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The WoW economy code of ethics

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Gold Capped, in which Fox Van Allen and Basil "Euripides" Berntsen aim to show you how to make money on the Auction House. Feed Fox's ego by emailing him or tweeting him at @foxvanallen.

There's nothing more American than the idea of making money off the labor of others. Wall Street was built on it. Presidential campaigns are built on it. Even World of Warcraft fortunes are built on it. If you want to be a member of the 1%, you have to do it off the labor of the 99%.

The whole process sounds a lot more unethical than it really is. After all, just about any sale of a physical good involves someone else's labor. You may have put a lot of work into building that lemonade stand yourself, but did you work the fields to harvest the sugar cane? And while you may be the one selling that Darkmoon Card: Volcano trinket, were you the one who collected the thousands of herbs and Volatile Lifes? Or did you visit the Auction House and profit off a farmer's efforts?

Profiting off of others is simply how money is made. But we have a social responsibility to make money the right way. Without an in-game legislature or an in-game court system, what rules and laws should we operate under? As the engines of the World of Warcraft economy, what are our ethical responsibilities? How do we make money without causing social harm?

How much of the WoW economy is run off unethical labor?

Gold farming has been an issue in WoW since ... well, since almost the day World of Warcraft launched. Realizing that a market existed for the real-world sale of gold, some first world entrepreneurs created a labor market, exploiting the work of second world citizens in China. These Chinese players, who are willing to work for very little, were put to work farming mobs and playing the game to amass wealth. This wealth was then sold to the first world public for a net profit.

When we talk about gold sellers here at WoW Insider (and elsewhere), this is what we're really discussing -- the first world's exploiting those willing to work for pennies an hour. And that's the legal side of gold selling. Last year, we learned that Chinese prisoners are forced to play WoW for inhumane periods of time under threat of physical violence. That slave labor creates in-game wealth, which is then sold to lazy players willing to trade $10 for 10,000 gold (or whatever the prevailing rate may be).

But that's not the only way that the criminally unethical generate wealth in-game. Gold sellers are notorious for hacking accounts. Once a scammer gets your login information via an email phishing scheme or by installing a worm on your computer, it takes only minutes to get into your World of Warcraft account, sell or disenchant your character's gear, and send every copper your character owns to -- eventually -- someone who paid real-world money for it.

If the scammer is really lucky, you won't even notice your account has been hacked for a few weeks. They'll use illegal botting software to turn your toons into farming machines -- the in-game equivalent of zombies. Your toon will roam predetermined paths in Uldum farming up Whiptail or perhaps just mindlessly mining in Deepholme. Every single herb or piece of ore will be sold on the Auction House; the money will eventually make its way to gold buyers.

If any part of your being needs to question whether or not this type of gold selling is ethical, I'd suggest that you may be a sociopath. There's nothing good about gold selling or what gold sellers do. There's nothing ethical about buying gold, especially when you consider that 99% of it is sourced from either slave labor or exploits.

Your fortune was built on unethical labor

But here's where things get a bit more shady, where the ethical lines start to blur and smudge -- anyone who's reached the gold cap has almost certainly made a significant portion of their money on the back of this kind of slave labor. People who are in the market for that 40,000 gold Vial of the Sands you're selling may have gotten that gold from buying it. Though there has never been any official information released from Blizzard, off-the-record conversations suggest that a surprisingly large portion of big-ticket AH sales come from those who buy gold.

It makes logical sense, doesn't it? Free-to-play MMOs exist solely because there are players out there willing to spend $5 on a frilly new hat for Hello Kitty Island Adventure. The industry operates under the assumption that 20% of the playerbase contributes 80% of the revenue. And just because that 20% can't easily buy gold from Blizzard doesn't mean they won't buy gold elsewhere. Some people just really need to protect Hello Kitty from those harmful ultraviolet rays, you know?

But here's something you probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about: Even those low-ticket AH sales are powered by the Chinese slave market. Certainly you've noticed sellers listing several hundred stacks of Cinderbloom at a time on the Auction House or hundreds of stacks of ore. How much of it do you think came from botters? Surely the answer isn't 100%, but it's definitely far higher than 0%.

It's not that Blizzard doesn't try to stop botters. It does, but it's a slow process. Botters are analyzed so they can be understood exactly how they're exploiting the game. And once they're finally understood, Blizzard quietly seals up the exploit, destroying the effectiveness of the botting program and sending out a wave of bans. That bot farming nodes in Uldum could be there for a good month and a half before Blizzard gets around to stopping it.

Could you be 100% ethical, even if you wanted to be?

If you want to live your financial life in WoW by a strict code of ethics, you may be out of luck. The waters are so polluted by the bad guys that you can't help but be affected by it. There's no USDA certfied organic designation for Whiptail, no Fair Trade certification for Elementium. If you're buying off the Auction House, you could be supporting the bad guys. There's no easy way to tell.

Want to avoid buying botted ore? There's only one way to do it, and that's to forge relationships with the farmers on your server. Buy directly from someone you can talk to, someone whose game history can be verified via the armory. It's far from a perfect solution, but it's the highest amount of due diligence a player can be expected to do.

But still, even if you're buying directly from a real human being, the price that you pay will still be directly impacted by botters. The more illegal goods there are on the market, the lower prices will be. And the lower prices are, the less gold that legit farmers can charge.

Is it unethical to buy off the Auction House?

Of course it's not unethical to buy off the Auction House. But just because it may be impossible to avoid unethically sourced goods, it doesn't mean we as participants in the WoW economy can't operate under a general code of ethics. I propose the following standards:
  • We should always operate within the bounds of the WoW terms of service.
  • We should never buy gold. We should never advocate that others buy gold to purchase our in-game auctions.
  • We should not expect 100% of our materials to be sourced from non-botted sources, but we have a responsibility to avoid botted sources when they're readily identifiable.
  • While our buyers have a responsibility to exhibit due diligence in understanding exactly what they're buying and whether they're getting a good deal, we should never engage in fraud. This means we should never engaged in false advertising or false billing (attempting to take more money from a player than that player thinks he's playing).
That's just a start, of course. But it's a good start that hopefully we can all agree on. What other responsibilities do you think participants in the World of Warcraft economy have? What kind of code of in-game ethics should we all live by?
Maximize your profits with more advice from Gold Capped. Do you have questions about selling, reselling, and building your financial empire on the Auction House? Fox and Basil are taking your questions at fox@wowinsider.com and basil@wowinsider.com.

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