WARNING! The following may make it look like I'm prejudiced against Chinese people. This is not the case. I am, however, fed up with a very small sector of Chinese people, described below, and I'd be fed up with them regardless of their ethnicity or nationality. (i.e., if most gold farmers were, say, Azerbaijani, I'd be prattling on about how nefarious Azerbaijani farmers are. However, most farmers seem to be ethnic Chinese.)

Gold farmers are the scourge of just about every MMORPG that has ever achieved the slighest modicum of commercial success. The first gold farmers appeared in the first popular MMORPG, Ultima Online, in 1997, and they persist to this day, always growing in number. Sometimes they're known as "Chinese farmers" or "MMORPG farmers," though "gold farmer" seems to be the most widely-used term.

A gold farmer is exactly what it sounds like; someone who plays MMORPGs not for fun, but for monetary gain. The typical gold farmer will camp out in any number of areas of the game where mobs (that is, killable monsters/enemies; original term dates back to MUDs, where "moving object" abbreviated to "mob") are likely to drop rare items that can be resold for a lot of in-game cash, or around mobs that are known to drop a lot of the cash itself. The gold they make in-game is then resold through their own websites or on eBay for real-world money. Any MMORPG worth its salt has a clause in its terms of service that forbids this practice, however it continues unchecked in most cases because the companies behind the online worlds can't keep up with the turnover rate of the average farming firms. Yes, firms. Most farming is undertaken by actual companies, 99% of them in Asia (China and South Korea share the monopoly on gold farming), where some enterprising individual gets ahold of a shipping carton full of retail copies of the games meant for American, Canadian, and European markets. Because most gaming companies refuse to restrict access based on the player's IP address, players (or employees, in this case) can install and use games not meant for their region to connect to game servers in America, Canada, and/or Europe. Most region restricting is done by the copy of the game the player is playing; i.e., if she's playing the Chinese version of the game, she'll be restricted to game servers operating in China only.

When I inquired about the region restriction policies that Blizzard (the makers of World of Warcraft) uses, I received this reply:

Quality and customer service are the highest priorities for Blizzard Entertainment. Because we cannot guarantee a positive gaming experience for users connecting to servers outside their supported region, we are not initially permitting users to connect to regions other than their home region.

In other words, players in one region of the world will not be able to play on alternate regions at this time. This is something that we will continue to investigate as a possibility for the future.

Please also keep in mind that you will not be able to access your account if you are using a different regional game version (other then your home regions version). For example, you will be unable to connect to the North American realms if using a Chinese, Korean, European, or Taiwanese version of the game.

The wild and crazy guy that managed to procure the non-Chinese/non-Korean versions of the games then employs local people, whether or not they speak the game's operating language, to sit in front of computers for 12-hour shifts six days a week for about $75 USD per week and plug away at the game, at first leveling up their character(s) to the maximum level and then camping out in all the game's lucrative spots to farm (hence the term) for gold, to be sold outside the game, and items that will sell to other players in-game, via auction houses and the like.

Given that most Asian gold farmers can't speak a lick of English, communicating with them is difficult and is best left forsworn. Usually they're easy to spot because of their character's name, which seems to almost always be romanized Asian-language words/names (i.e., "Xiaoying," "Feixing," "Piaoxue" etc), or made up of randomly-chosen letters ("Hfm," "Lkjqky," "Yhr" etc). Another tell-tale sign of a gold farmer is the amount they're selling rare items for, usually several orders of magnitude greater than what whatever they're selling will usually go for. Other tell-tale signs of farmer characters include maximum-level characters that aren't in guilds (or are in guilds only with other farmers), and characters that never participate in PvP or duels. Farmers rarely complete quests; almost all of their XP/leveling comes from grinding (viz., killing mobs all day long with no specific purpose other than to advance). Farmers typically create alternate characters to act as "bankers"; these characters remain at level 1 for their entire lifespan, and exist solely to deal with selling the farmer's items. If you see a level 1 character selling a level 50 item, chances are it's a farmer's bank character.

Also, sometimes it is impossible to avoid recruiting one or more farmers for 10- or 15-man raids due to lack of appropriately leveled characters or low server population. As expected, farmers invariably cock up such raids; if master looter isn't used, they have a tendency to ninja-loot, and they abjectly refuse to follow instructions or they can't understand them, which normally leads to the entire party's death. The vocabulary of farmers in raiding groups, as far as I've experienced, is limited to "lol," "sry" and "ok," not counting Chinese phrases which only they or their ilk can understand. If you've seen the Leeroy Jenkins machinima, you've seen Leeroy charge head-first and alone into the Rookery in Upper Blackrock Spire while the rest of his party is deciding what to do. This is classic farmer behavior, although in Leeroy's case, he was just doing it either for his own amusement or his party's dismay. Actual farmers don't seem to distinguish between the two.

