April 17, 2014

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Chinese Gold Farmers: Work or Fun?

Julian Dibbell had an interesting article in yesterday’s NYT, profiling several Chinese gold farmers, who make their living playing the massive multiplayer game World of Warcraft (WoW) and accumulating virtual loot that is ultimately sold for real money. If you’re not familiar with gold farming, or virtual-world economies in general, it’s a nice introduction.

Even if you’ve heard it all before, the article is still worthwhile as a meditation on the porous boundary between work and fun online. These guys make their living playing a game, in seven twelve-hour shifts a week. It’s highly repetitive work – they follow the loot-maximizing strategy which involves hanging around the same little area and whacking the same monsters over and over. WoW players even call this kind of play “the grind”.

Yet somehow the guys enjoy it, not all the time but often enough to find a work rewarding in an odd way. One guy, Wang Huachen, has a law degree but chooses to play/work WoW instead, at least for a while.

“I will miss this job,” [Wang] said. “It can be boring, but I still have sometimes a playful attitude. So I think I will miss this feeling.”

I turned to Wang Huachen, who remained intent on manipulating an arsenal of combat spells, and asked again how it was possible that in these circumstances anybody could, as he put it, “have sometimes a playful attitude”?

He didn’t even look up from his screen. “I cannot explain,” he said. “It just feels that way.”

Amazingly, after finishing a twelve-hour shift, some of these guys spend their long-awaited free time … playing WoW.

But all that changed when the boss of one gold farm got a new business idea: rather than grinding out more loot, his employees would instead build up a 40-man team of uber-characters who would serve as mercenaries, for hire by players who wanted reliable, non-greedy companions in attacking the toughest areas of WoW. Suddenly these gold farmers could really use their skills, and have more fun – for a while.

The end arrived without warning. One day word came down from the bosses that the 40-man raids were suspended indefinitely for lack of customers. In the meantime, team members would go back to gold farming, gathering loot in five-man dungeons that once might have thrilled Min but now presented no challenge whatsoever. “We no longer went to fight the big boss monsters,” Min said. “We were ordered to stay in one place doing the same thing again and again. Everyday I was looking at the same thing. I could not stand it.”

What’s most interesting about this, to me at least, is the relationship between the gold farmers and the players they serve. It’s not a personal relationship, only an economic one, in which the gold farmers play the boring part of the game in exchange for a cash payment from a richer customers.

This relationship is an amazing tangle of play and work. The gold farmer works playing a game, so he can earn money which he spends playing the same game. The customer finds part of the game too much like work, so he works at another job to earn money to pay a gold farmer to play for him, so the customer can have more fun when he plays. Got it?

Comments

  1. Alex says:

    I think the article gets it wrong on why people in the game dislike the gold farmers. It’s not just some abstract concept of “cheating,” or helping other players get ahead without hard work–I think most WoW players disapprove of that, but don’t care that much. There’s simply too many like-minded people they can socialize with themselves, and its easy to spot and to avoid a powerleveled/gold-buying player by their lack of skill. The real annoyance is that gold farmers are farming the same spots that legitimate players want to, are constantly there, and are often quite pushy with normal players for help/time/items. With a lack of English skills and constant exposure, players quickly go from thinking “oh, goldfarmer…eh” to “I will rip the head off the next person who whispers me for food!”

    In relation to your economics observations, in a sense there is only so much “work” to go around in the world. Monsters respawn constantly (Blizzard was smart enough not to repeat the mistakes of 989/Verant/Sony in EQ), but there are still only so many and many players who want a piece of them. It is frustrating when an area reaches a saturation point and no more useful work can be performed there, and a player must pack it in and move to another area. Outsourcing at its finest?

  2. Michael Donnelly says:

    The shock value of gold farmers doesn’t necessarily come from the concept. If you create a big enough demand, someone will create a product. I think the size of the game is what shocks. A thousand kids willing to spend $20 on a virtual coin isn’t that amazing. But if you take the NPR article as truth, 20% of normal (3.5M-ish if you count EU/America) players have bought gold. That’s 700,000 kids, which is much more exciting.

    The game already has a caste system based on gear once you’ve reached the level cap, so the farmers running around in their BoE (bind-on-equip, easily found items in the outside world) greens/blues are already a few notches below the hardcore raiders in their epics (bind-on-pickup, requires time spent in PvE/PvP instances). Combine that with the extremely unlikely scenario of being able to meet the maker of your mass-produced product and the discrimination is ready to go. The icing on the cake is that the majority of these players are so young that they don’t have the understanding of diversity that only comes with age. They may be smart and clever, but they are not wise.

    The in-game impact is, ironically, not that big. Farming spots may be overrun with farmers, but the game design limits the impact by accelerating respawn rates as the newer areas get more populated, making more monsters for everyone to farm. What’s more interesting is the economical impact, which is twofold.

    The first impact is on prices for items/services that the game sells. These are fixed prices, such as training new skills, buying horses, changing the player’s talent specification, etc. The point of these costs is to help remove gold from the market: when you buy epic flying mount training for 5000g, that gold is gone. It did not go to another player. For these things, gold farmers have an impact. The various services become easier to buy, because players have more gold from buying it or from selling in-game items to the gold buyers (see next paragraph). So you see more players on epic flying mounts, but they are otherwise not that much better off than players without gold in this respect. The game’s vendors do not sell powerful items.

