How Hyperinflation in Venezuela Led to Clan Warfare in Old School RuneScape : Planet Money Two groups of people who would never meet in real life collide in a world of wizards and dragons. They battle it out in a low-tech video game, and it shakes the lives of a lot of real people living in a collapsing economy. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

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AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

A few months ago, I visited Gielinor. I'd never been there before, so I got a guide - a guy named Jacob (ph). Jacob's got green hair and a green beard. And when we meet, he's wearing this reddish cape. To get ready for our tour, he hands me a few things.

JACOB: This amulet will let us teleport around and two stamina potions and then a couple pieces of food in case you start dying.

ARONCZYK: Did you give me three lobsters?

JACOB: Yes.

ARONCZYK: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

ARONCZYK: I put on my glory amulet. I tuck the two stamina potions and three lobsters into my backpack, and we are off.

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ARONCZYK: Now, I'm probably not going to surprise any of you here. We are in a video game. It's called Old School RuneScape.

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ARONCZYK: And my guide, Jacob, is a YouTuber who is kind of like an investigative reporter. We are only identifying him and others in the story by their first names because they are afraid of being threatened and harassed. Online gaming can get pretty nasty. Anyway, in Jacob's videos, he talks about this game and what happens inside of it. If you don't know it, Old School RuneScape has been around for, like, 20 years. It's really popular. Millions of people play it all over the world.

Jacob and I are on a mission. He is taking me to a crime scene, the site of a brutal massacre. To get there, we have to head towards the edge of the world.

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ARONCZYK: Old School RuneScape looks kind of retro and old school, like a video game that hasn't been updated in ages. Inside the game, it is a hodgepodge of medieval themes and characters.

JACOB: This person has a wizard hat on. Another person has a kind of translucent shield. This person has a scarf on with a party hat.

ARONCZYK: Oh, wow.

JACOB: So some people are geared up to fight, and others have items on that are just fashionable.

ARONCZYK: There's lots to see here. But as you enter the wilderness, you have to watch your back.

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ARONCZYK: Whoa. Whoa. Oh, no. Oh, [expletive].

JACOB: (Laughter) Just keep running (laughter).

ARONCZYK: Oh, my God. Keep running - ahh.

Dragons.

JACOB: You almost died. You ran through the dragon pit, and one managed to get two bites on you.

ARONCZYK: Whew.

That was close. We stop so I can eat a lobster and recover. Then we forge ahead. We are almost there.

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ARONCZYK: The sky darkens. And here, the trees have no leaves. The ground has turned black, and rivers of lava stream by. We see the mouth of the Revenant Caves and enter.

JACOB: It's all been torn apart, and it's kind of fallen into ruin. And now there's these ghosts that walk around that are called revenants.

ARONCZYK: Ghost hellhounds and ghost goblins and ghost ghosts all float by. We don't see any other players around. This place where we are, it was the site of an epic months-long fight between two warring clans. Thousands died here.

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ARONCZYK: And OK, that happens all the time in video games. But these deaths were bigger.

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ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

ERIKA BERAS, HOST:

And I'm Erika Beras. Today on the show, a story about how two groups of people who usually never meet from the richest and poorest corners of the world crash into each other in a video game.

ARONCZYK: And how that leads to a battle filled with wizards and goblins and chinchompas that shakes the actual lives of tens of thousands of people.

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ARONCZYK: A lot of the people who play Old School Runescape have been playing for years, like this one guy we talked to, Shafqat Arafin (ph). He started playing at his local library when he was a tween back in the early 2000s.

SHAFQAT ARAFIN: Everyone did. Like, literally you'd see all those library computers. Like, the Toronto Public Library, you have 30 minutes - right? - so, there'd be one kids playing for 30 minutes. And then the next kid would come on, and he'd play for 30 minutes.

BERAS: The way the game works is like this. Players are not really trying to reach some elusive end goal. They're not trying to win the game. So when Shafqat logs in, it's more of a choose your own adventure. He can pick from one of 150 different quests. He could go start a revolution against the king or go make nice with the ice trolls. Along the way, he's trying to get more gold and more powers.

ARONCZYK: While Shafqat's on his quest, he can see all of these other players moving around the game on their own quests. But then he notices this strange thing starting to happen with some of the other players.

