International Brotherhood of Gold Farmers and Associated In-Game Spam Operatives

The new MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) from Mythic Entertainment, Warhammer Age of Reckoning, has been getting some solid praise from the gaming community for getting mediæval on ‘gold farmers’ of late, banning the paid game accounts of people who try to sell the in-game virtual currency for real money.

The practice of gold farming has become widespread in online gaming, where wealthy players unwilling to put in the hard (or generally just boring) work to acquire the virtual possessions they want can leapfrog their fellow gamers by paying hard currency to someone else who has been putting in the long slog for them. It takes place on an industrial scale, with millions of (real) dollars forming an underground economy on the back of many MMO games.

This tends to annoy gamers for a number of reasons: they are continually hassled by ‘gold spammers’ who pop up at inopportune moments to advertise their wares; they don’t like the fact that other players can cheat to get ahead when they are playing by the rules; and the presence of large numbers of farmers (the people who are doing the repetitive earning tasks for profit rather than fun) takes up the limited space on the servers, reducing the number of real gamers to interact with, and reducing the potential for the fun social experiences gamers want.

Veteran game commentator Scott Jennings has a rejoinder though. He sees RMT (Real Money Trading) as a new vice for the new society, with the gold spammers as the virtual equivalent of your local drug dealer. However hard Mythic get on their underground economy, he believes they’re just fighting a losing battle. If there’s a demand for vice, people will find a way to get it through and turn a profit. He’s drawn together some suggestions on how to legalise and regulate the practice instead.

But where there’s vice, exploitation isn’t generally far behind. The gold people buy for real money comes partly from ID fraud and partly from gamers themselves, but also partly from real world workplaces in places like China or Romania, where a factory full of gamers sit playing for hours on wages low enough for their labour to be sold as virtual goods and still turn a profit for the owners.

As with most things, Eric Lee has covered it already 3 years ago, and things have only grown in those years as MMORPGS have proliferated. It put me in mind though of a short story that A-List blogger and Sci-Fi author Cory Doctorow wrote, called Anda’s Game, which is available to read online. It’s my top tip for all unionist futurists (on a kind of next-week-future scale). In Anda’s Game, kids playing for fun are flattered to find themselves hired for real money by shady characters to destroy what seem to be factories in the game. Until, that is, they run into a union organiser in a very unexpected place.

> Do you know who these people are that you’re killing?

She didn’t answer, but she had an idea. She killed four more and shook out her wrists.

> They’re working for less than a dollar a day. The shirts they make are traded for gold and the gold is sold on eBay. Once their avatars have leveled up, they too are sold off on eBay. They’re mostly young girls supporting their families. They’re the lucky ones: the unlucky ones work as prostitutes.

Her wrists really ached. She slaughtered half a dozen more.

> The bosses used to use bots, but the game has countermeasures against them. Hiring children to click the mouse is cheaper than hiring programmers to circumvent the rules. I’ve been trying to unionize them because they’ve got a very high rate of injury. They have to play for 18-hour shifts with only one short toilet break. Some of them can’t hold it in and they soil themselves where they sit.

> look

she typed, exasperated.

> it’s none of my lookout, is it. the world’s like that. lots of people with no money. im just a kid, theres nothing i can do about it.

> When you kill them, they don’t get paid.

That’s enough spoilers for now, as I really do recommend you go read it for a look at how new technology is going to start throwing solid evidence of globalisation’s gross inequity of labour rights right up in the first world’s faces, and the new kinds of activist we’re going to need to tackle this in a way new generations will understand. He’s mentioned on his blog that he’s novelising it at the moment, but that it won’t be out for a couple of years – I’ll be looking forward very much to seeing what other connections he comes out with. Who’da thunk Sci-Fi might be one of the best ways to understand the struggles of the labour movement?

Pls to share (thanks!):

3 thoughts on “International Brotherhood of Gold Farmers and Associated In-Game Spam Operatives

  1. PS – have to admit I found the trigger for this lot by accident in an UK union focused RSS trawl that turned up the choice heading “RMT = vice” from Scott Jennings. Luckily he didn’t mean that RMT…

  2. Thanks Nick – I’m not much of a sci-fier, but I used to enjoy William Gibson so may check it out – thanks for the recommendation. Having said which, I bought another by Doctorow “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, which was very enjoyably nerdy on a what would happen if Web 2.0 reputation management became more important than currency, so time permitting I may well get reading more sci-fi on my daily commute.

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