Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Life (and Death) of a Chinese Gold Farmer

Julian Dibbell has this interesting article on the life of a Chinese gold farmer.

That term probably means nothing to millions of Americans, but there's a subset of American gamers who know immediately what is meant by that term. A Chinese gold farmer is a person paid to spend hours in on-line games fighting mobs (monsters) and collecting coins and loot. The coin and loot are then sold to other gamers for real money.

I've played MMORPGs (massively multi-player on-line role playing games) since 1999, when my husband first got me interested in EverQuest. I became obsessed with the game and made some great friends from all over the country (and the world) playing there. I've played MMOs ever since, going through EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, EverQuest II, World of Warcraft, and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.

The games are addictive both because of the play itself and the virtual community with which one interacts. Advancing through levels, fighting ever bigger and tougher monsters, collecting armor and valuables, learning tradeskills, and meeting new people make these games far more than just the average first-person shooter. They become, in effect, your friends, your on-line family. They end up knowing as much about your real life as most of your real life friends do. In short, games can become an extension of real life.

Dibbell's story discusses a more sinister aspect of the virtual life/real life intersection: the Chinese gold farmer. These days, the term "Chinese gold farmer" is used for virtually anybody who farms mobs for loot. But Dibbell discusses the real Chinese gold farmers, the guys who work 12-hour days grinding through mobs in one spot for approximately 30 cents an hour.

The story is sad; young adults from the country, attracted by the idea of getting paid to play, go to work for one of the various Chinese companies. Soon, they discover the grind of the game is not unlike their real life grind of 12-hour days with only 2-3 days off per month. It's a bit like the textile industry, only these are electronic sweatshops.

I've never bought armor, gold, or characters on eBay or elsewhere, largely because I scoffed at the notion of spending real world cash on virtual items. But if I had, I would certainly stop buying those goods after reading Dibbell's story. I might be able to justify buying cheap clothing for my kids. I can't justify sweatshop labor for virtual entertainment.