ARAFIN: A lot of people, like, just doing the same activities over and over again. And they weren't particularly bots 'cause bots are - at that time were pretty detectable. Like - but these were actual people, and you'd see them there for hours.

ARONCZYK: Just killing the Green Dragons over and over again for hours. He knew that this behavior he was seeing, it was probably gold farming.

BERAS: Gold farming basically means going into a video game and earning gold or points or coins or whatever and then selling it to other players for real money outside the game. It's against the rules of most games, but it happens all the time.

ARONCZYK: These transactions usually take place on websites at, like - I don't know - whatever, sketchymoney.com. And the reason these exist is because there are lots of people out there who are happy to spend a couple of bucks to buy video game gold. They use it to level up or buy a new weapon.

BERAS: And Shafqat has seen players gold farming in Old School RuneScape before. But suddenly, he's seeing gold farmers everywhere. And it's kind of odd because getting gold in this game, it's a grind. It's time consuming. You have to point and click a lot to, for example, kill a green dragon and get the gold. So it can take weeks or months to earn enough gold to sell.

ARONCZYK: Have you ever made money off of Old School RuneScape?

JACOB: No. It just doesn't make sense to me. Like, even if I had to sell all my in-game gold, that amount in Canadian dollars wouldn't be worth it to me. Like, I can make more off one paycheck, basically.

ARONCZYK: OK. So that was one thing. Another thing that Shafqat noticed is that all of these new gold farmers in the game, they're kind of trying to keep their distance from the other players. But when he did manage to talk to one of them...

ARAFIN: They would say, like, no English or si and stuff like that, like, yes, basically.

BERAS: They were all speaking Spanish.

ARONCZYK: Shafqat wasn't the only one wondering why there were all of these new Spanish-speaking gold farmers in Old School RuneScape. There was lots of chatter about it on Reddit and YouTube and Discord.

BERAS: People were starting to get annoyed about the gold farmers. There were so many of them. They were literally getting in the way. Like, you'd go to kill a dragon, but you couldn't. Some gold farmer had beat you to it.

ARONCZYK: Eventually, enough players like Shafqat just asked the gold farmers, where are you from? And the answer, more often than not, was Venezuela. Now, over time, this becomes common knowledge. Most of these Spanish-speaking gold farmers are in Venezuela. And for players like Shafqat, that pretty much solved the mystery, and the gold farmers became just another part of the game.

BERAS: That is until March 7, 2019. At 3:56 p.m. Eastern, anyone playing Old School RuneScape saw something really strange happen. All of a sudden, players vanished. The player who was over there killing a dragon - gone. The one fishing by the river - also gone. All told, more than half of the players disappeared. It was like witnessing a rapture.

ARONCZYK: It takes a couple of days to figure out where the shock to the game came from. Eventually, it's clear. It started in Venezuela.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Venezuela - a continuing crisis with a national blackout. Patients are in hospitals and are at risk. Schools and businesses are closed and the Venezuelan people cut off from communication with family, friends and the outside world.

BERAS: This was massive. Venezuela loses power for days. No one can get online. And in Old School RuneScape, that means that not only did half of the players disappear, other things get really weird, too.

ARONCZYK: So the game has its own economy. There's a marketplace where players can bid on items that they want, and the prices fluctuate based on supply and demand.

BERAS: And not long after that in-game rapture, the markets are in turmoil. The number of things being bought and sold plummets. There are less dragon bones, less dragon hides, less impling jars. That's a jar for catching implings.

ARONCZYK: Of course.

BERAS: So the prices of these items spike.

ARONCZYK: One other thing to know - there's no actual limit to the amount of gold in the game. There is no central bank wizards controlling the amount of currency. So when the Venezuelans are playing a lot and creating a lot of gold, it is possible to get - and this blew me away - inflation. After the power outage, everyone realizes that this is what the Venezuelans are doing. They are messing with the game's economy.

BERAS: Over the next couple of weeks, as the power returns, so do the Venezuelan players. And the game pretty much seems to continue on as though nothing had happened. People are still gold farming, and the markets settle. But for some, there's this new level of frustration with the Venezuelans playing the game. Why are they here warping the way the whole thing works? And why do they keep coming back?