A sampling of average gold farmer websites, where you can buy in-game gold and items for real money (though why you would want to is a good question):


If you play MMORPGs with any regularity, you've probably already noticed that gold farmers tend to cause not insignificant inflation to in-game economies by jacking up the prices of whatever they're selling. The more farmers infesting a game server, not unlike rats, the more rapidly the economy of that game server will dive. However, since each farmer's account is making money for the company operating the game (typically in the form of a monthly fee), not a lot is done to curtail their activities. Though I couldn't find any sources about it, I've heard stories of various game companies trying to sue farmers and failing in each attempt. In today's (2006) gaming world, farming seems to be tolerated, sometimes with clenched teeth and sometimes with a blind eye, depending on the game and the company running it. In an effort to cut down on the sheer number of farmers on their game servers, Blizzard included the following into their terms of use for World of Warcraft (Note: my primary experience involves World of Warcraft, although it is safe to assume that most other MMORPGs have similar terms of service):

... you acknowledge and agree that you shall have no ownership or other property interest in the Account, and you further acknowledge and agree that all rights in and to the Account are and shall forever be owned by Blizzard Entertainment.


... Blizzard Entertainment does not recognize any property claims outside of World of Warcraft or the purported sale, gift or trade in the "real world" of anything related to World of Warcraft. Accordingly, you may not sell items for "real" money or exchange items outside of World of Warcraft.

Despite these caveats, farming rolls on unabated, doing exactly what the ToU forbids, possibly due to the difficulty of suing a corporate entity based in a foreign country (especially communist China).

Most MMORPGs depend upon the player populace to help police their game servers, so the best thing you can do if you suspect someone on your server of farming is to report them to the appropriate people (the game's technical support, game masters, etc.) and hope for the best (i.e., the farmer's account is revoked). Beyond that, the only option is to ignore them, much like most people do with email spammers. Farmers and spammers are undoubtedly bred from the same gene pool, so ignoring them in-game shouldn't be too much of a stretch, especially if your chosen MMORPG offers an ignore list.

Of paramount importance is to avoid, no matter how much you want whatever the farmer is selling, buying from farmers, or buying in-game gold for real money, which is cheating anyway and is a great way to get your own account revoked. You can, with some effort, amass your own gold stockpile and find all those rare items you see farmers selling by yourself; it just takes time and patience. Persevere. Don't give in. Your fellow players and the game's designers will thank you for it.

World of Warcraft: Terms of Use: http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/legal/termsofuse.html
IGN: Blizzard Cracks Down on "Gold Farming": http://pc.ign.com/articles/595/595918p1.html
IHT: Boring game? Hire a player: http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/12/08/business/gaming.php

And of course, the inimitable Leeroy Jenkins.

Also, I have to recommend this site, which gives you a few romanized Chinese curses, so you can hurl them at farmers who message you asking "ni hao u want buy gold??????" and the like. I recommend "hun dan" and "cao ni zu zong shi ba dai," personally.

What is a Gold Farmer?

Gold farmer is a somewhat pejorative term used to describe one of the world's newest industries: playing online computer games "for hire".

This industry has developed in a way that is analogous to the development of professional sport. Time was that "sport" simply involved two teams of amateurs going at it just for the fun of the game. However, sports favour certain physical characteristics, and in every human culture, sports seem to be watchable spectacles which draw crowds. A natural division between the "players" and the "fans" therefore develops. Fast-forward to the present day and almost any sport you care to name has a top tier of professional athletes who "play" for a living, their salaries paid, in part, by people paying to experience the game second-hand.

This is, essentially, what gold farmers are. They are professional game players who earn money by allowing others to experience (or buy) the fruits of their play. The size of this industry has been estimated as in the order of half a billion US dollars in 2005. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this has become highly controversial.

So what makes players so angry about it?

There are four commonly used arguments against the "morality" of gold farming:

  • Gold farmers are breaking the terms of service (also called the End-User License Agreement or EULA) by "selling" game items. Not true. Gold farmers are selling the time it takes them to "earn" said game items (often simply an amount of "gold" or in-game money, hence the name) in the game. Gold farmers are, frankly, not stupid enough to try and "sell" something that "doesn't exist" (or where any ownership is claimed via EULA) but are simply selling their time. No law, agreement, or anything else can ever prevent this.

  • Gold farmers work "12 hours a day for $1 an hour" (or equivalent "shocking" conditions). Somewhat true. Many gold farmers are, indeed, employed in third-world countries, earning third-world wages working in third-world conditions. However this is not an argument against gold farming -- but rather an argument against the modern global economy. If one was truly concerned about such conditions and wages, one would need to stop buying clothes, watches, and computers, just to pull three real examples out of the air. In truth, "gold farmer" is a real job, much like the job of "hand artist", which describes the Chinese person who painted Aslan's nose on that plastic toy you got at McDonald's yesterday for your kids.

