I'm Paid To Play World Of Warcraft All Day (And It Sucks)
"Gold farmer" sounds like an occupation straight out of a medieval fever dream -- an alchemist with a green thumb, toiling in the fields and hoping for a healthy doubloon harvest come autumn. But the reality is far less glamorous. It involves laboring in the landscape of massively multiplayer online games like World Of Warcraft, banking virtual gold, and then selling it for real-world currency.
On one hand, it's a career that 30 years ago would have been considered too fanciful for a sci-fi novel. On the other, it sounds like one of the saddest damned jobs we've encountered. Our source is Jeremy, a Toronto-based gold farmer whose sole source of income is grinding World Of Warcraft monsters all day, every day. He told us ...
You Find Yourself Competing With Chinese Prisoners
Somewhere a reader just shouted at their screen, "Hold on, you're saying I can get a job playing goddamned World Of Warcraft all day, every day? And it pays real money? Then why they hell did I even go to college?" It is true. To catch up the non-gamers out there: The reason for this is that in many games, items can be bought only with virtual "gold" that is earned by spending hours killing various Tolkien-esque creatures. Lots of players would, despite what you might think, prefer to just spend real-world cash instead. Hey, if their time is valuable, why not just buy the fancy armor with $25 in cash and save six hours of grinding?
"I mean, it's OK, but the pauldrons are a little dinky, don't you think?"
That's where people like Jeremy come in -- they are sort of doing the virtual equivalent of counterfeiting. They create accounts and pile up gold (either by hand or with software that automates the task) and sell it on the open market. But there is competition. Lots of it, in fact.
At its height, gold farms in China comprised a nearly $1 billion cottage industry. As many as 100,000 workers were employed full-time in these virtual mines, and many of them pulled 12-hour shifts (as does Jeremy, by the way). Many employees are earning only about 10 cents on the dollar for gold gained. "They rack up gold really fast," says Jeremy. "And because it's all virtual, there's no quality issues associated with it."
China banned the practice of gold farming among private citizens and companies in 2009, which isn't to say that Jeremy never runs into his Eastern counterparts: "You know when you encounter them. Many Chinese and Vietnamese players have names that are mostly numbers or symbols, because some people over there don't have English keyboards. They barely know any English and will try to avoid talking or interacting with anyone else. They also have names or give details about themselves to try to sound American, but they fall just short. One orc I thought for sure was a bot, but when I asked where he was from he responded 'Dragon Beach, California.' This confused me, because I looked it up later, and there was no Dragon Beach. I later asked a Chinese friend about it and he told me that 'dragon' in Chinese is 'long' [or 'lung,' apparently] -- the player had translated one of the words that didn't actually need to be translated."
Dragon Beach orcs don't fuck around.
That's not to say his broken-English brothers and sisters in arms are breaking the law -- on the contrary, many of them are being forced to play by the law. Gold-mining is such a golden goose that the Chinese government has added it to many prisoners' itineraries, alongside -- rarely instead of -- hard physical labor. So yeah -- you find yourself going up against people who not only have a quota but can be beaten for not meeting it. As one former ward of the Chinese state put it, "We kept playing until we could barely see things."
If this had been a subplot in Blade Runner, we'd have laughed.
It's The Black Market, And It's Not Unlike The Drug Trade
Right now there's nothing illegal about what Jeremy is doing (though laws overseeing this sort of thing are certainly coming -- where real-world money is involved, real-world regulations will follow). But the game companies do everything they can to stamp it out. Gold farming gets you a lifetime ban from Blizzard, the company behind World Of Warcraft. There have even been cases of virtual vigilante justice, with some gamers "massacring" suspected gold farmers in-game, like a virtual Charles Bronson cleaning up the gangs in his neighborhood.
So what Jeremy is selling is definitely contraband. He plays WOW for about 12 hours a day and later sells the gold he's made in-game to a third-party company that stockpiles and resells it to gamers, everyone taking precautions along the way. Before he can sell his wares, Jeremy has to prove he's not a cop, so to speak: He has to provide his Facebook page to interested companies as evidence he doesn't work for Blizzard and isn't setting up some elaborate digital sting operation. And he has to be wary of the buyers, too: "Two of my gaming buddies who also gold farm for a living have gotten lifetime bans of accounts they spent hundreds of hours on because the person they thought was buying was actually from Blizzard." What, you thought we were joking about Blizzard doing their own undercover operations to nail dealers?
Did you honestly think those victory dance animations were for you?
Jeremy has actually gotten busted multiple times -- he's received several lifetime bans, his first from selling gold, he says, to someone who offered to pay him via PayPal: "[The buyer] told me he really needed gold since he was starting out." And because he offered a great rate, Jeremy agreed. He started to work out the logistics when his game disconnected and Blizzard emailed him confirmation of his ban. Not that this is much of a deterrent. "I was working on a new account within an hour," he says. Yeah, the term "lifetime ban" is a bit misleading.
"Fine, I wanted to play as a sexy gnome mage anyway."
The parallels with the illegal drug trade are striking, even aside from the fact that many of the end users are hopelessly addicted. A University of Minnesota study confirmed that online gold farming is set up just how business goes down on The Wire, complete with a supplier-middleman-dealer chain. And much like the drug trade, the guys at the bottom -- the footmen, if you will -- often wind up getting screwed ...
It's A Living, But Barely
Take Jeremy's average workday: "I make over 100,000 in (virtual) gold a day, and depending on the price, the need, and who I sell it to, it's generally around $80 worth." That means he works about 72 hours a week and clears just shy of $25,000 a year. So why keep it up? Perhaps it's the lure of the rare success story: One RuneScape player famously made $10,000 in his better months through farming alone.
