Anyone who plays World of Warcraft knows them: they often have strange names (Ihugirls, Jobsister), but they may also have a name unnoticeable from others. Their guild tag might be your average WoW lore fluff, or it could be something along the lines of “Knightsofthepiratekitty.” They play as much, if not more, as any hardcore addict: 8-12 hour days. But rather than roaming about the game’s many dungeons and zones, you find them in them alternating between the auction house and the same hot spots: Winterspring hunting herbs, camping elites in Tyr’s Hand, or patrolling Burning Steppes for rich thorium veins. Every hour of the day.
Who are they? Gold farmers. Somewhere along the line, people figured out that there was in fact more money to be made in the secondary market of MMORPG’s (selling gold, items, and characters) than their was in the primary market (selling subscriptions). One account I’ve read traces this behavior to Ultima Online’s Lee Caldwell, who pioneered the business by paying Mexican workers pennies an hour to farm Ultima Online gold, netting himself some serious cash in the process. Today, that same work is primarily done in China, where the cost of living and currency conversion allow farmers to work. To give you an idea, the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of a Chinese citizen is $6,200. The average American has $41,800 (both sourced at the CIA World Factbook). The PPP is a tool used by economists that compares actual buying power between countries (to adjust for cost of living, and so on). Also of note is that this number for China is skewed: there is a HUGE disparity between the peasants in the agricultural provinces vs. the city workers in Shanghai/Beijing. Gold farming is enabled by globalization and by the huge disparity in standards of living between the US and other countries.
Wow, that’s a big statement of economese. Not really. Let’s get down to the facts. As of the time I wrote this, gold was going for $32 for 500 on my server, alliance side. I’ve seen lower prices, I’ve seen higher. Your average gold farmer tries to take in 20 gold an hour, per account. This means approximately 25 hours of playtime for $30 gold. Under absolutely no circumstances is this a reasonable way to make money for anyone in the US. Even if you are in college, with all the free time in the world, this is an idiotic use of your time for profit. However, in China, where wages are substantially lower, this becomes a lot more realistic. An investigative piece done by 1up.com (a must read for anyone interested in this subject), puts the monthly wage of a Chinese gold farmer at .56 cents an hour, or about $150 a month. Suddenly, this ratio of playtime to gold to money makes a bit more sense. But note—this is only possible in a country like China, where labor is exceedingly cheap. This is also the same reason everything in the US is manufactured over there: it’s far cheaper to pay people pennies and ship stuff on a boat than to pay a living wage here in the US.
So why care? What does it all mean? For starters, it means that overseas farmers have a distinct advantage over US player in terms of the resources they can gather. Not racism, but fact. A casual player cannot compete with someone working full time on the same endeavor. Further, a PROFESSIONAL US gold farmer cannot under most circumstances make a living farming gold in this manner, thus meaning you will see little, if any, gold supply from US sources (exception being the sale of accounts, which are one shot deals, and a US seller who is a distributor of farmed gold from elsewhere). Someone in China can work full time and make a living off selling gold. Someone in the US cannot. So, let economies do their thing, right? NO! This is a GAME. WoW (despite my and others long hours committed to it) is a VIRTUAL world, created to entertain. It is not somewhere created to become a virtual sweatshop, and there are EULA items that explicitly ban the sale of in-game materials. Yet through poor enforcement, we see this behavior ever growing.
It gets worse. Although Chinese labor is exceedingly cheap, the fact is, with complex macros a single person can (and by reports, does) oversee multiple accounts farming at once. As a result, the earning potential of one Chinese farmer goes up by a factor of five or more. This is ANOTHER advantage a Chinese farmer has over your average player. Your average player is… well, playing, on one account, on one computer. They have little reason to go beyond, at max, two accounts (known as “dual boxing” and usually used to power level a character). You need to either be a serious geek to have five or so WoW capable computers… or be a professional. Conversely, a professional gold farmer can work 5 or more boxes, utilizing macros, at once. Most players don’t have this. Why? Because your average player wants to play to have fun: not to rake in the gold to sell on eBay. Because WoW is a game, not a way to make a living… or is it?
Another score to China.
But ok. World of Warcraft isn’t a competition of who can farm the most. So why should your average player care that some folks overseas are making a living off the game? A few reasons.
First of all, competition for scarce resources. The best example of this would be, say, farming for herbs or metals in the game. These items are quite precious, and utilized by a number of individuals: arcane crystals, for example, are used to make some of the game’s best weapons, and herbs are used in potions that are crucial to battling the game’s toughest bosses and dungeons. Competition will be high regardless: many players want these same weapons and battle these same bosses. However, competition is artificially inflated by the fact that there are Chinese gold farmers working the same, limited resource nodes, over and over again. In turn, they will sell these items on the auction house: keeping them within the game, true. But you are artificially increasing the cost of in game gold and time to obtain items that are useful for PLAYING THE GAME.
Conversely, the farmers are using these items to PROFIT. It is one thing to lose out on in game resources to another player who seeks to use those same items for his own benefit (that player is playing within his rights). It’s quite another to lose out to an individual who is working multiple accounts in an attempt to earn a living (that player is violating the EULA, as well as seeking individual profit). Well hey, you say, the guy’s just trying to feed his family. Perhaps. But WoW is not meant to be a place for people to make a living: it is meant to be a place to play a game. I would even go so far as to say I’d rather lose out resources to another “real” player who is going to sell them for in-game gold to buy other stuff for his own character, because I know, at the very least, he is using his own free time, just as I am to play the game. He is not working 5 machines running complex macro scripts to beat me out. This is why it’s not “cheating” if you mail gold to your lower level alt: you earned that money on your own time, by playing the game it was intended. Not by turning yourself into a gold collecting apparatus.