  • Gold farmers get their gold from "'sploits." Sometimes somewhat true. There was a famous "Fedex" quest in Everquest years ago where items purchased in one of the game's major "cities" could be "handed in" to a character on a remote island for around six times the purchase price. For a regular player, this wasn't worth doing repeatedly, because the journey took well over an hour in real time, and a regular character couldn't "carry" enough to make it worthwhile. But, along came a group of enterprising Korean players, who had two powerful characters "guarding" 20-odd "naked" characters ("naked" in this sense meaning their inventories had been deliberately emptied, allowing them to carry much more than a "normal" character) and they raked in the gold over about a month and a half, until SoE "nerfed" the quest. Gold farming? Sure! But actually, look deeper and what you see is amazing emergent gameplay, and/or a "bug" that was eventually "fixed". Underlying much of the hostility to the players who had engineered the "'sploit" was a very real sense of "wish I'd thought of that!"

  • Games are supposed to be for 'fun'! So are other leisure activites; yet no-one accuses Tiger Woods of ruining the "fun" of golf. Nor, indeed, do people accuse Calloway -- famous for clubs which add less than five percent distance to your drive, yet cost ten times more -- of being "golfing gold farmers", or of "ruining golf" for people who play a couple of times a year (i.e. "casual" players in the analogy).

Following on from that last, which is really not a moral argument, the "effect" of gold farmers on the "fun" of online gaming is, to say the least, also hotly controversial. Consider two extreme styles of play:

  • Casual gamer. Someone with an evening a week to "devote" to their MMORPG of choice will quickly be "left behind" other players that they may want to group with. Alternatively, a casual gamer may find that they really enjoy a certain part of the game (higher level "player versus player" combat, for example) but simply not have the time required to "level up" their new character to allow access to that part of the game. Such a player, for barely more than the equivalent of a month's access charges, could pay a gold farmer to "level up" their character to access the game content they desire, or to "keep up" with their more time-rich friends.

  • Addicted gamer. Someone who plays online games for more than 20 hours a week, week in week out, can appropriately be described as addicted if you compare that amount of time with other major activites. People spend 40 hours a week at work; 60 hours a week asleep. Such a gamer is usually seeking to justify their "habit" -- a trait common to all those with addictions. To justify spending 40 hours in front of a computer screen -- two weeks of effort -- to obtain an in-game item, the addict must assign enourmous "value" to that item. To see another player casually pay $20 or so for the item -- or even to hear a rumour of another player doing so -- enrages the addict, as it seems to "cheapen" their own time spend. Terms like "cheat" are thrown at gold farmers and the (predominantly) casual gamers that use their services, usually with little justification.

But those are two extreme cases. A "moderate" player could simply find gold farming to be annoying for other, non "ruining-the-game" reasons. Many players of all stripes find "spamming" on in-game item sales chat channels to be annoying -- but that's not an issue that's limited to gold farmers. Indeed, most other criticisms of gold farming fall into that category. Gold farmers repeatedly kill the same creature for hours to "farm" its treasure -- but so do regular gamers for a variety of reasons. Criticism of an identical activity for different motives must surely be filed under "but I've liked the band for ages -- you've only liked them since their last album!"

So how does it actually work in game?

Each game is different, but usually a casual player perceives a need for "gold" (or whatever the in-game currency is) or a piece of special, virtual equipment he/she is incapable of getting access to, jumps on to any one of a number of websites dedicated to the exchange of real currency for virtual currency/items, and makes a purchase.

It should be noted here that purchases thus made are not "guaranteed" in any real sense whatsoever. The single and only thing keeping "gold farmers" honest is their reputations, in almost all cases.

The method of "delivery" of the thus-purchased virtual currency/items varies from game to game, but usually an email is sent from the website to the player, advertising the time, place, and the character name who will "deliver" the purchased currency/goods. At that time, the named character appears, and simply hands the stuff over. Alternatively, it is "mailed" to the player through an in-game "postal" system -- but there are far more checks on such systems (as compared to a random character handing something to another character).

This method of delivery (which is almost universal), ironically provides a "pinch point" at which game manufacturers could completely stop "gold farming", if such was their desire (and it obviously is not, see below). Players could simply be prevented from transferring large amounts of in-game currency to each other, and forced to do their person-to-person trading through an in-game auction system. Of course, players themselves would rebel against such a "restriction" and so gold farming remains basically unstoppable.

Game Economics 101

To attempt to balance the account on gold farmers we must also examine their effect on in-game economies, and ironically this is where the arguments against gold farming come most unstuck.