"Smaug and Scrooge McDuck ain't got shit on me."
Jeremy works from 9 to 9. He leaves his apartment only on Sunday to buy food and eat dinner at his parents' house. He adds, "I talk to American and British gold farmers on instant messenger, and their lives are about the same." When we asked Jeremy to try to explain his daily life to us, he actually brings up that South Park episode about WOW. Specifically, this guy:
"Me and my group of farmers have done video calls before, and every single one of us had the same setup as 'the guy with no life.'" As Jeremy explains it, microwave dinners and pizza are the most, uh, efficient foods for someone in his position. He doesn't see cooking as an option because, he says, "We need to be farming for all of those hours to have money to live off." He's also cultivated a powerful addiction to energy drinks: "Right now, I have a stack of 40 Red Bull cans from the last week by the door."
They also make good urine containers.
In addition to the terrible things it's done to his heart, Jeremy's career has also sucked all the joy out of gaming, he says. "It becomes a to-do list: 'Go here, fight here, and get gold.' That's it." Even the joy of gaming the system, so to speak, is gone -- many of the gold-buying third-party companies track down loopholes that allow the players to make a lot of gold for little play. At that point, it's basically data entry: "I can't even tell you the names of half the creatures I'm fighting, but I do know the average auction price for in-game mounts."
"I look at this goat-horse-bird thing and it might as well just be a giant dollar sign with wings and horns."
Like Any Commodity, The Price Fluctuates Daily (And Fortunes Are Lost Without Warning)
If you think it's weird that there are billions of real dollars tied up in trading a completely fake precious metal, you just have to adjust your definitions of "real" and "fake." If people are trading hours of their lives for virtual gold and purchasing goods with it (even if said goods are also just bits of data), then it's exactly as "real" as the cash in your pocket. World Of Warcraft gold is thus a currency like any other, and its value fluctuates based on all sorts of unpredictable events involving the collective behavior of millions of irrational humans. So, just as you can have crashes in currency value in real life (see: the German mark circa 1923), the same can happen in Azeroth, Sanctuary, or Gielinor.
"Next, class, we'll be calculating the Nash equilibrium in Maple World ..."
Jeremy reports often unpredictable pricing due to farmer-initiated inflation: "Changes happen so suddenly that buying and selling for a large profit needs to be almost done at the moment you think you can get the most out of it." One way Jeremy maximizes return is to sell on major Eastern holidays, like Chinese New Year or Tet. "The farmers there are going to be off, and with so much gold not coming in, buying prices will go up. Some farmers will save for weeks so they can unload their gold on those days," he says.
Year of the Monkey = Day of the *Cash Register Sound*
The rest of the time, the market is subject to the whims of game companies and gamers themselves. If Jeremy is spared from one of Blizzard's banning sprees (he usually is -- small-time independent operators like him are harder to spot than the massive bot-driven operations), he benefits from the sudden decrease in suppliers. Just as easily, he can get dinged by a longtime player's sudden decision to give up the game and cash out -- a factor that's more common around New Year's. Y'know, resolutions and all.
"I promised my girlfriend I'd spend more time with her (character)."
In fact, the market is fragile enough that circumstances in Jeremy's own life have impacted it: "I once stockpiled nearly 1 million gold for a large payout, because I needed money for a new apartment. I sold it all to a smaller company for a reasonable price, but within hours I got hate messages from some farmers I knew who suddenly found out they couldn't sell their gold for nearly that much. I saturated the market that day, and because they went off and sold their gold to other companies, it had a ripple effect."
But there is a clear trend: Each time the price for game gold goes down, it seems to rebound a little bit less. As of publication of this article, 1,000 gold is as low as, depending on the market, 30 cents. Why? Well ...
The Virtual Gold Bubble Has Popped
You know you're living in 2016 when a story about people running an illicit digital currency operation in a virtual world ends by pointing out that the whole fad is now all but over. The world is moving on.
Jeremy thinks he has only a few years left in his job, and here's the big reason:
The games finally gave in and just let players buy the gold directly. In a limited capacity, anyway -- if you're a player looking to buy your way to better gear in WOW, you can buy a $20 token that can then be traded in an in-game auction house for gold. The purchaser of the token can't redeem it for cash -- they can use it only toward free months of their game subscription (to prevent farming).
Jeremy says the decision caused a panic among the gold farming community. And although the demand for black market gold still exists, Jeremy has seen his income fall, despite putting more hours in this year than last. These days, those kind of "pay to win" micro-payment systems -- you know, the very thing that makes supposedly free mobile games so insufferable -- have become standard.
It's the same business model that keeps Kim Kardashian in deceptively expensive see-through knits.
That's something that nobody talks about when it comes to these scummy "pay to harvest your crops faster" games -- before they were around, people wanted to pay to win but couldn't. That's why the gold farmers could make a living off the black market. There was a demand.
So while the more "prestigious" MMOs like WOW railed against gold buying for years because it represented an unfair imbalance to poorer players, once it became clear that Jeremy and his co-workers weren't going to be scared away, the developers decided they might as well be the ones to cash in. These companies started offering the services directly themselves, eroding what used to be a $900 million-per-year free-for-all.
"If my hands were better animated, I'd be flipping Blizzard the bird right now."
Jeremy admits he continues on this career trajectory almost entirely out of habit, and at least a touch of fear. And some of his colleagues are straight-up stuck doing this. He told us about a friend from Florida who "is wheelchair-bound and lives off of disability [insurance], and he does this as a side job." And another friend who has made a living from this so long that gold farming is "all he knows."
As the digital gold market collapses, Jeremy worries for his friends. "I don't know what's going to happen to them," he says.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Things You Learn Writing Blockbuster Video Games and 6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World.
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