Friday, August 29, 2008

virtual gold

They call them 'playbourers'.

Maybe you already know about gold farming for the massively multiplayer online role-playing games, known as M.M.O.’s, but I didn't and my friend, susan, didn't so I thought I'd tell you a little about what I found out. This week it was announced that more than 500,000 Chinese people are working in the industry, grinding (also known as leveling) in on-line computer games for pay. They don't make much money - an average of $0.30 an hour, 12 hours a day, seven days a week and this is all so that gamers elsewhere can have powerful game characters (it costs $250. for a fully powered up character for Final Fantasy XI).

World of Warcraft, produced in Irvine, Calif., is one of the most profitable computer games in history, earning close to $1 billion a year in monthly subscriptions and other revenue. More than eight million people around the world play World of Warcraft. They share the game’s vast, virtual world, looking for enemies to kill and coins to gather. Every WOW player needs those coins, and mostly for one reason: to pay for the virtual gear to fight the monsters to earn the points to reach the next level. And there are only two ways players can get as much of this virtual money as the game requires: they can spend hours collecting it or they can pay someone real money to do it for them.

"Economics sees value wherever humans decide that some
construct of theirs has utility but is scarce. Synthetic world
goods have utility and are scarce; thus they have value that
can be measured in terms of real dollars." (Castronova 2006:52)

It turns out that gold farming is actually a very big business since there are now more than 80 MMO's released or currently in development. As would be expected it's the company owners and brokers who make the largest part of the income from the sale of real labor in the virtual worlds. Naturally, it wouldn't feel like such a weird thing if you happened to know someone who'd be willing to spend the time leveling up your main character or collecting coins by killing hundreds of enemy monsters and could pay them directly. Perhaps you could even hang out at the end of the day and talk about the adventures and challenges that person had faced while you were in your cubicle somewhere doing something similar but being better paid.

Survivalists are those who have no choice but to take up the income-generating activity because they have no other source of livelihood. Income provided may be poverty-line or even sub-poverty-line. Most "entrepreneurs" in developing countries are of this type, "supply-driven": forced into enterprise by push factors related to their poverty and lack of alternatives.

This isn't a new story but it is about something that's continuing to grow outside of mainstream knowledge. It's all very strange for a corvid like me to contemplate but I'm wondering if it might not portend a future way of life for people outside of third world countries. Or will the third world sneak into the first world in dribs and drabs as people grab whatever opportunities the virtual world provides? Has it done so already?

Just a thought.


  1. What an odd, fascinating and disturbing story to contemplate. I like my video games - though I haven't touched any of this stuff; strictly old school-y console - and for those that get off on this, I'd imagine it's the same sentiment of being in a different realm that those of us who read/write/paint/compose feel, that unseen tie to a part of the world around us through whatever medium, but it's the third world angle that's jarring; though comforting in a macabre way, knowing that exploitation and desperation, hand in hand in the real world, still lock fingers in the virtual.

    The times, they are a changin'.

  2. randal - It came as a surprise to me too but you certainly can't blame people for trying to earn a living. I don't know if it still continues but there was a time when paying players were ganging up to identify and kill gold farmers. Very weird.

  3. Well after playing these games for a number of years i can see both sides of the issue. Personally i never use anybody's help in these games unless i belong to their guild or something and even then i am sure to pay it back as soon as possible. I just prefer to get to the top on my own. Cheating just makes it boring for me. I can see why this happens though as most gamers today regardless of age want instant gratification. They have no patience with the game and want to dominate and win as soon as possible. This is a bit sad to me as the journey is everything to me. I can't sit at the top and feel pride if i cheated to get there. These people though feel they are nothing until they get to the top and will stop at nothing to get there. Unfortunately more and more gamers are becoming like this. So i see why there is a need for this type of system to develop. I just don't agree with the mindset. I also can see why people give those gold farmers a hard time. They feel it cheapens their own accomplishments when they get to the top and people assume they got there by cheating since it is so rampant. I have encountered that myself. Other gamers not believing me when i tell them i did it without cheating is pretty annoying. But then again i don't agree with the ones who are doing everything they can to make it hell for those people to make the money that way. Just play the game and don't worry about what others are doing. This isn't a second life. It's just a game.

  4. susan, oh no, if I needed loot that bad, I'd explore every opportunity that came my way.

    avshar, exactly, it's the journey itself. One is, theoretically, supposed to enjoy the game, not min/max for the sake of attaining some pointless clout or prestige. I used to see this with tabletop RPGs back in the old days. Instead of going for whatever will power up your character the most, play your character as he/she is.

