While some old-fashioned gold panning was taking place in an international competition in Dawson City this past weekend, gold mining with a more modern flavour was happening at a place called cyberspace.
‘Farming’ for virtual gold coins that can be traded for cash in the online video game World of Warcraft is fast becoming a major global industry — a new gold rush, you might say.
And as the market for farmed gold grows, the sheer pleasure of the online game may be under threat of disappearing.
Globally, more than eight million people play World of Warcraft, with 3.5 million of those in China alone.
The game is played out in a virtual medieval world in which users interact with each other using individually designed characters. Players battle each other, exchange weapons and “gold,” and embark on quests.
The controversy is that many players, primarily in the West, are buying their way through the game.
Like regular gold extracted out of the earth in the Klondike, gold in WoW, as it is known, can now be bought and sold through a cyber stock exchange that once included e-Bay.
The exchange involves brokers, and of course there must be buyers and, as with any commodity, there are the individual minions, in this case miners who don’t make much of a living despite spending long hours moiling.
To accumulate gold through legitimate means, your virtual character does tedious work, such as stabbing repeatedly at hard rock with a pickaxe. It can consume hundreds of hours of a person’s time in a game that can last years.
The easiest way to avoid this tedium is to buy the gold instead — from real life miners.
The real-life miners in World of Warcraft are mostly Chinese workers. They sit at a computer for 12 to 18 hours at a time using their online characters to rack up thousands of gold coins that can be sold to other gamers, mainly in the West, who can’t be bothered or are too busy to earn the points themselves. (WoW and other online role-playing games such as Final Fantasy and EverQuest have been dubbed “monogamous games” because they require such significant time commitments; some even go as far as calling WoW “a full-time job.”)
The gold can have a range of uses. It is especially important when training the characters. But if you can buy it, you can proceed quickly. You need a sufficient amount of gold to succeed.
WoW gold might sell today for $15 for 200 coins. An entire character could be sold for several hundred dollars. Last year, a teenager living in Gold Coast sold his character’s high-level profile on e-Bay, which has since banned the sale of virtual currency, for $1,300.
Blizzard, the company that owns World of Warcraft has banned more than 100,000 accounts for what it considers “illegal” gold trading — 50,000 of those were accounts in China.
The company is able to find the buyers of sweatshop gold by looking for evidence of extraordinary sums of gold accumulated or spent all at once.
The Chinese gold farmers, on the other hand, are noticeable because their characters can be seen by other players doing little else other than digging, digging, digging for gold. But the farmers are less easy boot out because they can simply create a new account to replace one that is shut down.
Purists say buying gold coins is cheating.
Others argue that without it, World of Warcraft would never have reached the level of phenomenon. Most people have jobs and can’t spend the time required to advance at a pace fast enough to keep the game interesting.
Others worry about the working conditions of the gold farmers.
From what I could gather, the farm hands in China are often tech-savvy and avid young gamers who earn roughly 30 cents an hour.
They are attracted to the job because they get their hands on some of the newest gaming technology around.
However, the work soon loses its playtime appeal, and the job is a dead-end, career-wise.
Another problem is that the virtual economy is simply becoming chaotic. When gold farming began to grow at a gradual pace about five years ago, a common currency developed; like gas prices in most Canadian cities, prices varied, but varied little.
But farming has increased exponentially, flooding the market with virtual coins and destabilizing the economy.
Looking at the bigger picture, this ‘phenomenon’ looks to me to be simply one more example of the West outsourcing tedious work so it can spend more time playing.
This case is only more interesting because here a pretend world is being destroyed by the world it was intended to mimic, a world that also happens to be destroying itself in the name of greed.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.