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Gold farming and character leveling services for games such as the World of Warcraft (WOW) have evolved into massive businesses employing thousands and rivaling even the electronics and software outsourcing industries.  (Source: Blizzard/BBC)
Virtual gold farming business comparable in size to outsourcing

Some deride the trials and travails of pro gaming as "childish" and a "non-sport".  However, impoverished citizens worldwide are finding a way to raise their families out of poverty thanks to a very different kind of professional gaming -- gold mining and character leveling services.

In the strange and constantly shifting global economy one topic that's always brought up is outsourcing.  With many companies shipping jobs overseas, the issue is a hot topic.  Companies love it, and look for better ways to do it; many workers hate it.  Professor Richard Heeks, head of the development informatics group at Manchester states, "The Indian software employment figure probably crossed the 400,000 mark in 2004 and is now closer to 900,000."

However, a major silent industry has been creeping up, particularly in China -- online gaming services.  According to Professor Heeks' studies, 400,000-800,000 people are employed in gold-farming business alone, with 80 percent approximately in China.  While Professor Heeks says the business has a much lower profile than outsourced jobs, he says, "Nonetheless, the two are still comparable in employment size, yet not at all in terms of profile."

He describes, "I initially became aware of gold farming through my own games-playing but assumed it was just a cottage industry.  In a way that is still true. It's just that instead of a few dozen cottages, there turn out to be tens of thousands."

Professor Heeks discovered that on average gold farmers made about $145 (£77) per month in 2008, creating a $500M USD industry.  In countries like China, where the average income is $150, such employment can provide poor with a lucrative second job and means of rising up out of poverty.  The industry is buoyed by tight demand in games such as World of Warcraft (WoW) in which online game currency is scarce.

One interesting part of the booming market is that it is quasi-illegal (and perhaps by extension, quasi-evil).  Most massively multiplayer online (MMO) games have strict user contracts which prohibit such activities.  Users are regularly deleted when they're caught engaging in such activities.  However, the gold miners continue to find a never-ending stream of customers.

Another major emerging market is for character leveling services.  Many Chinese businesses are offering to level players' WoW characters and get powerful items for them, which busy users would never have time for.

The phenomenon of a booming black market is described by Professor Meeks who states, "I was drawn to write about gold farming due to my perception that it's a significant phenomenon that academics and development organisations are unaware of.  It is also a glimpse into the digital underworld. Or at least the edges of a digital underworld populated by scammers and hackers and pornographers and which has spread to the "Third World" far more than we typically realise."

Steven Davis, chief of game security firm Secure Play said gold farming is nothing new, but is just now coming into its own.  It meets a basic need of online gamers, he believes.  He states, "When you get people with more money than time and time than money the two will find a way to meet."

Some gold farming businesses have risen to employ hundreds.  Sales are generally managed through secret underground sites associated with the game of choice.  MMO providers make halfhearted attempts to crack down on these sites and their users, but there's little that can be done to stop the trend.  Some MMO's like EVE Online have deployed complex economic systems, which have helped limit gold farmers, but typically the most popular games like WoW have simpler systems, which incidentally make it easier to farm gold.

Just like outsourcing, gold farming is moving down the chain to more impoverished nations.  Some wealthier players in China are now paying people in Vietnam to farm gold at cheaper rates.  One undesirable side effect is some crime gangs in China have taken to stealing people's credit cards to finance accounts.  Some of the more tech-savvy gangs also hack into people's accounts stealing their gold, which they then sell online. 

Prosecution of such crimes is difficult.  Often its near impossible to locate gold farmers in the real world.  And many MMO users support the gold farmers.  Says Mr. Davis, "You could get rid of it, but you would get rid of one of the most fundamental parts of player-to-player interaction."

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This is why I never play MMO games
By AnnihilatorX on 9/8/2008 7:53:02 AM , Rating: 2
I will never play MMO games that requires you to devote unreasonable amount of time before you can level up, and perhaps engage something fun, even that is going to be short lived. Not to mention you pay to suffer.

There are very few good MMO games that ditched level up systems and reward personal skills. Though you may be still spending time to practice or explorer, at least it's more rewarding in doing so, and when you are out-gunned, you lose for a good reason.

The current model of capitalistic angle of work hard and you'll gain may work well for gold-farmers, but not for gamers.

RE: This is why I never play MMO games
By porkpie on 9/8/2008 10:47:43 AM , Rating: 3
No MMO "requires" you to devote any particular amount of time. Some whining types have just got the idea games are no fun, unless they can instantly be billy-bob badass in them, max level, with all the best items. Grow up.

An MMO is not a first-person shooter. It is SUPPOSED to require a time investment to build a character to peak. It's not a FPS for gods sake. You want to work on your fast-twitch skills, go play Doom.

By Vinnybcfc on 9/8/2008 2:43:41 PM , Rating: 2
It may not be totally required but it practically requires you to devote time. My mate got kicked out of a guild on wow the other day because he started going on a friday when it is guild time or raiding or whatever it is called.

If you slack and guild members or friends overtake you then it gets a bit boring.

mmorpgs all become a grind in the end which generally means time = levels.

On any other type of game you can hop in and it doesnt matter what you have previously done, (ok you can build skill up) but you could go away for a month and start playing with mates or a clan at the same point as them when your back.

By phxfreddy on 9/10/2008 2:24:46 AM , Rating: 2
Clearly people playing WOW are burning alot of hours per day! Gesus I don't play but its easy to know because of my friends.

RE: This is why I never play MMO games
By FITCamaro on 9/8/2008 10:54:44 AM , Rating: 2
You sound like the perfect WoW player then.

A REAL MMO makes you work for what you have and do.

RE: This is why I never play MMO games
By Imaginer on 9/8/2008 12:33:01 PM , Rating: 3
Lets see...

An MMORPG is considered a video GAME right?

Games are suppose to be all for fun and play right?

But you said that a real MMO makes you WORK for what you have and do?


MMORPGs (or any MMOs) = work
work != play & fun
play & fun = games
MMOs != games

Sorry, but I deal with WORK on the real life just supporting myself, spending on necessities, chores for myself, working out to gain the incremental physical+ attributes, even have a hobby that can be equated to crafting...

Long post short, if I spend that much time doing something as mundane and in my opinion worthless that in the end isn't fun in a video game, I might as well spend just as much time doing something worthwhile and beneficial outside of a computer monitor.

By masher2 on 9/8/2008 2:09:01 PM , Rating: 3
> "work != play & fun"

If you work at McDonalds, perhaps. Plenty of people enjoy the work they do. There's no inherent reason the "work" done in a game can't be equally enjoyable.

By bjacobson on 9/8/2008 11:24:47 AM , Rating: 2
first time through, the whole process is fun.
Second time with another class, it's definitely a grind.

I think its great we can be helping people make money (and be able to pay for food!), while at the same time be improving ourselves (in videogames none the less) as well. Who is Blizzard to take away their jobs? Not quite fair. Farming isn't hurting very many people...

RE: This is why I never play MMO games
By s12033722 on 9/8/2008 12:41:37 PM , Rating: 2
That's one of the things I like about Eve Online. Eve character progression takes place in real-time and is not experience-based. It's simply a matter of how long your character has been active as to what capabilities he can have (guided by the player, of course). That allows me to keep up with the power-gamers in terms of capability even though I will never have enough time to play as much as they can. They will exceed me greatly in terms of in-game finances, but not abilities.

RE: This is why I never play MMO games
By joemoedee on 9/8/2008 1:54:08 PM , Rating: 2
It's simply a matter of how long your character has been active as to what capabilities he can have (guided by the player, of course).

That too can be exploited. Just have someone play your character for you for a nominal fee. While you're at work, your character is improving.

To me as a non-MMO gamer, that seems silly, but to the hardcore want to be the best players with expendable income, I'm certain it's reality.

RE: This is why I never play MMO games
By Ringold on 9/8/2008 8:43:18 PM , Rating: 2
Er, you misunderstand. His skill's "level up" 24-7 regardless of if he is online or not. For example.. level 5 battleship, might take about 30 days. He sets the skill to train, walks away, and comes back a month later.. level 5 battleship.

But like he said, without some time in game he wouldn't have the money to buy a ship requiring that skill. Particularly that one. Marauder's aint cheap.

