Gold farming worth at least $500 million a year (and more good research)

Everyone who has played an MMO knows who gold farmers are. They’re those guys who work on MMOs all day, slaving away to make gold to sell on eBay or other sites; most of them come from China. What many people don’t realize, though, is how widespread the issue is and how lucrative it is for the operators of the gold farming rings.

According to a recent Manchester University study by Richard Heeks, the gold farming industry is (on the records) worth roughly $500 million; when you count illegal operations and the such, the number more than doubles in possibility. In other words, gold farming is responsible for anywhere between $500 million to $1.5 billion in revenue each year.

The study not only showcases this fact, but also compares the low wages (roughly $150 a month for the average fulltime gold farmer in China) to other possible jobs available in their local regions. One of the biggest complaints Westerners have of gold farming is that the farmers are paid "slave wages" and live in poverty. Surprisingly, gold farming is one of the better paying jobs available to many of these people, even at roughly 50 cents an hour. Factor in the free room and board many get, the constant communication with one another and the outside world, and that that other local sources of income involve much more physical labor and 15 hours of daily factory work, and one can argue the point that it’s one of the better jobs period.

Many gold farmers do argue that point, and a majority of those asked in confidentiality (or by familiar sources not part of the study) liked their job. Many enjoyed the thought of "playbour" and of having an impact globally rather than locally. Of course, for every person who enjoyed the job others didn’t. Poor working conditions, long hours, repetitiveness, hand cramps, and constant racist and offensive behavior by American MMO players were among the top complaints made by gold farming employees.

Throughout his research and paper, Heeks compares gold farming to other traditional economical models and efforts undertaken by developing countries, and argues the good and bad of the industry. While it has an as-of-yet unknown impact on in-game economy and possibly with the game developers, there’s no doubt that it gives hundreds of thousands of laborers a better alternative to working in a sweatshop.

"And most intriguingly, gold farming appears to be anything but a here-today, gone-tomorrow blip," he says. "Far from it, gold farming may actually be a glimpse into a much, much larger future; one in which our work, our commerce and our lives are not just online but immersed in the new virtual worlds of cyberspace. Could it then be one more eddy in a current towards a new model for international development: network-based development or, more simply, "development 2.0"? If so, the call for research on gold farming is all the more urgent and important."


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Author: Brendon Lindsey View all posts by

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