Sunday, March 19, 2006

Chinese Gold Farmers (i.e. Real Money Traders)

(thanks for the idea Alex H.)

During my senior year at University High School, I took an English elective, taught by teacher extraordinaire Jesse Berrett, called the “Art of Nonfiction.” For our final project, we were able to write about any topic with the only limitation that the piece had to be written in a style comparable to one of the authors we read. I chose David Foster Wallace for his humorous wordplay and very bizarre (yet weirdly open) sentence structure.

Since video games are my passion, I was debating what exactly to write about. Surely a comprehensive history of video gaming would take much more than the allotted 10-15 pages. So I set forth on a journey to narrow down my topics. I had been extensively playing the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft, at the time, so, naturally, I was drawn towards trying to explain to the gaming-uneducated this huge and dynamic world. Not only this, I wanted to try and show how the image of the “gamer” has evolved over the decades. I would explain how role-playing games evolved with this image and how the MMORPG was a culmination of increased social interaction between the once anti-social “gamer” crowd.

In a brainstorming session in class, we presented our ideas and fellow peers would comment on the topic and make suggestions of their own. One of the people in my class, a seventeen-year old entrepreneur named Ben Casnocha (Founder of Comcate, Inc. Some of the stuff that he has done is truly remarkable), suggested that I focus on how these worlds work…from an economic standpoint. How does this world sustain itself? Explain how auctions are created, item acquisition, crafting, and professions. People need to make money in this game, so how does that mimic the real world? Indeed, a college professor paid for his students to play MMORPGs and to let them report back to him what they found out on how to manipulate the economy in this certain game.

My classmate then touched on the whole business of “Chinese gold farming” or “real money trading,” which is a severe problem in Asia these days. These farmers are not all Chinese as the nomenclature suggests. They can be Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc., it’s just a popular generalization that lumps all Asians into this one group; in and of itself a discriminating effect. Kids drop out of school to get paid to play these MMORPGs. However, they don’t play for fun. All of their game time has to be allotted towards one goal: make as much money as possible so that they can sell the gold to rich American gamers on auction sites like Ebay or gold-trading sites like IGE.

Employers provide the PCs, shelter, and wage for these gold farmers. Albeit, the wages they get are paltry; around 50 cents/hour. The living conditions provided are to be described as inhumane at best. And these people play games for more than 12 hours straight, putting hygiene and sanity on call as they traverse the colorful lands of Azeroth, Vana’diel, Dereth, *insert whatever game world here*. People have died playing these games. You usually don’t hear about them either. What you do hear, however, are stories about idiotic people playing at internet cafes 24/7 because they want to. These people are just like you and me who get so addicted to these games and play until acute respiratory distress or renal failure seizes them. They aren’t paid to play these games on a rigorous, monitored schedule.

Yet no one makes a big fuss over these “Chinese gold farmers.” Racism? Yeah, that’s part of it. Ignorance? Definitely. Don’t tell me to get off my high horse and say, “Well if that’s how it’s gonna be, then leave them to their doing. They made their own choice to get into the line of employment, it should be their lookout.” That would be like telling me to leave the genocide in Sudan alone, acknowledging of course the lesser impact of this. Mostly, people don’t think twice about this because they think that these gold farmers are just like them, sitting “in front of their PCs, with Mountain Dew cans riddled around their room” to quote a friend. has a very well-written article about this phenomenon titled "From sweatshops to stateside corporations, some people are profiting off of MMO gold."

This isn’t any different from the sweatshop crisis happening in other parts (and in the same part) of the world. Ge Jin, a PhD student from UCSD, is making a video documentary of the gold farming phenomenon. I really hope that this project of his can help educate people (like me) more about this growing problem. You can see the breaking blog post over at Terra Nova "Disembodiment, Hypermobility, and Labor."

An interesting comment Ge made:

When I entered a gold farm for the first time (Tietou's gaming workshop in the preview), I was shocked by the positive spirit there, the farmers are passionate about what they do, and there is indeed a camaraderie between them ... I do see suffering and exploitation too, but in that place suffering is mixed with play and exploitation is embodied in a gang-like brotherhood and hierarchy. When I talked with the farmers, they rarely complained about their working condition, they only complained about their life in the game world.

Although they have to work/play for 12 hours a day, they take pride in what they achieve and they seem eager to escape into a virtual reality richer, brighter, and more exciting than their impoverished real world lives.

Here is a preview of his upcoming documentary courtesy of YouTube:


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