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All your digital labour are belong to us

The Daily’s Whitney Mallett explores the world of gold-farming: professional gaming and virtual trading

Gold-farming is a type of digital labour. Put simply, in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft, players will pay real-world currency for characters, weapons, and gold coins, or to reach higher levels. Professional gamers, or “gold-farmers,” will spend time attaining these digital goods and then sell them to the gamers willing to pay. Due to the tens of millions of players worldwide, the demand for gold-farming services is quite high, and over the past decade this sort of virtual trading has developed into an industry – one that touches on issues of global trade, regulation, and the sociology of cyberspace.

Because gold-farming usually exists outside the law, it is largely undocumented – making it difficult to grasp the size and scale of the industry. In “Current Analysis and Future Research Analysis on ‘Gold-Farming,’” Cambridge professor Richard Heeks explains that annual revenue could range from US$200-million to US$20-billion. He also estimates there at least 400,000 gold farmers and five to 10-million buyers.

The vast majority of gold-farming takes place in China, but it’s also been documented in other East Asian countries, and to some degree, in Mexico and Russia. Business models vary, but most reports describe micro-enterprises typically run out of a one- or two-room apartment or office spaces with 10 or 20 employees and computers.

Remko Tanis, a Dutch freelance correspondent living and working in Shanghai, explains that gold-farming firms crop up on the outskirts of cities where rent is cheap. Often, there are colleges nearby where potential employees can be found – most gold-farmers are males in their late teens or early twenties who are already familiar with MMORPGs.

Though most know little about gold-farming, those that do usually associate it with words like “sweatshop” – just look at the Wikipedia page. This image of an exploitive industry is grossly distorted. Heeks affirms that “most [gold-farmers] enjoy their work and that the oft-applied ‘virtual sweatshop’ label is at best partial and at worst inappropriate.”

Tanis explains that the gold-farmers in Shanghai whom he spoke with “all said they were playing these games anyways, so why not try to make money out of it.” Tanis finds that many continued to play the same games in their free time. He added, “The problem is more that they are addicted to the computer than that they are being exploited as computer slaves.”

Heeks and Tanis both place a gold farmers’ monthly pay at about US$200 to US$250 – slightly higher than the average in China. “Pay and conditions are poor by Western standards but are good or better than the alternatives that gold farmers face,” Heeks notes. Victimizing narratives are often unsubstantiated and reveal the Western penchant to impose their opinions of acceptable employment onto others. Ulises Mejias, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, explains, “There is a tendency for us in the ‘First World’ to look at an image of, say, a bunch of shirtless guys in a room somewhere in Asia and immediately think ‘sweatshop’ and ‘oppression.’”

Along with pay and conditions, the nature of gold-farmers’ work is often criticized. Killing the same monsters and retracing the same game-space for gold coins is boring and repetitive. An anonymous gold-farmer in Heeks’s paper is quoted: “You try going back and forth clicking the same thing for 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, then you will see if it’s a game or not.” However, accusations lodged against the automated nature of gold-farmers’ virtual tasks deserve reassessment. Heeks’s research finds that many gold-farmers gain a sense of achievement from their work and saw little difference between play and work.

The measures many gaming companies have taken against gold-farming threaten the livelihood of these digital labourers, but they also diversify and enhance the complexity of their work. Gold farmers have to outwit the gaming companies so that their clients can continue to buy characters, weapons, capital, and access to levels without being noticed. Tanis explains, “It challenges the people here to get smarter.” Heeks also notes that gold-farming may provide valuable IT skills, and could potentially be a step toward more highly skilled work as a programmer.

Gold-farming is typically thought of in terms of a simple dichotomy: the rich Westerners buy the virtual products and the poor Easterners slave away acquiring them. But this narrative only vaguely fits a small portion of the industry. Since the late nineties, Asian countries have developed and launched their own MMORPGs, and Heeks notes that although the global gold-farming trade garners the most attention, it is likely smaller than national, regional, and local trade. Heeks and Tanis both point out that the market for gold-farming is actually much bigger in Asia than in Europe or North America. Tanis explains that gold-farming firms in cities in the southeast of China, like Shanghai, “tend to specialize in the domestic market, and some other Asian countries.”

Last year, students from Ithaca College worked with Mejias and Tanis, as well as other academics, to research gold-farming. Their blog, although titled, shows a movement away from their initial, unequivocal negative stance toward gold-farming – assuming it exploited workers. Their final posts from last April acknowledge that their primary assumptions were called into question and that gold-farmers are not necessarily victims of the industry.

Cheating fantasy
Although the demand for virtual trading comes from gamers, the biggest opposition to gold-farming is also from individuals in gaming communities. Nicholas Yee, a research scientist from Palo Alto Research Center, estimates that 22 per cent of the tens of millions of online game players participate in trading. Although this means there is a huge market for gold-farmers, it also suggests that most gamers object to the idea of buying wealth and status in the games. It’s cheating.

Cooper Sellers, an American who manages and other gaming-related sites, explains that “being able to ‘buy’ your way to the higher levels degrades the accomplishments of the others who earn their prestige through hard work.” The site aimed to help web masters of MMORPG-related sites who opposed gold-farming through efforts like blacklisting ads from gold-farming brokers.

It seems convenient for gaming companies to align themselves with anti-gold-farming activism when their primary concerns are the integrity and quality of their game play. An unofficial World of Warcraft web site ( posted an article promoting an upcoming documentary about Chinese gold-farming made by Ge Jin, a USCD Ph.D. student.

About anti-gold-farming members of the gaming community, Tanis speculated, “I don’t think they’re at all concerned with sweatshop practices. They might say it because that sounds better than ‘they cheat their way into my fantasy world.’’’
Virtual racism
Unfortunately, gold-sellers rather than gold-buyers become the targets of gamers’ resentment toward what they deem unfair play in games, which, for many, are more “real” than reality. For all players, gold-farmers, gold-buyers, and those that object to the practice, MMORPGs can provide a welcome escape from reality and a virtual world where a fantasy avatar gives the individual a greater sense of fulfillment than their position in the real world. However, resentment toward cheating often manifests in in-game racism, which can make the game a hostile place for gold-farmers, and even other players with poor English assumed to be gold-farmers.

Gold-farmers are often easy to spot, and other players often go out of their way to kill their characters or send them hateful and violent messages. In “The Life of a Chinese Gold Farmer,” Julian Dibbley’s 2007 article for the New York Times, she notes the disturbing racism in homemade movies on sites like Youtube titled, “Chinese Gold Farmers Must Die” and “Chinese Farmer Extermination.”

This is “how racial meanings can be insidously re-mapped in cyberspace” explains Dean Chan of Edith Cowan University. Yee finds the vocabulary of this in-game racism eerily familiar – noting similar tropes of disease and pestilence and a need for extermination associated with Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. He notes the similarities between the contemporary and historical narratives: “Chinese immigrant workers being harrassed and murdered by Westerners who feel they alone constitute acceptable labour.”

Efforts to fight gold-farming often rely on other players’ hostility toward gold-farming, as they are encouraged to report suspicious behaviour – for instance, a character trolling the same area over and over again for gold. These accounts are then banned, which can compromise gold-farmers’ employment. Tanis notes that gaming companies may have been trying to maximize profits – by eliminating gold-farming, players are unable to buy their way into higher levels, and must pay months of subscription fees to earn it through proper play. However, Heeks points out that “doing nothing about gold-farming also costs nothing whereas doing something costs money in staff time and other resources.”

Corporate farming
Despite the measures taken to prohibit gold-farming, it continues. Gaming companies have already started to realize the potential for economic gain by incorporating it into their business model. Mejias explains, “While MMORPGs initially tried to ignore and then repress gold farming…they will realize there is a demand and figure out a way to make money from it.”

This is already happening to some extent. Mejias and Heeks both note that Sony Online Entertainment hosts trading for their game Everquest 2 – Sony’s 10 per cent commission earned them $250,000 the first year. Heeks also notes that many Asian games, which follow a free-to-play business model rather than a monthly subscription like Western games, sell levels and characters – capitalizing on the demand for the services gold-farmers provide. This model, however, leaves no room for gold-farmers who profit from the demand for purchasing fast-tracked virtual goods and services, and the gaming companies’ failure to provide them.

Mejias explains that what started out “in the interstices of the network…will become mainstream, and more importantly, automated.” This leaves an uncertain future for gold-farmers whose services may receive less reward, or may not be required at all in this new business model.

Gaming governmentality
Looking toward the future of the industry, questions of government involvement arise. Like other cyber activities, governments have difficulty understanding and regulating gold-farming. Mr. Wang, a gold-farm owner that Tanis interviewed, explained that he tried to apply for a government registration in order to pay taxes and get insurance and social security for his employees, but the government turned away his request because they didn’t understand if his business was farming or virtual gaming. Heeks’s research finds some gold-farming firms in China registered and paying taxes – an obvious economic incentive for governments to regulate the industry.

The Korean government banned the trading of virtual currency in 2007, but little has been done to enforce this prohibition. There are claims China has a similar ban in place, but Tanis, a Shanghai resident, explains that if this is true it would have little relevance or consequence. On the other hand, Heeks’ notes that there are reports that local governments in China have invested directly in gold-farming.

Real-world implications
One solution proposed, which relies on regulation, has a fair-trade model for gold-farming. For the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival at Ithaca College in New York State, Mejias organized an alternate reality game that explored “whether there could be fair-trade gil [gold], just like Fair Trade coffee and chocolate – in other words, a system for compensating workers appropriately.” Mejias is, however, skeptical that this would be feasible. He doubts that the Chinese government will regulate the industry and predicts that it will inevitably be incorporated into the games by the game manufacturers themselves.

Another inhibition to a fair-trade model is that many workers may already be compensated proportionally to the value of their work. According to Heeks’s research, most micro-enterprises seem to pay the workers relative to the profit made by the firm. This being said, business models are diverse across the industry, and numbers show both firms just breaking even, as well as firms with the potential for super-profits. Heeks notes one South Korean entrepreneur who out-sourced Chinese gold-farmers for the Korean game Lineage and made $9.6-million in three years. The potential for this super-profitability is less likely since the deflation of virtual gold in 2007.

Whether this virtual world merely reproduces current labour patterns of inequity and exploitation, or if the features of digital technology could create different and better patterns is difficult to ascertain. Heeks writes that gold -farming largely reproduced “real-world institutions and social forces” in the virtual realm. But, he also finds reason to be more optimistc. After the price of virtual gold fell in 2007, changes took place necessary for its survival, one being that intermediary brokers between the gold-farmers and the gamers were largely cut out and power became more dispersed. “While this falls short of an argument that technology has transformed social structures and behaviours,” notes Heeks, “it means the mix of technology, structure, and agency is unpredictable.”

Though the issues related to gold-farming currently have little audience aside from gamers and academics, these are questions that we all should be contemplating, as the commodification of the Internet increasingly infiltrates our day-to-day lives through sites like Facebook and Twitter. Insisting that the victims of this commodification are only other people on other continents shifts the focus away from the primary issues. “Underlying cyber-Orientalism…serves to conceal the fact that…we all find ourselves being (sometimes willingly) exploited by Web 2.0 companies,” says Mejias. “It’s just we find it much easier to think of those being exploited as the Chinese…. But at least the folks in China are getting paid!”