MMORPGs have highly artificial "economies" (there is essentially an unlimited supply of resources) combined with extreme laissez-faire capitalism. Resources are unlimited, but there is a "player time cost" to harvest and process raw materials into usable and salable game items. Combine all of those factors, and classical economics would predict an initial inflationary spike as the "value of time" is established, followed by a gradual permanent cheapening of everything as resources and refined materials became steadily more and more abundant.

This is not what happens "in game" however, as in almost all MMORPGs there is essentially an unlimited supply of money, and so all the aforementioned counter-inflationary factors slow but cannot stop the inevitable. As the infinite flow of more and more cash enters the system, the prices of everything move in a never-ending upward spiral. This money typically comes into the games from non-player-character (NPC) "vendors", who have an infinite supply of coin with which to buy items from players. Once sold, in most games these items simply "disappear" (they can't, for example, be purchased from the vendor by another player) -- making vendors in effect cash machines into which players pour the time it took to harvest the resources, and withdraw coin.

Game makers are well aware of what a large problem runaway inflation is in their artificial economies, so the "newer" MMORPGs have built in "money sinks" designed to remove large amounts of cash from the economy. In most games, these take two forms: one-off level entitlement bonuses (such as purchasing the hugely expensive "horse" at level 40 in World of Warcraft); and skill purchase (where players outlay cash at every level-up ostensibly for the "training" of new character "skills"). Vendors cannot be removed (being unable to sell collected items at will would seriously affect gameplay "fun"), and so inflation cannot be turned off at the source.

So what effect do the gold farmers have on these dysfunctional little economies? To put it bluntly, they have an almost entirely positive effect. By hoarding coin, and commoditizing even the "super items" (worth tens of hours of game time), gold farmers are in effect acting as a further (albeit weak) counter-inflationary measure, helping to slow the natural inflation of game economies. Gold farmers earn in-game money largely in two ways: constantly "farming" in-game resources and selling them to other players (keeping the supply high and the price low - and hoarding the resultant coin); and by selling high-level magic items that "regular" players would keep to themselves, thus commoditizing even the most time-intensive items, demanding commensurately large amounts of coin from in-game purchasers, and thus removing it temporarily from the game economy. Then, the most common transaction gold farmers make is to sell their hoarded gold (or, more correctly, the time it took them to earn it) for real-world cash online. And the primary reason gamers purchase such gold is to throw it into one or more of the in-game money sinks (see above), magnifying their effects.

The common accusation that "gold farmers sell things for much more than they are 'worth'" is also baseless. Gold farmers, and everyone else, sell things for increasing prices over the life of any server for the inflationary reasons detailed above. That's not to mention that in an essentially free market, like in most MMORPGs, any player is free to sell any item for whatever the market will bear.

Game companies and game developers, veterans in the battle against in-game inflation, and earning their salaries from keeping the number of subscription-paying players high (and thus needing to cater to more than simply the "addict" style of play) are well aware of all of the above, which is why rumoured "legal action" against gold farmers remains but a wishful fantasy in the minds of the addicts. That's not to say legal action over in-game scamming has not occurred, it has.

Game companies do need to keep their greatest fans happy, and so occasionally you will see press releases purporting to show a crackdown on "in-game activity" that is not "condoned". This is often painted by the game media as a "gold farmer hunt", when in fact it is far more likely (and obviously so, if you dig a little deeper) that the vast majority of account closures are due to some kind of attempted cheating or scamming, or, far more commonly, simply offensive behaviour by players in the game.

A farmer is not someone who plays an MMORPG for fun- he/she plays it for profit, for the money that can be made from selling rare items or large piles of whatever currency the game uses. For example farmers will create databases of the best monster spawn sites and continually attack said monsters taking the rich loot left behind and selling it for money.

This can seriously unbalance the game which is why such transactions are normally banned. Farming causes inflation as important resources and loot are aggressively taken up by these farmers. This is can damage the game's economy and is irritating and annoying to players as well.

Farmers will also try tricks to find the best mob sites or money creating glitches. The may create fan-site and databases to which users contribute. When someone wishes to be helpful then may place information which the farmers may exploit.

Farming has a combined turnover of $880 million dollars and the whole issue is a legal grey area- who actually owns the game economies and the characters, the makers of the game or the creators of the player driven economy? It won't be long before developers will take this problem head on.

Farming is related to third world labour as people hire labourers (at a low wage) to farm the MMORPG. In an example case, a South Californian company "Black Snow Interactive" bought office space, several computers and hired several Mexican employees (at a low wage) to play the games Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot and farm them. It was the first "virtual-sweatshop" and made large amounts of money. Black Snow's accounts were frozen on both ebay and Ultima Online and a long court battle was drawn-out over the question of intellectual property rights. This undoubtedly going to become a deeper problem as more and more of our property becomes virtual.

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