Vol. 7, No. 2, May 2006

Chinese Gold Farmers in the Game World

by Ge Jin

University of California, San Diego

In China, 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.

China is 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.

This industry 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.

The largest 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 person".

Typically, 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.

However, 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.

Many 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 here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=ho5Yxe6UVv4


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

4) Yi-Shan-Guan, from "the Daedelus Project". Nick Yee. http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus