Gold Farming: Planting the Seed of Chaos

The concept of gold farming is incredibly simple, but the implications are mind-boggling.

To start with, gold farming is a business transaction, just like buying or selling anything else. The way it works is, you play a videogame, acquire a powerful item, and then sell that item to another player for real-world money. You can do this a number of different ways. Sometimes an online game will have a marketplace system built in, where you give the game your bank account information, and the game adds or removes money accordingly when you buy or sell an item. Sometimes players use 3rd-party sites instead, though the risk of scamming can be higher.

The real trouble with gold farming is that you can also use real money to buy fake money, and vice-versa. Instead of just paying another player for a cool sword, or selling a cool sword for a few bucks, you can also pay real money in exchange for virtual in-game currency, or sell your in-game currency to another player for real cash.

The process is the same: Give the game your bank account or credit card info, go to the game’s marketplace page, and purchase virtual money just like you would purchase an item on Amazon.com. You select, for example, an option to “Buy 500 game dollars for $50,” and then you go to the Checkout. The game already has your payment info saved in its system, and it will subtract the real money from your account. If you want to sell your virtual money, you can just post an offer on another marketplace page (like you would do on Cragislist.com), and when someone accepts your offer, you get paid and your virtual money gets transferred to the other player’s videogame character.

Of course, the ability to change back and forth between real and virtual currency has a huge effect on the (“real”) global economy. It permanently changes the definition of “money” itself. Can you, for example, use fake money to buy a real car? Sure, why not: If the owner of the car is a videogamer, there’s no reason why he or she couldn’t agree to sell the car in exchange for a huge amount of virtual currency. After all, to a dedicated gamer, virtual money is very valuable, because it allows the gamer to buy powerful game weapons and armor. Virtual currency becomes just like any other valuable item: Paper money, gold, diamonds…These items are, after all, just shiny objects that humans have all agreed should be worth a lot. If virtual money is worth a lot to certain people, then it’s just as valid a bartering item as real gold or jewels.

However, the ability to trade virtual money for real money or items has led to many serious economic and moral issues. Morally, there have been documented instances in China, Korea, and Russia where children and even prison inmates are forced to play videogames all day, to collect virtual gold that supervisors can then sell for real profit. While some people might laugh and look forward to spending all day gaming, this abusive practice is no joke: Children and prisoners who are locked into gold farming have no freedom over their own schedules. They must play the games their supervisors demand, for as long as the supervisors say, often in illegal organizations with no regard for gold farmers’ health and safety. These illegal rings are sweatshops, as simple as that. China, where gold farming is by far the most prevalent out of any country, has started passing laws against and cracking down on gold farming, but the practice still continues there and elsewhere, and its exact legality remains in flux.

But moreover, the global economic implications of gold farming are staggering: If real and virtual items can be traded interchangeably, then there’s no longer a clear distinction between what’s real or virtual at all. Game currency becomes just as legitimate as paper currency. This change could affect the economic value of paper currency, as well as any other “real” item. For example, in the real world, governments control how much money they print in their country, in order to control the market value of their currency. But if a videogame administrator can flood a game with millions of virtual dollars, and gamers start trading that virtual money alongside real money, then suddenly game admins have the power to change global economies completely at will, with no oversight or regulations.

At the moment, different countries have widely inconsistent laws regulating virtual currency. China has banned the use of virtual currency to buy real-world items, but not the reverse; South Korea, on the other hand, has completely endorsed treating virtual money like real money. But most countries—including the U.S. and Japan—simply have no clear laws whatsoever to regulate this potentially devastating problem. As lawmakers struggle to write regulations that keep up with the problems of modern times, one thing is certain: Virtual economies have forever changed the game.