By theendofallsongs on 9/9/2008 10:15:18 PM , Rating: 2
Wow. Fun. Not.

What's the point in the time limit at all then? Why not just start everything at max level?

By Proteusza on 9/9/2008 6:26:22 AM , Rating: 5
You know a game is boring when you want to pay someone else to play it for you.

By HrilL on 10/2/2008 2:43:22 PM , Rating: 2
I'll have to agree with that. While MMO take lots of time to get to a high level to be able to own everyone else. I'd rather play a game that takes real skill and doesn't just take endless amounts of time or money in a lot of peoples cases. RTS and FPS games on the other hand take real skills that you can't buy with money.

I have been a customer
By kattanna on 9/8/2008 12:52:35 PM , Rating: 2
what amazes me is the sheer size of the business, yet no one will admit to being buyers themselves.

well.. i HAVE bought gold for a game.. big deal. didnt feel like putting in the sheer number of hours to farm the gold myself. hmm spend hours and hours doing something that would be less then fun, or drop someone $40 do have them do the unfun task for you. isnt a tough choice. kinda like the one i make with my laundry, yet no one would call that evil.. LOL

though if you were to listen to some people its the bane of all existence, which it isnt.

RE: I have been a customer
By joemoedee on 9/8/2008 1:57:19 PM , Rating: 2
what amazes me is the sheer size of the business, yet no one will admit to being buyers themselves.

I think it's more to do with the "principle" of it.

It's just like people being shocked that professional athletes would take performance-enhancing drugs. People expect everything to be "pure" and "untainted", especially in a game. No one wants to play against a cheater, and many view these things as cheating. (Personally, it doesn't bother me either way.)

RE: I have been a customer
By flydian on 9/9/2008 10:49:05 PM , Rating: 2
Agreed. For most it seems to be a matter of principle. I don't like it, as it goes against my "principles" of playing the games, but at the same time, I really don't care, unless it somehow affects my entertainment.

Which is another issue in this. Some would argue, and rightfully so, that this alters the in game experience. Where I might buy "X Item" for 100 Gold with no farmers, it could cost me 10x as much (or more) due to the huge influx of extra money, yet my own ability to make money hasn't increased at all. However, the flip side of that is that the sheer volume of some items being sold by these farmers for gold tends to flood the market, causing prices to drop due to volume. In the end, it seems to balance out for the most part, where the easily "farmed" items are cheaper to buy, and the "rare" items are more expensive.

So the only time it has ever bothered me is if I'm in an area trying to do a quest, and have trouble finishing it due to the amount of mindless killing done by some of these farmer-robots. Then I report them for breaking the terms of service for the game and go on having fun.

Shareholders should be furious
By arazok on 9/8/2008 4:36:53 PM , Rating: 2
If I were a blizzard shareholder (or other MMO provider), I’d be questioning why it is that no mechanism exists for users to purchase gold legitimately from the game provider.

This is clearly a massive revenue generator, and the sheer size of these farming operations shows how much money is involved. The game operators have the ability to create gold at zero cost, so why aren’t they? The argument that it destabilizes the economy doesn’t hold water – as gold purchasing is happening anyways.

RE: Shareholders should be furious
By Ringold on 9/8/2008 8:49:36 PM , Rating: 2
Eve Online has caught on to it. There is some "RMT", real money trading, but probably the vast majority comes through selling game time cards. If you want in-game money, you buy 60 day time cards, and use a CCP (the owners of the game) secure mechanism to sell it for in-game money to people in game.

I think that works out well. Those driving the in-game economy make enough 'isk' to not have to pay for the game themselves, and other people have a legal way of safely exchanging $ for isk. Supply and demand sets the exchange rate. CCP wins. Can get isk cheaper through illegal Chinese methods, but people tend to pay up for the legal route, and even the Chinese farmers buy the time cards so no real currency is being expended to keep their accounts going. CCP wins.. no matter what.

By Master Kenobi on 9/10/2008 1:56:19 PM , Rating: 2
Yep. It's a booming market.

"This is about the Internet.  Everything on the Internet is encrypted. This is not a BlackBerry-only issue. If they can't deal with the Internet, they should shut it off." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis

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