The Story of the Gold Farmer: Real Supply and Demand

Supply and Demand. Poor people love this phrase as much as the rich do. But I don’t live among rich people, I live among relatively poor people.

And if you don’t make enough money to quit your job forever, you are poor. I include you in this group because to be poor is to have need and people who work have needs – that’s why you work.

Yet I have peers who, like my family, have reached the lower rungs of the middle-class and they act as though they can afford to quit. The talks about finding “better” jobs elsewhere and what a strong position they’re in at their workplace. I know that if anyone of them was laid off tomorrow they’d fall straight into the ranks of the lower class just like me. They have allowed themselves to begin to believe that they are where they are because they deserve it. And in a sense, I agree – no one deserves less than what me and my family have. But when these peers talk about it it’s with a certain disdain for poors and poverty. In other words, instead of seeing themselves as better off, they see themselves as better than. This fine but critical difference often gets talked over in the round-tables about minimum wage and social safety nets.

We’re all playing the zero sum game – it’s kinda funny that we have allowed ourselves to believe it’s real …in that crying on the inside sort of way. In the games community we used to talk more about those friends we had who “lived” in the MMO world. No one knew when they logged out, if ever. In quiet circles and kind company people would mention how that paladin “doesn’t have a life” or is addicted or some other way to say that something is wrong with that person. I hear those words less and less these days because I don’t play MMOs much, but those words are still thrown about with more scorn and envy than before.

goldfarm1I remember the days before I was intimately familiar with the term “Chinese farmer” in MMOs (even the New York Times was all over the story). I knew it existed and I was aware of what they did, but I hadn’t really run into it. I had a good friend who I never knew was a farmer and a power leveler until guildies started suspecting it. At the time I was in a raiding guild in World of Warcraft and The Burning Crusade had arrived. The guild was leveling and he would always offer to level my character for me. I’m a slow leveler, because I like to take my time and smell all the roses, explore all the corners – I like to enjoy my games. But of course, raid guilds are competitive and this was especially true during The Burning Crusade. So he’d always offer and we’d joke about it – but one day he told me he was serious, that he would level for me when I logged out. I laughed it off and declined, but that moment stuck with me.

I can’t remember his name, but I’ll never forget him. There was talk among guild mates that this person was a farmer, and we should kick him out. At the time I suspected it to be true, but I didn’t see why it mattered. He was a genuinely nice person, very pleasant, great sense of humor, always willing to help – he was exactly the kind of guildy we all want. Someone ready to play. It didn’t hurt that this person would farm for the guild all the time, always bring back stacks of goods. It was actually good for the guild, but that’s not why I kept him around. Every stack of materials he gave to the guild was a payout he didn’t get from whoever he worked for. I respected his loyalty.

But one day I was flying around Nagrand and I spotted him in a field. His character was moving funny, and he wasn’t responding to messages. I landed next to him and I just waited. Was he using a bot? It was unmistakable. I was sad to find him this way. I knew we would have to kick him from the guild, because one of the officers had noticed him botting around too.


Those of us who never had to think about selling gold to make a living.

When my friend got back to the keyboard I asked him to tell me honestly if he was botting. He and I had a respect for each other up until then, and I knew he’d tell the truth. And he did. He told me the whole thing. He worked for some website. That part didn’t bother me. I asked him about the botting – clearly the most important part of all this (I was so naive)! I’ll never forget his answer. He said how in the world did I think it was possible to earn money without botting. The more goods he brings in, the more money he makes. And since he likes raiding with us, everything he donates is money he doesn’t earn. That almost broke my heart because I already knew that, but there was no way I would argue to keep him in the guild. Everyone but me wanted him out.

That put a bad taste in my mouth about the kind of guild I was in. I didn’t know what to think about players making money from gold farming. For sure I resented the inflated prices that would spike with gold in-take, but it never bothered me enough to have an open opinion about it. I knew poverty. I was super hesitant to judge someone like that.

Those guildies weren’t evil people either. Aside from their prejudices, they were just like any other player. Or maybe I should say that they have their prejudices like all of us do. But they would not forgive gold farming and botting. Their code of honor as gamers could not bend to accommodate fellow gamers who were poorer and worse off. I don’t think that even ever occurred to them, but I feel confident if I had ever brought it up they would have used the same arguments we hear surrounding the minimum wage.

  • Those people are lazy, they deserve what they get.
  • Those people are unskilled, should be grateful for what they get.
  • Those jobs were never meant to pay a living wage.
  • Those people make my costs for goods and services go up.

And so forth. Despite the fact that I’ve been talking about gold farming, many of us can see the similarity between these responses and the ones we hear in the minimum wage debate. They are exactly the same. Even if you weren’t around for the rise of gold farming, you’ve surely heard the casual vs. hardcore debate. It often features the same reasoning and excuses.

