The Keywords for Video Game Studies session on “Gold Farming” sparked animated discussion about the ways gold farming must be analyzed and articulated as both a range of practices and/or problematic discourses. The session opened with the simple question, “What is gold farming?” When defined simply as the repetitive “grind” of collecting gold, materials, or other resources in a game, then almost every player is a gold farmer. However, the central tension is when does playing the game cross the line into playing against the perceived intent of the game? Is the accrual of in-game wealth, items, and resources necessarily gold farming? Or is it when those resources are sold for real world money? What about games that allow real-money trade (RMT)?
The session provided some historical context for where gold farming as a term and activity came from, noting that it was not necessarily a pejorative or racialized from the get go. From “Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on ‘Gold Farming’: Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games,” Richard Heeks of the Institute for Development Policy and Management at the University of Manchester outlines:
- MMORPGs really began to grow in industrialised countries with the launch of Ultima Online in 1997. Alongside that growth was a strong take-off in real-money trading; facilitated by the founding of eBay (Lewis 2006).
- The sale of in-game items and currency was initially a cottage industry of players-turned-traders based in industrialised countries. In 2001/2002, though, this changed as mainly US-based traders perceived the opportunities for outsourcing to low-wage labour locations such as Mexico and East Asia. Some of these traders were North Americans of Asian origin, or Asian students studying in the US (Jin 2006).
- This “outside-in” model met up with an “inside-out” model that lay behind the second reason for growth of developing country gold farming: serving the domestic/regional market. There was a particular growth in online games-playing in East Asia from the late 1990s. The games played were initially foreign imports such as Blizzard’s Starcraft but in 1998 the South Korean firm NCSoft launched Lineage, the first significant non-industrialised-country MMORPG. The game soon spread to China and Taiwan and Japan. In-game traders began paying those around them to earn “adena” – the Lineage in-game currency (Chan 2006). As Lineage began being played outside East Asia (particularly when Lineage II was launched on American servers in 2003), and as East Asians increasingly played Western MMORPGs, the “adena farmer” model spread. It seems likely that it was at this point – from late 2003/early 2004 – that the number of gold farms rose from dozens to hundreds and then thousands (Jin 2006b, PJ 2007). (4-5)
By the MMO boom of the 2000s, gold farming becomes part of the language and landscape of video game culture and communities and eventually gets mapped on to particular players and populations. Constance Steinkuehler suggests in “The Mangle of Player” that “a whole new form of virtual racism has emerged, with an in-game character class unreflectively substituted for unacknowledged (and largely unexamined) real-world differences between China and America, such as economic disparity, cultural difference, language barriers, and discrepant play styles” (208). And regardless of actual nationality or ethnicity, the “Chinese gold farmer” emerges from the mangle of games and players as a species, standing in for any gamer perceived to be playing poorly, playing just to make money (in- or out-of-game), or to be Other. Steinkuehler’s continues saying that “calling someone ‘Chinese’ is a general insult that seems aimed more at one’s style of play than one’s real-world ethnicity” (209). But is that disavowal of racism problematic? And how might we need to further think through the differences of culture, power, wealth, and play when players from different parts of the world meet online? And how might we better address the US-centrism of many online games and communities?
Overall, the session could not come up with any easy answers, which belies that the topic is rich and complex and often full of difficult questions (especially when it comes to talking about race). But there were still useful moments:
- thinking about gold farming as a collaborative practice and alternative kind of play
- connections to prior discussion about what is a game, cheating, and looking ahead to the session on “Hack/Customization”; what are the consequences of disabling certain features in games (e.g. bots) that might have allowed certain players the access to play (e.g. blind/disabled players using particular technologies to access the game)
- highlighting the difference between gaming for pleasure and leisure and gaming for work and labor; what is the price of and for “fun”?
- how might we think about globalization, (trans)nationalism, commodification and video games? how might these connect to other labor practices and protests (e.g. the reports coming out of China about Apple’s manufacturing, Foxconn, and the conditions of laborers)
- thinking about techno-orientalism, video games, gold farming, and the backlash against gold farmers
- what are the legal and economic ramifications of gold farming, thinking about End User License Agreements; how might games embrace real-money trade?
Thank you to everyone who attended and participated. Don’t forget to check out the “Asian American Arcade” exhibit, which in part addresses gold farming, at the Wing Luke Museum for the Asian American Pacific Experience in the International District of Seattle, WA.. Hope to see everyone at the next Keywords session on “Hack/Customization” on April 12, 3:30 PM, in Communication 202. Also, everyone should submit a proposal to (or just attend) the Keywords “Research/Design” Colloquium on Saturday, May 19, 8 AM-3 PM.