This paper discusses a new phenomenon in the virtual world called ‘Gold Farming’. Gold farming consists of playing an online computer game for the purpose of gaining items of value within the internal economy of the game, and selling these to other players for real currency such as US Dollars or Euros. Such items may be in-game money (where the game internal economy allows this), desirable items, or highly developed game characters amongst other things. The selling is done through web sites or online auctions. An estimate for 2009 puts the in-game gold market at US$ 7 billion
This phenomenon, following the spread of the Internet and online computer games, is widely practiced in low average income level countries such as China (where there are thought to be half a million gold farmers) or Mexico that have relatively good access to Internet. Although this phenomenon can be considered as ‘just’ a new form of sweatshop labour (which it undoubtedly is), there are some differences and even clear benefits for the gold farmer compared to the ‘traditional’ sweatshops.
Before looking at the phenomenon in more detail, we outline the computer game context – a huge and lucrative industry. We then describe in detail the work, the 'labour', that gold farmers undertake. This usually involves some kind of repetitive action on the part of the gold farmer, although we briefly discuss the role of automated labour, using in-game ‘robots’ (automated scripts performing some of the functions of the game) to assist in the gold farming.
After describing the ways in which gold farmers generate items of value, we discuss how such items are sold. It is argued that gold farming violates the feel of the game, and as the selling of gold is done outside of the actual game and is not agreed upon implicitly when a game is entered, it could be considered cheating in the sense that Kimppa and Bissett (2005a and 2005b) have argued. The issue is not clear, but certainly some distortions are introduced into the gaming environment: thousands of accounts tied to gold farming are banned, with millions of gold pieces, worth tens of thousands of dollars in the game-external markets, frozen.
Having anatomised the phenomenon we discuss its origination, drawing in part on the concept of ‘globalisation’ – ‘the removal of barriers to free trade and the closer integration of national economies’ (Stiglitz, 2002: ix). Stiglitz, who has been closely involved at senior government level with China, characterises that country as one that is less developed and which has been moving slowly, since 1980, towards a market economy. It is not surprising that gold mining has taken off where there is a significant differential in wages and personal wealth – average per capita income in China is $450 US. In effect the labour of the gold miners achieves an export of ‘dematerialised’ or ‘virtual’ goods from the less developed world to the more developed countries.
Crucially, the major ethical issues are drawn out. Working conditions for gold farmers are typically poor: just a room with computers and a place to sleep as is typical in sweatshops. A likely wage for a Chinese gold farmer is 500-800 Yuan per month, less than 100 US Dollars. Gold farmers are often on-line for many hours; 12 hour stretches seem to be the norm, and this is not good for the body and eyes. There is the ‘grey economy’ aspect: hardly ever are taxes paid, likewise any kind of insurance. We discuss the differences between gold farmers and software developers, and note the contrast between what is entertainment in the developed world and work in the developing world. There is an interesting question of reality – what might seem to be ‘virtual reality’ to game players in the developed world must appear as considerably more ‘real’ to the gold miners who invest their time, skills and labour in the less developed world.
However, the picture is far from simple. We discuss some ameliorating aspects such as:
- No outsider is seriously hurt by gold farmers
- Although it is in the grey economy, there are not many ties to organised crime
- The working environment is relatively safe
- In the developed world we in the IT industry and as researchers quite often do a comparable workday utilising a computer - this does not seem to be impossible at all
- The work might even be comparatively congenial, making a job from a hobby (and haven’t we all, as researchers done that?)
- There is good cameraderie
- It appears relatively easy to break from the gold farm and start to do the same business independently or as part of a co-operative society with other former gold farm workers
- Stiglitz’ work suggests that the phenomenon will be time-limited
Kimppa, K. & Bissett, A. (2005a) Is cheating in network computer games a question worth raising? in Brey, P., Grodzinsky, F., Introne, L. (editors) Ethics of New Information Technology. Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquiries, University of Twente, Holland, July 17th - 19th 2005, 259-267.
Kimppa, K. & Bissett, A. (2005b) The Ethical Significance of Cheating in Online Computer Games, International Review of Information Ethics, Vol. 4 - December.
Stiglitz, J. (2002) Globalization and its Discontents. London: Allen Lane.