Monday, December 21, 2009

Gold Farming: Not Just a Game

It might have been Isaac Asimov who was once asked in an interview about the future of the job market, and how advances in computing might lead to technological unemployment. (I'd check the quote but my internet modem died yesterday, and all I'll have time to do today is upload this column without any time for online research.) His reply was interesting. He said not only did he believe technological unemployment would not be a problem, but if you looked at the job market ten years from now, many of the jobs people would be doing wouldn't even have names today. They simply didn't exist yet.

I can't think of a better example of this right now than the weird service industry called "gold farming," a byproduct of the rapid expansion of massively multi-player online role-playing games that occurred over the last fifteen years or so. Next month's issue of Scientific American carries a good article describing the rise of this business, which I must admit was news to me, since I am of a generation to whom online role-playing games are as unfamiliar as writing Sanskrit.

It turns out that in many of these games, which millions of people play all around the world now, the designers have seen fit to introduce a medium of exchange, which in World of Warcraft, for instance, is called "gold." Like real money, you can both earn it and spend it. The ways to earn it tend to be pretty boring, much like real life: working in a "mine," cutting "timber," and "killing monsters." (The last one might not be so boring, but still you might get tired of it after a while.) You can spend it on things like medicine to "heal" your "wounds" or "improvements" to your "spaceship." You get the idea: in the shared mental universe of the game, online gold has as real a value as anything else in the game. Only its value transfers to the real world, and players are willing to pay real dollars, yuan, or whatever to get online gold. And as any good economist will tell you, enough demand on the part of enough people will create a market and a supply.

So it turns out that in China, especially, there are rooms full of low-paid service workers "playing" (the quotes now mean it's really working) games with the sole purpose of accumulating gold to sell, usually in online markets separate from the game itself. The game operators and designers try to discourage this sort of thing, but like most online gray markets (e. g. international online gambling), enforcement of a prohibition like that is difficult or impossible.

In absolute terms, this is not a huge market. Although estimates are hard to come by, numbers range from $200 million to $3 billion annually traded in online value. But depending on what happens with virtual worlds, it is an industry that could get a lot bigger in the future.

Ethically speaking, the whole business is under a cloud since the game companies see gold farming as a gross misuse of their service. I suppose it's a little like ticket-scalping, in the sense that gold farming is a purely parasitic activity that would vanish if its host went away. Just as different organizations take different views of ticket-scalpers who resell legitimately purchased tickets despite laws that sometimes make it illegal, you'd think that some game companies would figure out a way to join the farmers instead of fighting them. Why not just make it a part of the game and set up your own online store? The game companies would be at an advantage since they sit at the controls that make the gold in the first place—they wouldn't need to pay roomfuls of people to make gold, it would just come out of the store, like Uncle Sam makes dollar bills. Which of course could lead to online hyperinflation, and a whole nest of other economic nasties.

The reason they don't do this, I suppose, is that they don't want to undercut or short-circuit the whole reason for playing online games in the first place, which is to demonstrate some kind of skill or prowess in front of other real human beings, however disguised. And there is a kind of pretense or implied fraud committed by a person who has purchased a new spaceship or sexy avatar or what have you, with real money instead of earning it in the "proper" way (I promise that's the last pair of quotation marks I will use in this piece.). There is a kind of ethics of gamesmanship or sportsmanship, and in that sense, buying online gold in the real economy is not unrelated to an athlete taking steroids. In both cases, you have people abusing technology to achieve goals in a way that is not admissible under the rules of the game. But some people go ahead and do it anyway.

Well, I've rambled on for eight hundred words without solving the problem of gold farming. Like many other ethical problems, what you think about it depends on your point of view. From the viewpoint of a former real farmer in China, sitting inside and typing all day for what looks to him like good, reliable pay is a step up in the world, never mind that it's against the rules of some company in some country he's never visited. And a truly effective way to do away with gold farming would put all these folks out of work, at least until the next technological job we don't have a name for yet came along. Maybe I'm just the wrong person to consider this subject. The end of yet another year next week reminds me that our time in this real world is finite, and I prefer to spend it dealing with real people in person most of the time, rather than getting dressed up as some screwy avatar and going around doing things I'd never do in real life, or even consider doing. But that's just me.

Sources: The January 2010 issue of Scientific American carries the article "Real Money from Virtual Worlds" by Richard Heeks, pp. 68-73.

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