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Outsourcing Fun: Gold Farming & the Rise of Digital Sweatshops

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Why play a game when you can cheaply hire a Chinese gamer to play it for you?

The well-known sci-fi author Neal Stephenson once said, “Gold farming is one of those things that make you want to quit writing science fiction because you could never think up something that weird.”

‘Gold farming’ is the process of intensely and repetitively playing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) to amass stocks of the game’s virtual currency (hereafter ‘gold’) in order to sell them to other players in exchange for real money (hereafter ‘cash’). What started as a cottage industry in the ‘90s has grown into a multi-billion dollar per year grey-market industry that takes advantage of the economic inequality between developed and developing nations and allows richer gamers to outsource the more mundane yet essential aspects of online games to foreign laborers.

The rise of MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft (WoW) effectively birthed the gold farming industry. These online games involve building and training virtual avatars that can interact with other players’ characters in a virtual world. Players explore the world, go on quests, and kick back in digital taverns together, which gives rise to social pressures and the desire to be perceived as successful within the community. However, to ‘level up’ one’s character, acquire gold, and gain more powerful items requires a significant time investment that some players are not willing to make. How can a lazy person like myself skip the often tedious grind of acquiring gold? Buy it from someone who will do the work, of course! This gives rise to a shadowy economy wherein well-off players (in real life) purchase gold with cash to spend in game and effectively hit fast-forward on their character’s development. In order to meet the demand for gold, some players work full time as ‘gold farmers’ because they can earn more money than they could at a real-life job.

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Gold farming is especially prevalent in China. In 2005 the New York Times estimated that there were 100,000 gold farmers in China alone. In fact, there are entire factories crammed with young Chinese gamers glued to computer screens killing monsters on behalf of Western gamers who are too impatient to do so themselves. These facilities have been compared to sweatshops by Westerners because of the poor conditions under which these digital laborers work. However, many gold farmers actually prefer their job to working other occupations because (a) it’s relatively safe compared to more hazardous jobs like actual mining, and (b) it often pays more than comparable low wage jobs. In fact, in 2011 the World Bank released a study that estimated the market for such gaming-for-hire services was worth $3 billion in 2009, and it suggested that with suitable mobile technologies even the least-developed countries could benefit from this emerging virtual economy.

“Developing countries’ roles in the digital world have been mostly limited to users and consumers, not producers. But today, a growing mesh of digital services is giving rise to a new layer of entrepreneurial opportunities with very low entry barriers,” said Valerie D’Costa, Program Manager of infoDev.

Okay, so is gold farming a bad thing?

This is a tricky question with no easy answer. On one hand, according to Tim Kelly, infoDev’s Lead ICT Policy Specialist, “there are real earning opportunities in the virtual economy that will become accessible as mobile technology develops. This could significantly boost local economies and support further development of digital infrastructure in regions such as Africa and southeast Asia.” But on the other hand, the same argument could be made for traditional sweatshops. What is the balance between economic opportunity and human dignity? If sweatshops will inevitably exist, would we prefer them to be gold farms or textile factories? Should Western gamers get off their asses (or, I guess, back onto them) and earn gold themselves so as not to undermine the spirit of the game? I go back and forth in my opinion.

From the legal perspective, game makers have been known to sue gold farms in order to preserve the sanctity of their games (other players can’t compete with people who buy their way to success) and to keep in game gold inflation in check. In 2009, the IRS increased its scrutiny of the virtual good economy to prevent tax noncompliance.

It has yet to be determined how the economy for virtual goods will affect the real world economy and whether it proves beneficial or detrimental to developing Internet-enabled countries. In the meantime, Western gamer will continue to reap the benefits of cheap virtual labor overseas.

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