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Online Gamers Turn Tricks for Cash
The profitable world of Korean gold farming
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-01-22 18:57 (KST)   
World of Warcraft character for sale on Ebay.
©2007 Screenshot save by Robert Neff

In just about any PC room in Korea you can find them, generally young men, disheveled in appearance and rank with body odor from sitting for hours upon hours in front of their computer monitor. They are surrounded by ashtrays over-filled with cigarette butts, empty paper coffee cups, and Styrofoam ramyon cups -- all indications of one of Korea's least known professions: gold farming.

What is gold farming? Gold farmers are players who sell online -- usually on one of the auction sites like ebay and itembay -- the magical items and treasures that they find in the online games such as Lineage or World of Warcraft. Sometimes they even sell their characters. It is surprising just how much people will pay for these items and characters.

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Of course gold farming is not unique to Korea; in fact the Chinese players are often despised by Korean players for their craftiness and zealousness in the pursuit of the most valuable items, and are believed to have the largest number of gold farmers in the world -- up to a half million players at one time.

"If you search online, you find most gold farmers are from China. China is really pretty dominant in this industry right now," said Jin Ge who is doing his doctoral research on gold farming.[1]

In the online game of Lineage (NCsoft), players are able to recover weapons dropped by slain pariahs -- characters who have been marked as outcasts for killing other player characters. When I played several years ago, my Korean friends all warned me that low level Chinese players would purposely attack a high level character in hopes that he would be killed and thus the killer would be branded a pariah. Then several high level Chinese players, who were hiding in ambush nearby, would kill the pariah and liberate some powerful or valuable weapon. Of course the Chinese players were not the only ones guilty of this.

There are other methods to gain game money and valuable treasures. In the World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment), several of my male Korean friends play female characters, because they know if they flirt and act innocent (while maintaining the ruse that they are young females) they are able to receive gifts from their "male friends." Of course, many of these male benefactors eventually try to get the "young female" characters' phone numbers in hopes of talking and meeting in real life, but they can easily be held off until they lose interest or find some other "young female" character.

Perhaps the most unique use of a "female character" was by Rob Conzelman of Philadelphia who wrote of his own experiences as a "cyber whore" for Dragonfire magazine. He explained that he tried his hand at "gold farming" but was frustrated by the amount of game time needed to acquire even a small amount of game cash. Plundering and pillaging dungeons and cities was not enough to get him the money he needed so instead he resorted to the world's oldest profession -- prostitution. He went to the largest cities in the World of Warcraft where he stripped off all of his female character's clothing and positioned her in front of the cities' inns and propositioned players to have a good time upstairs. It is surprising how many players actually took him, excuse me, her, up on her proposition, and she soon made much more money than she could have done tramping through dungeons.

Conzelman summed up his experience as: "I was earning zilch when I played legitimately, but cyber-whoring paid off in virtual dividends. Instantly I earned the equivalent of 80 cents and boosted my wage to a near real-life $4 an hour wage. That's way better than those Chinese gold farmers, assuming I could maintain a rate of 12 clients an hour."[2]

That may be true, but the Chinese aren't complaining. It is estimated that the estimated half million Chinese gold farmers make on average a hundred dollars a month collecting game money and artifacts to sell for real money. How much money? According to economist Edward Castronova: "A good conservative estimate of global annual sales of virtual items for real money is $200 million a year."[3]

However, a recent Korea Times article indicates that the size of the market is even larger than expected in the West. "The size of the market was estimated at 1 trillion won, or about $1 billion, last year, according to the Korea Game Development and Promotion Institute. About 60 percent of such item trading company's profit comes from the cyber money trade."[4]

In March 2005, Blizzard Enterprises with nearly 8,000,000 subscribers permanently closed over a thousand accounts where users were found to be gold farming. The company issued a statement declaring: "We do not condone such actions, and will take decisive action as they are against our policy and damage the game economy as a whole."[5] Despite the company's efforts, items and characters are still listed for sale on the online auction ebay.

NCsoft, a South Korean company, echoed Blizzard Entertainment's sentiment. "We believe that the trade of game items shortens the life cycle of an online game," said an anonymous employee quoted in Korea Times. [6]

Even the Korean government has taken a stand on the issue. A recent bill has been introduced that would prohibit the exchange, sale or purchase of game items and money by businesses. Ominously, as reported by the Korea Times, the government has an ill view of the gaming industry. The deputy director of the Game Industry Division said: "Our basic position is to tighten regulations on hazardous gambling activities." [7]

There are some negative aspects of gold farming. Occasionally there are reports in the local media of players who have collapsed and died after playing online games for great periods of time. As a result of this, Lineage players are reminded online how much time they have spent playing and are suggested to take short breaks -- even going so far as to penalize players that play too long. There have also been allegations in the past that organized crime had taken an interest in gold farming, but these allegations have seemingly died down.

While gold farming may be a shadow industry with no tangible property, per se, can it be placed in the same class as gambling? In China, many young men who would otherwise be unemployed are kept off the streets and from trouble. Gold farming could also provide employment for the elderly and physically challenged -- an Internet service industry that not only provides entertainment, but also employment opportunities to all.
[1] Tim Johnson, "'Gold farming' in games means real income in China," McClatchy Newspapers, Jul. 18, 2006

[2] Rob Conzelman, "Gold Mining: Turning Virtual Sex into World of Warcraft Spoils," Dragonfire Magazine, Issue 31, Nov. 28, 2006

[3] Tim Johnson, "'Gold farming' in games means real income in China," McClatchy Newspapers, Jul. 18, 2006

[4] Kim Tae-jong, "Gaming Bill Has Holes -- A Lot of Them," Korea Times, Dec. 24, 2006

[5] David Adams, "Blizzard Cracks Down on 'Gold Farming,'" March 14, 2005

[6] Kim Tae-jong, "Gaming Bill Has Holes -- A Lot of Them," Korea Times, Dec. 24, 2006

[7] Kim Tae-jong, "Gaming Bill Has Holes -- A Lot of Them," Korea Times, Dec. 24, 2006
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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