A compilation of data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Courtesy of Political Calculations

A compilation of data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Courtesy of Political Calculations

So that elitism that gamers sometimes display? It’s a direct connection to the kind of values we hold. And America is full of mean people. People who think they’re better instead of just better off. People who need to see those class lines drawn clearly, a way to differentiate those who deserve food and shelter, and those who don’t. Between the rich who laughably lecture the poor on work ethic (the rich do not work nearly as hard, because they don’t have to), and the poor who think they might someday be rich, those in between are caught in an ambush while they sally forth for a better life. That’s all we’re asking: a better life. And for that this middle group gets judged as lazy, unskilled, undeserving, stupid, and worse: necessary. If they don’t take the crappy wages, then how will the rest of us afford to shop?

There’s a deep, creeping fear of poverty that gets closer to reality for every call to improve our social safety net and wages. Many of us are shaking on the inside, because we believe that the more those groups asking for more “win”, the less we will have. One of the game developers commented on a survey I recently shared that he was afraid that with all the calls for more diversity, he (as a white male) was losing job stability and opportunities. This is exactly the kind of fear that dominates the fragile middle class and makes some of us defend poverty. Their ultimate position is that “someone has to be poor …and it can’t be me”. That’s sad. None of us should have to defend poverty in order to be better off. And there’s something hypocritical about believing that the rich getting richer is a good reward/incentive model, but if the poor make more money it’s doomsday. Many of us harbor such beliefs and don’t even realize it. But that’s part of what we’re saying when we suggest that the poor shouldn’t be paid more.

There is no supply and demand in the ways we understand it (as an equal and fair exchange). It’s a myth sold to us to keep us compliant with the system. There is no such thing as supply and demand. It doesn’t require complex economic formulas, financial statements or a college degree for us to know that. We know it by the one metric that matters: employers can chose to employ, but workers must have a job.

The Gold Farmer I knew was working. It was a job. Based on his circumstance, he was trying to find a balance between economic stability and enjoying a game with friends. But several things made that impossible and in the end, we have to choose our economic welfare.

#1 – One factor was surely the hatefulness people displayed against him without regard for his economic need. It’s so very easy for the relatively rich American/European to claim games as the province of entertainment and shun anyone who would dare make money from something they enjoy. We allow companies to do it, but players? That’s going too far!

#2 – Another factor is peer pressure. This requires shaming and shunning the farmer, while letting anyone who sympathizes with them know that they are dangerously close to being shunned as well. These people will usually call this “crossing the line” or some other code of honor they’ve drawn up which begins where their entertainment does.

#3 – The final and most decisive factor is the overall demand for poverty. That’s right: poverty is in demand. When the poor are attacked for being poor and people use poverty as a punishment for not doing well, then poverty is in demand. You can’t get rid of it because it’s intentional.

Our supply and demand is basically a relationship between owner and owned. I think most of us recognize this, but it’s such a terrifying idea that it leaves us paralyzed or in denial. Yet I don’t think it’s all hopeless. Part of the solution is simple, but very difficult to do. It starts with just empathizing with people who don’t look or act like you. That’s it. Sounds magical, but that’s really it. Everything I just described came down to some group or other demonizing people for not having the things that they have. That’s an empathy deficit. But the more people see themselves in others, the less likely they are to call for their abuse and to neglect others. There are but two sides in the battle against poverty: owners and the owned. And make no mistake, it is a battle.

Should I have spoken up for the gold farmer? I definitely should have, since I left that guild not long afterward, making the whole affair a net loss for all of us. Instead I let caved to peer pressures and hung a friend out to dry. Would it have made a difference to stand up for him?

Yes. It would have made EVERYTHING different.

8 thoughts on “The Story of the Gold Farmer: Real Supply and Demand

  1. This one hits close to home. I’m at the poverty level, unemployment really doesn’t cut it. I’d rather have a job, but the jobs just aren’t there, at least where I live. I hear it’s that way all over the country, but then I hear about people I know moving out of California and living a more middle-class life. However, who knows what the middle class is anymore? It seems to have disappeared. Seriously, you’re either poor or part of the 1%. I’d be happy with a job that pays $40k a year, and that’s still probably considered low wage. I don’t live beyond my means, I just pay my bills and game most of the time. I’m ok with that, having lived in the poverty to lower middle class range my entire life. We learned to appreciate what we have and be happy with life that way.

    I’m not sure that there are any solutions that our current government is willing to implement. I fear the student loans I’m going to have to pay back. I fear not getting a “good” paying job with that education that I’m striving to complete. Sometimes packing up and leaving feels like the best solution. But how do you start over somewhere else when you have nothing to start with?

    Many questions need to be answered.