  5. avshar - Thanks for coming by. It's an odd subject and even though I'm well aware there are more important things going on in the real world it's definitely a subject worthy of some thought insofar as it reflects general cultural values. My husband is the serious gamer around here and has stayed with the single player RPG's, platforms etc. which are sometimes fun to watch and help navigate - puzzle solve. He does spend time in the forums and that's where this issue came up again recently. MMO's are just way too addictive for us to contemplate but I can see their attraction and agree that doing it yourself is far more satisfying. What fascinated me though was the economic principles being transferred to virtual world gaming with people who'd have no intrinsic interest in computer games laboring away killing minor monsters in order to collect pretend money for small remuneration in the physical world. It just seems like a sad waste of time but such is the desperation in our unfair economic landscape there seems to be something inevitable about this having become a big industry that's invisible to most.

    randal - Another version of bashing the 'guest workers' as I see it.

  6. I have no experience what-ever with these types of games. They've held any appeal to me at all.

    But I did want to stop by and say hello! :-)

    I'm still enjoying your last story. I read it again today.

  7. Interesting how sweatshop labor continues to evolve with technology. I guess in goldfarming there's at least not much risk of losing fingers, so if you're in dire straits, you may well go for it.

  8. pagan sphinx - Crow's posts are all about the economic issues behind the political maelstrom. On that basis the issue of indigent labor supporting well off video gamers seemed worth a post. I'm always happy when you come by to visit.

    ben - Yep and good take.

  9. Susan, I'm appalled. Simply appalled. You have pulled the curtain on a very new arena (for me) of what I'd call "evil."

    Slavery still exists. It just looks different.
    Hope I'm not over-reacting.

  10. be - It's definitely another bit of very nasty business that's well hidden. As it relates to the bigger picture I have to point out there are worse things going on as you well understand.

  11. hmm. Slavery would be a mass organization bringing people off the streets and sitting them down in front of these computers and forcing them to play. I doubt this is what is going on. More a case where the small amount of money they are making seems small to us but is actually ok to them. For them to own a computer in the first place or get a legal or illegal version of the game kinda points out it isn't a slavery issue. The type of computer required to run these games is a bit more than the type used for just everyday web surfing or office work. So it is going to be tad more expensive and make the kinda profit gained form this venture meaningless. This is mainly a case of gamers attempting to make a a little extra cash, or maybe in some extreme cases a living, doing what they enjoy. It is simply not cost effective to try and run a serious business selling electronic gold. It is an odd way to try and earn some cash since i think the time involved isn't equal to the earnings but some people spend far more time on these games than they do with anything else in their real life. So they don't see it that way.

  12. i don't worry about how other people play on-line games, as long as they don't do silly stuff like gang up on other players (pk'ers suck unless it's consensual). everybody has their own unique style and too many rules spoil the game.

  13. avshar - I'm well aware gold farming isn't slavery in the traditional sense nor have I defined it as such. Nevertheless, these aren't guys who own their own fancy gaming systems trying to make a few yen on the side. They are people who usually work long shifts for guys who do own the machines and they either live on the premises or in factory style bunks nearby. The employers make money: for every 100 gold coins gathered the worker makes 10 yuan, or about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20.

    I'll paraphrase from the NY Times magazine article that was one of my references: "Edward Castronova, an economist at Indiana University and at the time an EverQuest player studied the transactions and his results suggest an aggregate gross domestic product for today’s virtual economies of anywhere from $7 billion to $12 billion, a range that puts the economic output of the online gamer population in the company of Bolivia’s, Albania’s and Nepal’s."

    If people want to play MMO's that's fine. If hundreds of thousands of people in 3rd world countries play them because they have no other income that's not so good. It was bound to happen because the law of supply and demand would make it so but it is a little like offering somebody a real $50 for their Monopoly game real estate.

  14. lol...i know it isn't funny but wow. I tend to laugh at the insane. I cannot believe this is going on. This is what you were talking about huh? It is pretty unbelievable. Well it doesn't surprise me. Or rather it does but it shouldn't :). Where there is a peasant class there are exploiters there to take advantage. I am so glad i never bothered with gold purchasing for those games and quite glad i now understand why the game companies themselves are coming down so hard on out of game gold purchases. I say they should be even more strict if they can get the auctioning sites to work with them and end this nonsense. Sorry i didn't get the extent of the message you were putting out there.