    The second impact is on prices for goods that are traded between players. These fluctuate a great deal in price, just like a real market. Players naturally want to sell their goods for as much as possible so they can buy other products that they need. Ironically, the impact of gold farmers on this market is minimal. As players get chunks of gold, the prices of the items go up, but so does their value. Since all players have the ability to farm items, it washes itself out very quickly. If a stack of copper ore is outrageously priced at 2g on your auction house, then you can get that 2g by selling something else that is also outrageously priced that you farmed yourself. Or, of course, you can go mine the ore yourself and cash in on the profit. As long as players are equally capable of farming, the prices of items sold between players does not actually mean very much at all. Currency is extremely abstract, since the market is made wholly by the players. If you want to buy that rare sword, but it’s overpriced, then you can simply farm for an hour and you will find something that you can sell at an equally insane price to pay for the sword.

    I think the most alarming thing we’re seeing in these articles on RMT, power-leveling, and the various lawsuits is that the value of in-game items is real. There is a large enough consumer base to roll a TON of money through the pipes. I imagine we’ve gone through this thing before, where something that was considered silly (intellectual property?) gradually becomes valuable. As long as it takes time to create and someone is willing to pay for that time, it will have value.

  3. Justin says:

    I don’t play the game, but somehow I think a clever and innovating person could make something to automate farming for the person, be it a mechanical device to manipulate the mouse/keyboard, an electrical or even a vnc connection (I know WoW moniotors for cheating programs, but there are obviously ways around that), so another computer can play the game and earn you money. I think then the value will suddenly dcline or be lost.

  4. Seth Finkelstein says:

    Think “poker”. For most, it’s a game. For a few, it’s a job. In fact, everything that’s a game can be a job in terms of teaching people. Are there WoW teachers who give lessons in techniques?

  5. Alex says:

    Justin: many programs to automate the farming behavior exist. The problem is that none of them have enough random action built in to fool even the most casual of observers, much less a game moderator focused on finding such things. While you could escape detection for a little while, the very nature of the business is such that a farmer must farm 24/7, and the failure rate rises dramatically. Throw in the cost of buying a new account if your old one gets banned and levelling it up again, and its more cost effective to just pay someone to play the character on the cheap (added benefits being that that player is far more skilled than the AI could be).

  6. cm says:

    I have heard of a similar activity — character building (i.e. building of game characters, not your own character) to sell a high-score and hence powerful character for money, the point of course being that the purchaser does not have to spend weeks of game play to build the character from the ground up.

  7. Tarkeel says:

    @cm: That used to be quite common in EverQuest; a game where leveling was quite a bit harder then in WoW. Ofcourse, those that did buy high level characters without knowledge of how to play, quickly got branded as incompetent “eBayers” and couldn’t accomplish much with their character. They therefore had to spend quite some time learning to play their character, then forking out another 50$ to Sony to change the character’s name to start a fresh career.

  8. James says:

    Holy crap, we finally found one of these mythical “jobs Americans won’t do”. Just like with illegal (Central/South American) laborers in the real world market, these gold farmers band together to depress the value of the product (gold/labor), and organize to defend their turf when those affected by their tactics rally against them. Those 40-man raids aren’t just mercenaries for hire; farmers will team up to repel “real” players who want to farm their sweet spots.

    At least the problem in the game has a simple solution — Blizzard should start selling in-game gold for real money, and cut the farmers out of the loop altogether.

  9. cm says:

    Tarkeel: I thought so. Of course, I know the story from the “provider’s” perspective. Hey, if somebody’s going to pay for it, we will do it. I don’t know which game it was for though, only that it was one of those battle/empire simulations.

  10. cm says:

    James: What makes you think those are jobs that “Americans” won’t do? Everything is a matter of opportunity landscape. People “won’t do” certain jobs if they have better alternatives, either another job or an allowance. Failing that, many are willing, perhaps grudgingly, to do a broad range of things. Look at that Chinese fellow quoted in the article. He is not a happy camper and by appearances would prefer other opportunities.

  11. mak says:

    Seth: Actually, there are, though it may take some work. A lot of people are very willing to help newer players out–ok, maybe not a *lot*, but they’re out there. I was helped by some when I started and I’ve become one of them myself. Problem is, at least half if not more of “techniques” in WoW consist of learning to play well with others, and that’s not necessarily easy to teach…and for those who don’t want to cooperate with a team, buying gold is probably a lot faster and easier.

  12. Louie says:

    A big nuisance with goldfarmers is that you get spammed in-game with gold-selling advertisements.
    A common thing that happens is that you get multiple unwanted private whispers from players with names like ‘GHJKKJHK’, in crummy english, clogging up the chat log, and very distracting (of course they don’t check that you’re busy doing a difficult instance and need all your attention).
    They also send spam via the in-game email system, or position characters at busy spots who stand there just /yelling the same ad over and over again.
    You can actually install interface AddOns which will filter the chat and remove lines that contain URLs from known goldselling sites. Plus, recently Blizzard put in an option to quickly report a goldspammer.

  13. Ulrik M. says:

    People earn money leveling world of warcraft characters so I guess it’s some sort of work. I’m personally working on two mmorpg auction websites and I guess there is a very good market on this specific area.

    Anyway I think it’s blizzards own fault and they could easily eliminate powerlevelers, botters and gold farmers if they wanted.