    • The US economy is in dire straits everywhere. California is still one of the worse off states as far as unemployment rates. The cost of living here magnifies it and our laws against vagrancy (aka, homelessness) are quite notorious.

      We’re still paying off my wife’s graduate school loans and we hope to be finally done this year. But thats only because I got a huge break a few months ago with a high paying gig. it’s contractual so it will end next year and we’ll be back to struggling a bit so I can relate, because we are usually where you are in some way or another. Granted she’s usually working when I’m not and vice versa and this has been the only year where we both have full-time work and actually hire daycare for our kids. We have been so very lucky in 2014 so we’re just trying to enjoy it while we can because we have no idea what next year will look like. Job stability is a joke right now in the US, even if you’re in tech (I just wrote about how very unstable jobs are in the tech industry).

      I can tell you the midwest doesnt’ look much better as far as prospects, and the east looks somewhat similar to California. Where Cali has more opportunities for tech the east board seems to lean heavily towards government jobs (department of defense). This is just what I know from friends in those areas who, while still employed, also have no career stability. And they’ve done everything “right” as far as our rules of success in this country go.

      When the darkness falls I’m going to be a Rigger. You seem to me more the Samurai or Shaman type. What’s gonna be? 😀

  2. Pingback: Quest Log: What’s a Game? | XP Chronicles

  3. There is no way you’ll convince legitimate gamers that gold farming is good in any way shape or form. Most of the farmers and their companies work the games using stolen identity and credit cards for accounts, steal mobs and “loot” from the others and cheat using hacking and bot systems. This story about your friend is rare and won’t tug on most players heartstrings…all gold farmers must die!

    • I think it’s true that the stereotypical gamer doesn’t care about this. I would wager the stereotypical gamer doesn’t read my blog much, if at all 🙂 I’m not trying to tug on heartstrings. I’m just talking about the greatest problem with gold farming: western naivety and asocial/apolitical thinking.

      Umm …”Legitimate gamers” …what are illegitimate gamers?

      Also, the moral of the story isn’t that gold farming is good. That’s not the point at all and you’ll find no defenses of gold farming either way in the article. I remain neutral on whether gold farming is good or evil for a reason: framing the activity as either a good thing or a bad thing fails to account for the reasons it’s a pervasive activity. My point is that players’ failure to talk about the needy is a greater problem than thieves and gold farmers. We don’t talk about who these farmers service (rich western gamers who want to buy success in games), who are a far greater problem than farmers. Gold farmers aren’t evil demon trolls, laughing like maniacs while they store away vaults of gold and treasure, sleeping on piles of money and feeding on the tears of “legitimate” gamers 🙂 They’re poor people. And many of us are quick to demonize poor people – that’s what it comes down to when labeling farmers either “good” or “bad”.

      Many of the gamers and developers I know tend to be reductionists. so they love language like “good” or “bad” because it puts everything into neat boxes that don’t have to be unpacked to be understood. My point here is that there’s a lot to unpack. And while the average western gamer believes there’s some purity in gaming (“people shouldn’t make money in games”), that’s just willful ignorance. That’s not surprising, either, because that gamer wants to be entertained and isn’t willing to even consider that something else is happening to fellow players within the game (they’ll just label those gamers “illegitimate” and crusade on the points I explained in the article). For these players everyone should just be “playing” and anyone who does anything other than play, is a problem.

      I can’t help but think of Janos Slynt from a Game of Thrones right now, because in this particular instance he’s a good analog for the average western gamer. Being captain of the guard is a game for this guy. Men carry around swords, but there’s never any real threat. So it’s easy to take for granted that swords are for killing and walls for repelling invaders. But as soon as the invasion comes he remains trapped in the fantasy of simply being captain of the guard, without picking up the responsibility of actually guarding the city. When it comes down to it, he locks himself in a room and pretends it’s not happening, saying the whole time that this isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Those invaders? They’re poor people running away from an enemy that also wants to kill them, stuck between The Wall and certain death ….while Janos and all of Westeros judge the wildlings as evil.

      Gold farming is not an evil. It’s also not a good. It’s an activity that mostly desperate people do in desperate countries to make a living. That’s what gold farming is. Our unwillingness to talk about the needy when we discuss gold farming is is the greatest problem with gold farming.

  4. I never had a problem with the gold farmers themselves, I knew they were just some schmuck like me trying to make a living. The problem stems from the companies that the farmers work for accepting gold not just from the farmers, but also from people that steal accounts. So once a part of the gold farmers community is painted as being shitty account stealers the rest are guilty by association.
    Just like in any group if some do nasty things the others suffer for it.

    • True enough, we all suffer for it. I think if we talk more about why we have gold farmers we’ll be on step closer to addressing it. The blanket criminalization does nothing but allow us to punch down at gold farmers. That’s not done anything to help us solve the problem in games.

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