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By the Sweat of Their Browser

Inga Kiderra | April 23, 2007

Naked to the waist, lit cigarette dangling from his lips, a young Chinese worker in Zhejiang Province begins a tedious midnight shift at a factory. For the next 10 to 12 hours, he will grind out goods destined for a developed country. Only he is not making toys or shoes or plastic kitchen utensils. He’s playing a computer game.

In the same shop, there might be half a dozen to 100 other employees. Across China, perhaps 100,000 more. Known as “gold farmers, they slay pixilated monsters for a living.  They gather virtual currency or “gold” in massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, EverQuest and Lineage, to trade for real money.

Gold Farmers (Credit / Ge Jin)
"Farming" for virtual goods at the Damenga workshop in Lishui, a small city in Zhejiang Province.
Camera icon Watch a video from documentary by Ge Jin on YouTube.

They are like immigrant workers in the virtual world, says Ge Jin, and they arouse some of the same anxieties.

Jin – despite being nicknamed “Jingle” – is not a gold farmer or even a gamer. A doctoral student in the communication department at UC San Diego, he came across the phenomenon when a friend decided to ditch an engineering major and go back home to Shanghai to open a gold farm. The friend’s venture ultimately failed. But Jin found the subject for his doctoral dissertation and a documentary. Since the summer of 2005, Jin has made three research and filming trips to China.

The farmers Jin found are typically male and aged 18 to 25. They earn between $40 and $200 per month, averaging $100 – or about what they would make in a blue-collar job. Though conditions vary, food and housing are usually provided. Some farms are indistinguishable from sweatshops while others resemble nothing so much as a college dorm, rowdy camaraderie included. Most farmers – even those that complain of boredom, alienation and hostile in-game encounters with “amateur” players – absolutely love what they do. After hours, they can be found in Internet cafes playing the same games for fun.

The bosses, many of whom are former farmers and are barely older than their employees, sell the virtual assets their group collects – gold, epic weapons, armor, potions and even whole characters with stats that have been “leveled-up” – to online brokers abroad. The brokers, in turn, mark up the goods and pass them on to cash-flush players in the U.S., Europe and Korea, who prefer paying to spending the time themselves.

Jinhua Dormatory (Credit / Ge Jin)
A dormitory in Jinhua: Many gold farmers not only work and play together, they live together too. (Photo / Ge Jin)

With at least 100 million players worldwide logging in to online games each month, all of this translates into big business. The online game market was valued, by game industry researcher DFC Intelligence, at $3.4 billion in 2005 and forecasted to grow to $13 billion by 2011. Estimates of the shadow “real-money trade” market in MMORPG items, meanwhile, begin at $200 million and go up to $1 billion a year.

The “real-money trade” is controversial. It appears to be tolerated by the Chinese government, but is reviled by the majority of game publishers. Blizzard Entertainment, creator of the hugely popular World of Warcraft, for example, maintains it is illegal, that all game content is the company’s property, and so regularly patrols for and shuts down suspicious accounts. (To avoid detection, Chinese farmers will often use off-shore proxy servers.) Online auction giant eBay recently decided to steer clear and disallow the sale of game items on its site. Sony, on the other hand, operates its own exchange for EverQuest and takes a 10 percent cut.

Gamers’ reactions are mixed. Clearly, many are buying the booty. Yet, some form gangs or war parties to hunt down and harm suspected farmers. Responses to the video clips Jin has posted on YouTube are telling: They range from ethnic slurs and expletives to “w00ts” in praise of enterprise and capitalism.

Additional Information
Ge Jinís website on the project about Chinese gold farming.
Camera icon Video clip from documentary by Ge Jin on YouTube
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