Is virtual currency blurring the line between games and reality?

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Answered by: Kurt, An Expert in the Games - Matters and Culture Category
In the world of MMOs, people have been buying in-game currency with real money for years. With more currency, one can improve and upgrade their in game avatar, impress their friends, and gain advantages over other players. Acquiring currency, like gold in World of Warcraft, for example, is directly related to the amount of time spent gathering items of value, materials for professions, etc. Inevitably this leads to players paying someone else to spend their time farming gold, which in turn causes implications across the world.



So what is gold farming? Essentially it is making a business out of bringing a group of people working together to gather as much of the in game currency as possible to then sell to players for real money. Generally games consider doing this a breach of terms and therefore a bannable offense, but that doesn't stop thousands of players from doing it regularly. Many of these gold farming operations are located in China, where people are willing to work for 10 hours a day at $50-150USD a month, depending on how much currency they acquire. The farmers spend their time gathering the gold, while the English speaking sellers advertise their web site and negotiate deals to bring in more customers. These web sites are generally sketchy, uncertified domains, and based on good word and reputation to deliver. Many players are scammed out of their gold or have their accounts stolen in the process, not to mention if they are caught the account is completely locked out and all the gold they paid for is taken.

Despite all the risks, gold farming remains a lucrative industry and will continue to thrive so long as there are people with too little time and too much money. However there is a more disturbing side to the industry. Chinese prison camps, where prisoners carry out civil projects such as digging trenches and building bridges, are now using the labor force to farm gold day in and day out. Recently, claims were made by Liu Dali, a former prisoner of a Chinese labor camp regarding the practices of these Chinese labor prisons. "There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb a day. We didn't see any of the money. The computers were never turned off." The value of the virtual currency makes this a far more profitable operation than civil projects, and the prison bosses manipulate the labor force at their disposable to optimize profits. If these prisoners don't obtain enough gold during a shift, they are severely physically punished by the guards; as Liu describes it, They would make me stand with my hands raised in the air and after I returned to my dormitory they would beat me with plastic pipes. We kept playing until we could barely see things."



This injustice stems from the real world value we have associated with game currency. Game developers are taking the initiative to stop gold farming, as with Blizzard in their upcoming Diablo III, which will have an in-game real money auction house where players can buy virtual items from each other with their hard earned money. Although controversial, this system will undoubtedly make forced gold farming like that of the Chinese prison camps less appealing, now that players can simply buy items from other players, as opposed to going to a suspicious foreign web site and putting their personal information.

This is a monumental step in the future of online gaming, players will now have a real, tangible value to the time they spend harvesting credits in a virtual world. The answer to 'what is gold farming' will be considerably different once the industry has become regulated and accepted.

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