Thursday, September 28, 2006

Gold Farming

Here’s a phrase that many people haven’t yet heard. Gold Farming sounds like an alchemical notion: generating the good stuff from the more base metals. Perhaps it conjures an image of a greeting card aphorism: sowing coins into the earth to reap later rewards? In fact “gold farming” refers to some recent video game developments. First another esoteric phrase: MMORPG- which stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Rather than a conventional game that starts and stops when you play, these games have what’s called a “persistent universe”. The idea being that thousands of other players are interacting with the same game universe online, and when you go to bed, other gamers continue to play and thus alter the game’s state of affairs during your absence. This simple idea, which essentially mimics the rest of life, breeds addictive play because those who spend the most time playing end up with the most power, gold or best stuff. This un-level playing field has in turn spawned a virtual economy. If you haven’t got the time to build up your game character’s experience/ power or find gold to buy equipment, well, why not pay real dollars to buy a character or some gold that someone else built up over weeks of play? The gold in the game enables you to get some all-powerful sword or some-such; thus allowing you the fun of kicking the butts of weaker opponents. This is all a simple enough extension of the persistent game world and indeed various virtual items from these games began to appear on e-bay early on.

Enter Chinese cheap labor. When someone in Asia can be paid aprox $4 per day, suddenly the notion of selling goodies from the game turns into a business. Thus gold farming refers to the practice of real world businesses hiring kids to play the games for 10 hours a day to find gold in the game world which is then sold for real-world US dollars to more dilettante players elsewhere. It should be noted that some of the game manufacturers are fighting this practice as a bastardization of their game, while others actively encourage it in the interests of running a giant experiment. This isn’t nickel-and-dime stuff either. One game; World of Warcraft, is reported to have involved 180 million dollars changing hands over the past year as a result of these practices. The game “Second Life” posts a daily tally of US dollars changing hands within the game environment and it routinely tops $300,000 every 24 hours.

It reminds one of descriptions of Darwinian competitiveness: the natural world being a stump packed solid with nails and any new organism/nail must force its way in or displace existing ones. All of a sudden, someone has dropped a new log adjacent to the old one and in moments the surface is covered in shiny new spikes as competitive zeal explodes in hundreds of ways across an untapped surface. Though, there’s something desperately sad in what it says about our world when the global economy can drive the flower of Chinese youth to eke out a meager living serving up digital “gold” to lazy gamers. But on the other hand, I’m inspired by the sheer creativity- a vision of human ingenuity as a liquid running into the cracks between all those intractable nails.


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