ARONCZYK: The answer, of course, lies in the Venezuelan economy, which, for years now, has experienced really, really high inflation - hyperinflation, the kind of inflation that means the container of milk you thought about buying in the morning costs twice as much that night, if not more, the kind of inflation that means money simply does not keep its value.

ALEX: Imagine if you're trying to find a regular job and all the minimum-wage-paying jobs, you see the amount, and you're like, in two weeks, this is just not going to pay the bills.

BERAS: This is Alex (ph). He's originally from Venezuela, but he lives in Spain now. And he's been a big part of Venezuelan gaming for years. He says that in Runescape, people found a way to get out of that hyper-inflation trap.

ALEX: If you find something like RuneScape and you realize that putting 10 hours a day into this game, you could be making $8 a day, but you made that money in dollars, in a currency that you know isn't going to be affected by the rampant inflation of your country, then you will run the numbers. And you will realize that, by the end of the month, you will be making more than a university teacher - easily - or a doctor.

ARONCZYK: So this is the big reason why people in Venezuela are gold farming, because that gold they earn in a video game is more stable than their country's currency.

ALEX: One more time - Runescape gold, video game gold, more stable than the bolivar.

ARONCZYK: But still, why Old School RuneScape? Like, why this game specifically? There are a bunch of games like this out there. Why not, say, World Of Warcraft? Well, remember how the game is old school? That is on purpose. It's this game that taps into nostalgia. It looks just the same as it did when kids played at the public library back in the early 2000s.

BERAS: And because it's so low-fi, you can play it with a pretty basic computer. In fact, that was a big reason that Alex got into Old School RuneScape when he was growing up in Caracas.

ALEX: It run decently well in very garbage computers. And my family's computer was really bad, and it struggled with the game, but it just played it. It was like right in the line of being obsolete. It was just enough to be able to run this game.

BERAS: Even though Venezuela is struggling - by some measures, more than 90% of people are now living in poverty - lots of people do still have access to computers. They're not necessarily great computers, but they get online.

ARONCZYK: So that is why Old School RuneScape. Plus, it's just not that hard to play. You don't have to have a ton of computer skills. From there, Alex says, just kind of spread organically.

ALEX: If you find an opportunity like RuneScape, you don't really keep it to yourself. You're going to tell your friends. And they're going to tell their family members. And before you know it, like, you have parents and grandparents and people you wouldn't expect doing this.

BERAS: It's hard to know exactly how many people in Venezuela have played this game for money, but there's an estimate floating out there that puts it at 1.8 million people.

ARONCZYK: This is how you end up with a rapture of tens of thousands of players during a blackout disrupting the in-game economy and frustrating the players who are just there to play a video game.

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ARONCZYK: Clan warfare breaks out in the Revenant Caves. That's after the break.

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ARONCZYK: In 2019, the world of Old School RuneScape was in disarray. After the power outages, it was clear that the Venezuelans were kind of a menace in the game. They were breaking the rules by gold farming. That was messing with the price of stuff. And they were all over the place, just getting in the way.

BERAS: Some of the players were sympathetic. They understood how bad things were in Venezuela. But some players actually started targeting the Venezuelans, trying to kill the gold farmers when they saw them. And those tensions came to a head in the great battle of the Revenant Caves.

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JACOB: As you can see, there's only three or four dragons here, so let's walk a little closer.

ARONCZYK: I'm not walking closer. You can walk closer.

JACOB: (Laughter).

ARONCZYK: We are back inside the ghost-filled caves along with our RuneScape tour guide, Jacob.

JACOB: So this is that used to be very, very active. This area in specific was a hot spot. When you were running down, you would get attacked by people that wanted to stop you from being able to get inside of the cave.

BERAS: These caves were the most lucrative spot in the game. They were known for being high risk, high reward.

ARONCZYK: So there's this one group of players in Old School RuneScape we haven't told you about yet. They're not Venezuelan and they're not really your average player. They are players who have banded together to form a clan. They call themselves Reign of Terror. And Reign of Terror revels in killing and terrorizing other players. And some of them sell their pillaged gold for real-world money. Within the game, they are the bullies.

JACOB: They're known for being quite vicious, quite vulgar. And they're known for exploiting players that aren't in their clan for their own benefit.

ARONCZYK: At some point, Reign of Terror decides to dominate those lucrative caves. They converge at the entrance, and they start charging other players a fee to go in - basically, pay up or get killed.

JACOB: Really, it was like extortion. That's how many players viewed it.

BERAS: But Reign of Terror has a problem. If they want to keep control of this important spot in the game, someone has to be there all the time.

JACOB: A lot of the players in Reign of Terror, you know, have jobs, they have careers. And they can't spend, you know, 10 hours a day sitting at Revenant Caves attacking anybody else who's not in the clan or hasn't paid their fee. And so Reign of Terror eventually had the idea that, hey, we could recruit Venezuelans who are already playing the game for, you know, 12, 14 hours a day. And so that's what they did.

ARONCZYK: For a little while there, the Venezuelans are like hired muscle, and they're working for Reign of Terror. But then they start to realize, wait a minute. These clan bullies, they are paying us a fraction of what we could make in the caves. Let's make our own clan and give these guys a run for their gold. They decide to take the caves for themselves.

BERAS: So they band together, and they're what becomes known as the Venezuelan mafia. They pick a uniform - purple and pink hats.

(Non-English language spoken).

JUNIOR: Junior.

BERAS: Junior is 23 years old. He lives in Portuguesa, Venezuela. He told me he started gold farming in Old School RuneScape. Four years ago, he joined the Venezuelan mafia in the battle for the caves.

(Non-English language spoken).

JACOB: (Non-English language spoken).

ARONCZYK: Junior says his job was to basically stand around and to watch out for killers from Reign of Terror.

JUNIOR: (Non-English language spoken).

BERAS: He says that, over time, players from all over Latin America joined in. It was like the Latin Americans versus the gringos. It had this kind of scrappy underdog vibe.

ARONCZYK: Then, around January of last year, it all culminates in this week-long, non-stop battle. There are gamers playing 24/7. And...

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ARONCZYK: The Venezuelans win the clan battle. They take control of the Revenant Caves. For this brief moment, they are the heroes of Old School RuneScape. Now, they can farm gold with impunity and turn that gold into groceries or medicine or whatever it is that they urgently need.

BERAS: For Junior, the caves were worth fighting for.

JUNIOR: (Non-English language spoken).

BERAS: On a lucky night, he says he makes $7 to $10, three times what he could make doing odd jobs around town - enough to help support his parents and daughter. He was doing OK.

ARONCZYK: But then, a few months after the Venezuelan mafia won, the makers of the game, this company called Jagex, nerfed the caves, meaning they changed this part of the game. And they made it way less profitable to play inside of the caves.

BERAS: We've reached out to Jagex to ask if they did this to get rid of the Venezuelan players, but didn't hear back.

ARONCZYK: And we asked Junior if he thought that he and the other Venezuelan gold farmers had been damaging the game and messing with its economy.

JUNIOR: No, no, no. (Non-English language spoken).

BERAS: Junior says no, they weren't ruining the game's economy. Other players were exploiting Old School RuneScape to make real money long before the Venezuelan players showed up. And this was a real job. It's the most stable one he's ever had, or at least it was.

(Non-English language spoken).

JUNIOR: (Non-English language spoken).

BERAS: Two months ago, Junior got busted for gold farming. He got banned from the game.

ARONCZYK: Since that ban, he has been working with his dad, buying and reselling gasoline at a markup - actual gasoline in the actual world. It's not ideal. It's pretty tedious work. And he makes less than he used to. For now, he has to be OK without Old School RuneScape. After all, it is just a game, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERAS: If you are a teacher, we make it easy to use PLANET MONEY in the classroom. Head over to npr.org/teachplanetmoney for more information.

ARONCZYK: You can also send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook - @planetmoney.

BERAS: Today's show is produced by Dave Blanchard and mastered by Gilly Moon. PLANET MONEY's supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. This episode was edited by Molly Messick.

ARONCZYK: There are many people to thank, in particular Alex, who produced a documentary called "Digital Gold Miners" for the streaming service Nebula. Also, thanks to many gamers with delightful names - Garfington (ph), Duckmania (ph), Revtourguide (ph), Sirpugger (ph) - keep it real, Sirpugger - Exmod (ph), Mattk (ph) and Maxstudman (ph), plus the listeners who wrote in asking us to do this story. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

BERAS: And I'm Erika Beras.

ARONCZYK: This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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