IGE as a financial advisor in 2005, while the company made millions in what was essentially a morally-suspect cottage industry within online gaming, for a number of reasons.
The Company Relied on Virtual Sweatshops
In order for IGE to accumulate the online capital they needed to offer virtual goods to players of Lineage II and EverQuest, for example, the company employed Chinese workers in what were called “Gold Farms.” For wages as low as 25 cents an hour, workers would play games online, accumulating credits for buying things within games that would grant players more power: magic items like swords and capes, etc.
The Company’s Avatars Would Meet Players Inside Games to Deal — and Tried to Cover it Up
IGE created hundreds of gamer accounts, using them to meet players inside the games and perform transactions. After receiving payments via credit card, an IGE-run avatar would meet up with a player to give them virtual goods. The company worked hard to keep their hustle off the radar of the games in question. Per the Post:
An undated employee-training presentation obtained by The Post instructed IGE workers never to type certain words in public forums inside the games. The list included “IGE” and “Names of any of our affiliated sites.”
The Company Created Fake User Accounts Using Names and Addresses From the U.S. Phonebook
To cover their contraband tracks, IGE created fake users by plucking names out of a U.S. phone directory. They used a dial-up phone service connected to servers in the United States to make it seem like the computers that operated the fake accounts were operating out the United States, instead of Hong Kong. The evasive tactics were being employed for a reason: gaming companies were actively attempting to ban their accounts, shutting down hundreds of them a month.
Goldman Sachs Invested $30 Million
According to a former IGE executive, Goldman Sachs was part of a $60 million dollar investment in the company in 2006. Despite concerns related to big game companies’ condemnation of IGE’s practices, according to the executive, the private equity firms were still convinced into investing based on the massive profit potential. Bannon probably had a large role to play in this, as he already had a relationship with Goldman Sachs.
A Year Later They Were Losing $500,000 a Month
In May of 2007, Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of World of Warcraft started a massive crackdown on cheater’s accounts, effectively shutting down a huge wing of IGE’s operation. By January of the next year, the company was reportedly losing over $500,000 a month. IGE sold the virtual currency trading part of their business in April of 2007, and in June Bannon moved from being an advisor into the role of chief executive.
Gaming Culture May Have Inspired Bannon to Mobilize Breitbart Readers
Under Bannon’s leadership, IGE shifted their focus to internet chatrooms and forums for gamers. Bannon himself apparently became fascinated with the internet leverage of the gamers that gathered on these sites: Bannon told journalist Joshua Green — who wrote Devil’s Bargain about Bannon’s rise within the Trump administration — that he hoped to cultivate the collective power of white male gamers into a fervent new readership for Breitbart, and looking at his career choices since then, probably for much more.
Bannon stayed on as chief executive of IGE, which changed its name to Affinity Media Holdings as it moved out of the virtual currency market, until 2011.Photos via Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla