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World Wide WoW: The New York Times, gold farming, and righteous anger

The New York Times has an interesting article about gold farming, which does a lot to help us understand what gold farming is really like. The author is very insightful, both in his grasp of how WoW works (though he seems confused on details, like "night-elf wizards"), and he is able to communicate well with the Chinese who work as gold farmers. The article goes into greater depth than I've seen so far in any report on the issue, and even includes a video, apparently part of the gold-farming documentary we reported on a while back, to give you a first hand look at what the farmers' lives are like.

There are many interesting things in the article, but I'd like to highlight one particular insight here, regarding our relationship to these seemingly strange people in a far away country. "On the surface," the Times reporter observes, "there is little to distinguish gold farming from toy production or textile manufacture or any of the other industries that have mushroomed across China to feed the desires of the Western consumer. The wages, the margins, the worker housing, the long shifts and endless workweeks - all of these are standard practice." Many of the Chinese who moved to the cities from the poor villages scattered all about are facing the same problem. The system provides little to no opportunity to arise out of poverty fueling the demand for cheap products to be sold in the West. Understood in this context, gold farming looks just one of many industries arising out of the relationship China has with the US, providing everything they can as cheaply as possible -- a relationship neither country is quick to change. (Some of my own friends from the countryside work under similarly grueling conditions running their own small restaurant near where I live in China. They seem happy enough but it may be that they just put a good face on things for me every time I see them. Their lives are not easy.)

This is different from the usual textile sweatshop job, however: these people work in the same virtual space that we play in, and we the players are not happy about it: "In the eyes of many gamers, in fact, real-money trading is essentially a scam - a form of cheating only slightly more refined than, say, offering 20 actual dollars for another player's Boardwalk and Park Place in Monopoly." So true.

"In theory," he continues, "this resentment would be aimed at every link in the R.M.T. chain, from the buyers to the retailers to the gold-farm bosses." But practically speaking, of course, things are a little different: as much as we may want to punish those companies and bosses that run the operations and shut them down permanently, it turns out that activities such as hunting down gold farmers don't have that effect at all: "In farms with daily production quotas, too much time spent dead instead of farming gold can put the worker's job at risk. And in shops where daily wages are tied to daily harvests, every minute lost to death is money taken from the farmer's pocket."

But this isn't even the worst aspect of it. Many of these Chinese don't speak great English of course -- if they did, they would likely get better jobs -- but they still get the message loud and clear from the way people hunt them down, taunt them, and make YouTube videos to mock them. Internet anonymity tends to make people feel free expressing their negative emotions, and I understand that, but we have to realize that dehumanization is dehumanization: "Nick Yee, an M.M.O. scholar based at Stanford, has noted the unsettling parallels (the recurrence of words like "vermin," "rats" and "extermination") between contemporary anti-gold-farmer rhetoric and 19th-century U.S. literature on immigrant Chinese laundry workers."

It's so easy to point the finger at some guy making 30 cents an hour and blame him for ruining our "game." Fine. He's doing something wrong. But he's not the one at the head of this operation, and he certainly doesn't deserve to be the butt of our frustration and hatred -- leaving his bosses free to continue exploiting his livelihood and our game to their hearts content. So many of us are enraged about the impact of gold farming on the game we love so much, but the fact is, we need to do something real about it, not just foster a pet hatred for poor people thousands of miles away. One could make a website that discourages players from buying gold, or send WoW Insider any interesting resources or information you find on the Internet about the fight against gold-selling companies and let us write about it. We can even spread the word with people we encounter in the game, teaching them to respect themselves and others and not to buy gold.

Whatever we do, we never forget that our anger at gold farming comes from the imbalance of justice it represents within the game. Our expression of this anger must help to restore that justice, or else it is merely useless dehumanizing and hatred.

Filed under: World Wide WoW, Analysis / Opinion, Virtual selves

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