The second is an odd little vignette of one of the more unusual corners of the new global economy: a market in "virtual goods," including game-points collected by young Chinese men who are paid 30 cents an hour to play "massively multiplayer online role-playing games" and then sell the "virtual coins" they collect to European and American players. It's proof that in this new economy, everything can be outsourced—even cheating in a game.
"The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer," Julian Dibbell, New York Times, June 17 Twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three nights off per month, this is what Li does—for a living. On this summer night in 2006, the game on his screen was, as always, World of Warcraft, an online fantasy title in which players, in the guise of self-created avatars—night-elf wizards, warrior orcs, and other Tolkienesque characters—battle their way through the mythical realm of Azeroth, earning points for every monster slain and rising, over many months, from the game’s lowest level of death-dealing power (1) to the highest (70). More than eight million people around the world play World of Warcraft—approximately one in every thousand on the planet—and whenever Li is logged on, thousands of other players are, too. They share the game’s vast, virtual world with him, converging in its towns to trade their loot or turning up from time to time in Li’s own wooded corner of it, looking for enemies to kill and coins to gather. Every World of Warcraft player needs those coins, and mostly for one reason: to pay for the virtual gear to fight the monsters to earn the points to reach the next level. And there are only two ways players can get as much of this virtual money as the game requires: they can spend hours collecting it or they can pay someone real money to do it for them.
At the end of each shift, Li reports the night’s haul to his supervisor, and at the end of the week, he, like his nine co-workers, will be paid in full. For every 100 gold coins he gathers, Li makes 10 yuan, or about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20. The small commercial space Li and his colleagues work in—two rooms, one for the workers and another for the supervisor—along with a rudimentary workers’ dorm, a half-hour’s bus ride away, are the entire physical plant of this modest $80,000-a-year business. It is estimated that there are thousands of businesses like it all over China, neither owned nor operated by the game companies from which they make their money. Collectively they employ an estimated 100,000 workers, who produce the bulk of all the goods in what has become a $1.8 billion worldwide trade in virtual items. The polite name for these operations is youxi gongzuoshi, or gaming workshops, but to gamers throughout the world, they are better known as gold farms. While the Internet has produced some strange new job descriptions over the years, it is hard to think of any more surreal than that of the Chinese gold farmer….
The phenomenon of selling virtual goods for real money is called real-money trading, or RMT, and it first flourished in the late 1990s on eBay….
For years now, the vast majority of virtual goods has been brought to retail not by players selling the product of their own gaming but by high-volume online specialty sites like the virtual-money superstores IGE, BroGame and Massive Online Gaming Sales—multimillion-dollar businesses offering one-stop, one-click shopping and instant delivery of in-game cash. These are the Wal-Marts and Targets of this decidedly gray market, and the same economic logic that leads conventional megaretailers to China in search of cheap toys and textiles takes their virtual counterparts to China’s gold farms.