How Does It Work?
Gold farming was assumed to be more of a cottage industry, but the roots run much deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a few people here and there doing it, it's big industry. Many online games now have a virtual cash system and marketplaces, which can be used to buy or barter for items to use within the game. Making money for yourself in the game can be tedious and time consuming, so many people look to other players willing to provide the money – at a cost – to outfit their character with whatever gear they need in game. There’s other practices as well such as 'power leveling', where for a price, they will run your character for a short while and level it up much more quickly than you could do yourself.
Accurate figures are hard to get, but it is estimated that in China in 2008 there were approximately 400,000 people earning approximately $145 monthly doing this kind of work. However, researchers said this number was conservative and in reality it could easily be twice that. In many online games, these kinds of activities are actually a violation of the TOS, or terms of service. People who are caught doing it run the risk of losing their account and being banned from the game – yet still the practice persists. Incredibly, the gold-farming industry is about the same size as the outsourcing industry in India. It's an example of what you might call a “virtual offshore” industry, which we can only expect to grow as people spend more and more of their time in cyberspace. It’s a bit like the seedy underbelly of the digital world, or at least the edges of it, where you’re starting to rub elbows with the scammers and hackers.
It seems though, that the spread into developing nations is far more extensive than most people realized. Gold farming, of course, has been around as long as there have been online games, but has grown along with gaming’s popularity. The fact that there is such a market clearly shows that there is need for the trade. On one hand, you have players with more money than time, and on the other hand you’ve got people with time to work and no money – it’s natural that the two will come together. Some gold farming sites have hundreds of people working for them, and a hierarchy of gold-farmers has developed where people in countries like Vietnam who are willing to work for very low wages are now doing for Chinese gamers what goldfarmers in China do for Western players.
Unfortunately, like with many of these types of industries, there are criminal gangs moving in to take what they can, too. These outlaw groups will pay for accounts using stolen credit cards. They offer goldfarming services by taking the real life money without giving the promised gold or goods in return. They also fill forums and chatrooms with spam where they hawk their gold-farming services.
Trying to get rid of this unusual problem causes its own set of problems. For one, its difficult to find and bring charges against those that are doing it. While some game companies have tried to limit trade in gold and gear, the efforts haven’t shown much success. If they try to get rid of it completely, it would be eliminating one of the most basic aspects of player interaction with other players, not to mention a trade that makes the game companies millions every year.
Image credit: Nextnature.net/Guardian