  15. Just a final add on here. I went and looked up a few more articles and a couple videos on this situation and every report has one thing in common. No one asked the Chinese kids doing this work what their take on it is. I see have no idea what the standard wage is for Chinese workers and therefore no idea if this isn't equivalent to a standard laborer wage or something. I mean there has to be a reason they are doing it instead of manual labor or any other typically underpaid jobs in economically poorer areas. Its still not cool but it would be nice to hear their own words on the subject.

  16. Hi Susan
    An interesting thought. I had not realized the extent of the virtual world and its effect on those who work in the Industry.

    But it strikes me it is not too different to the real world where the owners of the intellectual capital and distributors hold all of the aces. In that respect they owe a debt of corporate social responsibility to those who are engaged in the industry to pay fair wages, or to put it crudely to pay a fair days work for a fair days pay.

    It might turn out to be similar to the clothing industry where eventually suppliers who accessed sweatshop labor for garment manufacture by using outworkers who were paid a pittance were black balled in favor of those who took a more responsible stand.

    Ultimately though you can’t legislate morality in another country, but collective consciousness can make a big difference.

    So keep up the good work.

  17. sera - There's been some targeting of 'farmers' when players go to grind areas in WOW known as Chinatowns with the intent of killing them. It's as tricky a business being a moral gamer in MMO's as it is in real life - maybe more so. Killing the monsters the game throws at you is one thing but deliberately killing other players is quite another.

  18. avshar - The article I linked to in my post and linked to again in my last note to you actually is about some of the young Chinese playbourers. Apparently, the pay isn't what could be called a living wage there - instead it's something akin to offering you $2/hr.. enough for the odd bits but never enough left over for savings to provide a better future. Getting killed and having to rebuild the character costs them valuable time - real time and real money. As Lindsay says in the next comment and as a couple of others have already noted, it's essentially sweatshop labor. That's something that can only be addressed as a moral issue in the working world. We can't have a fair exchange of goods and services if the people providing the labor aren't treated fairly in their own countries. We've seen a huge race to the bottom with businesses of all kinds outsourcing their production of real goods but the same thing appears to be true in our relationship to the virtual gaming world. I'm not against people taking whatever kind of employment they can get but I'm definitely against exploitation. It's something that diminishes all of us.

  19. lindsay - "Ultimately though you can’t legislate morality in another country, but collective consciousness can make a big difference."

    I like that idea. When people are so involved in stomping on people who haven't even made it to the foot of the ladder rather than building a better ladder things will only get worse.

  20. i'm morally correct
    and the rest of the world
    isn't. that's what makes
    being immoral fun.

  21. sera - and that's the moral of the story ;-)

  22. Susan, this is yet another form of serfdom, if you ask me. Someone of means needs someone of no means to perform a service that they can no longer afford to perform themselves. I know because online gaming -- like online blogging -- can consume hours of one's time, and presumably at a cost per hour much greater than someone who is making no money at all. Moreover, it does not suprise me in the least that someone of no means would jump at the chance of earning the pittance in this manner because, quite frankly, something is better than nothing when you're dirt poor and hungry.

    China's economy, as it continues to grow, is ripe for this sort of exploitation. It's really not much different from what happened here in the US at the turn of the century when immigrants were forced to work for slave wages in unsafe conditions. Remember the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire?

  23. I had no idea. This is fascinating, not just the story, but the implications of a whole underground economy arising from a game.

  24. hmm...interesting. The last time i hit the link it took me to a video that was about 5 minutes long. No article. This time i see the article. Very strange. At least they have a few quotes from the workers. i still would like a full on interview but i guess nobody wanted to spend what little extra time they have on a reporter hehe. Don't blame em.

  25. spartacus - Yes, I remember the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire. I also remember Chinese laborers being imported to work on the railroads and how badly they were treated there and in the towns where they tried to operate businesses and live. We seem to have a national habit of abusing the newest immigrants whether Italian, Polish, Greek, Irish or Vietnamese. If there's anything we might hope to work toward it would be some international agreements about worker's rights.

    divajood - Thanks so much. Having your regard means a lot to me.

    cdp - Yeah, I always thought about real things being made and never before about pretend things. It's weirdly interesting.

    avshar - I think it would make a really fascinating documentary.

  26. as always, ravens are right to the core of the matter