7, No. 2, May 2006
Gold Farmers in the Game World
by Ge Jin
of California, San Diego
there is a new kind of factory that hires young people to play
online games like World of Warcraft and Lineage day and night.
The gaming workers produce in-game currency, equipment, magic
spells and even whole characters, which are sold to players from
the US, Europe, South Korea and Japan etc. who want to raise their
level in the game world immediately. The people who play games
for real money trade are called "gold farmers" in the game world.
Since gamers often refer to the Chinese gaming workers as "Chinese
farmers" and the gaming factories as "gold farms," I will adopt
their terminology. From August 2005 to January 2006, I conducted
research in four Chinese gold farms and investigated how the farm
owners manage the production and distribution of virtual commodities
across the border between the virtual and the real as well as
the border between nations. I also tried to find out what this
job, combining work and play, means to Chinese gold farmers and
how it feels like to live at this peculiar intersection of the
virtual and the real.
currently the world factory of virtual commodities. According
to some news articles (1), there are gold farms in Romania, Indonesia
and Tijuana. These, however, do not approach the scope and scale
of the gold farming industry in China. The large scale Chinese
gold farms have hundreds of computers and employees, located mainly
located in Si Chuan Province, Fu Jian Province and Dong Bei area.
There are also many small ones with 3 to 10 computers. In a small
city called Li Shui in Zhe Jiang Province, I found hundreds of
such small gold farms. It is almost impossible to find out when
the first gold farm emerged in China. The most experienced gold
farmer I met started farming in 2001 in a farm that served Korean
and Japanese gamers. In 2003, Lineage II launched its American
servers and became extremely popular in America. This suddenly
expanded the markets for virtual commodities and gave rise to
thousands of gold farms in China.
has developed to such a level that the Chinese government is looking
for ways to tax and regulate it. Donghua, one of the gold farms
I visited, has registered with the local government of Jin Hua,
a small city in Zhe Jiang Province, as a formal business and started
to pay tax. It was difficult for the government to figure out
a way to classify this kind of business. At the end, Donghua is
classified under the communication and information service sector.
There is also a new gaming service company in Jin Hua: 5173.com.
5173.com is one of the largest brokers of virtual commodities
for the domestic market in China. According to an employee of
5173.com, the local government of Jin Hua directly invested in
5173.com as a way to boost local economy.
international brokers of virtual commodities are websites like
IGE.com and Virdaq.com. IGE is like the Wal-Mart of virtual commodities.
One can shop for virtual commodities from most of the popular
online games easily with an international credit card. IGE has
its headquarter in Hongkong, and according to several gold farm
owners, most of its virtual commodities are made in China. Most
gold farms cannot reach foreign customers directly, so they rely
on international brokers to distribute their commodities. But
some of them have foreign partners who provide them with eBay
accounts, Paypal accounts and foreign bank accounts so that they
can trade directly with foreign customers. The transactions of
virtual commodities are completed in the game world: after the
seller receives the payment and the name and location of the avatar
(virtual character) of the seller, one of the avatars of the seller
will meet the avatar of the buyer and hand over the items "in
the large-scale gold farms provide meals and dorms so that the
farmers live in the farm and work on a 12-hour shift with short
breaks. There are usually twice as many farmers as computers so
that the game is on 24/7. The salary for farmers ranges from 40
USD to 200 USD per month, I even found some particular ones in
which the farmers are willing to work for free as long as they
have a place to live and they can play games for free. The Chinese
gold farmers are sometimes referred to as "gaming sweatshop" (2).
This term captures some characteristics of Chinese gold farms.
The gold farms reflect China's current role in global economy,
which is mainly a source of cheap labor. The gold farmers are
being exploited by farm owners and international brokers. They
are also working long hours. Sitting in front of a computer and
killing monsters for 10 hours a day can be detrimental to their
health. However, "gaming sweatshop" is also an oversimplifying
term that obscures the complexity of this phenomenon.
Most of the
gold farmers I talked to love the job. In the gold farms, you
can see they are enthusiastic about their job and they got a sense
of achievement from it, which is rare in any other sweatshops.
Most of the gold farmers I met do not have better alternatives.
All the gold farmers I met are male, usually in their early 20s.
They were either unemployed or had worse job before they found
this job. Many of them were already game fans before they became
"professional". In some sense, they are making a living off their
hobby, which is an unachievable dream for many people. What's
more, the game world can be a space of empowerment and compensation
for them. In contrast to their impoverished real lives, their
virtual lives give them access to power, status and wealth which
they can hardly imagine in real life. This is a reason why they
are so addicted to their job. This is a paradox that the term
"sweatshop" cannot convey: in the gold farms exploitation is entangled
with empowerment and productivity is entangled with pleasure.
the virtual lives of gold farmers are not perfect either. Many
gamers are hostile to gold farmers. For many gamers, the game
world should be a place of pure immersion and a level playing
field. Eric Anderson, the founder of NoGold (3) organization,
told me that the gold industry causes inflation and inequality
in the game world and creates sweatshops in the real world. The
NoGold organization attempts to get fansites and resource sites
to not display gold advertisements, thereby, limit the exposure
that players have to the gold industry and make them less likely
to make purchases. While the NoGold organization does not put
the blame on gold farmers, many gamers see gold farmers as spoilers
and intruders of their game world. Nick Yee (4), the founder of
the Daedelus project--an online survey of MMORPG players, pointed
out that many gamers assume gold farmers are Chinese and often
call them "rats", "disease" or "commies". There are even gangs
of gamers who systematically harass and massacre suspected Chinese
gold farmers are troubled by their conflicts with foreign gamers.
They cannot really fit in the gamer communities on foreign servers
where they work/play because of language, cultural and social
barriers. They are proud of their achievement in the game world
but they are also sensitive to the fact that they are playing
to provide a service to some wealthier gamers. In the game world
they are simultaneously the "master" and the servant. Power relations
do cut across the virtual and the real. Chinese gold farmers are
in some sense a new kind of immigrant workers, disembodied through
the Internet, then reembodied on a foreign territory as the mythical
warriors, magicians or priests--virtual bodies that are the bread
earners for real bodies.
I have here
offered a brief description of what I observed in my field research.
My project on real money trade in the game world is still at a
very early stage. Currently I am looking at the following research
questions, which are interdisciplinary by nature. First, how should
we understand real money trade in the game world? Is it a new
virtual economy that should be allowed to grow or should it be
banned in order to preserve a pure game world? Second, how should
we understand the labor practice of gold farmers? What does it
mean when labor can be so perfectly transferred globally and embodied
in play? Third, how does living at the intersection of work and
play, virtual and real, affect one's identity formation and worldview?
I'm also making a documentary on this subject, which you can preview
1) See 1up.com,
Wage Slave, http://www.1up.com/do/feature?cId=3141815
2) See Ogre
to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese. David Barboza. The New York
Times, December 9, 2005
3) See www.nogold.org
from "the Daedelus Project". Nick Yee. http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus