China's 'Gold Farmers' Play a Grim Game

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Playing online games for 12 hours is a fulltime job for thousands of Chinese workers. They're accumulating virtual money — or "gold" — which they can sell for real cash. But it's a dull and labor-intensive job with limited payoffs.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Slaying ogres and competing for magical powers may not sound like a very adult way to make a living. But for some in China, playing online games is a full time job. They're engaged in what's called gold farming; that's earning game points in a virtual world that can be traded or used in the real world.

Now a controversy over gold farming has led to virtual violence, an online murder. So NPR's Louisa Lim investigates in Shanghai.

LOUISA LIM: For tens of thousands of people this is the sound of a hard day's work. Welcome to world of China's gold farmers. All day long they hunch in front of computers, clicking away to kill monsters and earn gold coins. This game currency, which can be used to buy special powers, is then sold on for real money, sometimes U.S. dollars.

Mr. ROBIN CHIN(ph) (Gold Farmer): (Through translator) It's a very tiring job and rewards are low. It's tiring mentally, as you have to keep in character for 12 hours, and your eyes get very tired.

LIM: Robin Chin is a gold farm boss. He demonstrates how his gold farmers make money - basically by staying in the same spot for an entire 12-hour shift, killing the same monster over and over again. Most play the world's top online game, the World of Warcraft, which has eight million players worldwide. He explains how the laws of economics work in the virtual world.

Mr. CHIN: (Through translator) In every place, the value of the virtual currency is different. In the U.S., a gold farmer can sell the virtual currency they earn in a day's work for around $13. In China it would sell for just four dollars.

LIM: It's by exploiting the differences and selling to cash-rich, time-poor gamers that Chinese gold farms prosper. Former Wall Street banker Alan Chiu(ph) founded an online trading platform for virtual currency, a virtual stock exchange, if you will. And he sees videogame work as another opportunity for outsourcing.

Mr. ALAN CHIU (Former Wall Street Banker): It's a very labor-intensive job. I don't see it any different from low-cost Chinese workers working in Guandong, producing Nike shoes, and for Nike to be sold eventually - sold at retail stores for maybe 600 percent margin.

LIM: Yet it is different because gold farming is a gray area. Gaming companies like Blizzard, which owns World of Warcraft, see gold farming as cheating, and regularly ban the accounts of suspected gold farmers. Robin admits he's been closed down four or five times, losing thousands of dollars each time. However, there's always a market for gold farmers. Surveys show 20 percent of gamers admit to buying gold.

Mr. MING XING HAI(ph) (Gold Farmer): (Chinese spoken)

LIM: It doesn't matter how I make a living as long as it's not immoral, says gold farmer Ming Xing Hai. He earns under $100 a month and is among the gold farmers featured in a documentary made by Ph.D. student Ge Jin, from the University of California, San Diego.

Overseas critics denounce the gold farms as virtual sweatshops. But Ge Jin says many gold farmers were already gamers before they started this job.

Mr. GE JIN (Ph.D. student, University of California): Most of them don't realize that they're serving American gamers. They're just happy to make cash by playing their favorite games for a living.

LIM: His film shows one example of 40 gold farmers coordinating to become one raid team, working together to kill monsters and earn extra.

Pretend to be dead, they shout at each other. Don't run. This type of group raid and the territoriality of gold farmers protecting their patch can earn them enmity from American gamers. There's also an argument that the extra gold produced by gold farmers brings more currency into the game, creating inflation.

As most gold farmers are Chinese, Ge Jin says a clear anti-gold farmer, anti-Chinese sentiment is emerging in a small vocal minority.

Mr. JIN: In title, farmer gamers talk about how the gold farmer corrupted the place, as if this virtual used to be pure and fair. They have this sense that this space - although it's totally virtual, as opposed to open to everyone, they feel like it belongs to Americans, and supposedly the gold farmers don't belong here.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: This music accompanies one response, a murderous online rampage by a gamer who posted this clip of his avatar or character hunting down and killing gold farmers. These massacres - the earliest and most famous was known as bomb the farmer's day, are not uncommon. On this video, the last words are American gold.

Mr. JIN: My feeling is it does playing to the overall xenophobia towards Chinese. I feel American public imagination that China is the threatening force (unintelligible) many jobs are taken away from the U.S. and, you know, outsourced to China. I think many gamers see it as that too. They see gold farmers as someone who take away resource from them and intrude into their spaces.

LIM: It's significant that issues like race and nationality still matter, even in the virtual world, where people are free to be who they want. This animosity mirrors and crystallizes the real world trade tensions between the two countries.

Chinese gold farmers see themselves as merely providing a badly needed service. But to some gamers, they're subverting the very rules of the game and changing the playing field for everyone.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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