Human beings are endlessly cunning creatures. With our opposable thumbs and superior intellect, we’ve managed to put people on the moon, cure diseases and blow things up with greater and greater ease. And while I struggle with the science of getting the lids off jars or how much change I’ll have left if I buy two packets of crisps with a five pound note, there are others whose ingenuity never ceases to amaze me.
I find people who can come up with money-making ideas the most impressive. Who was it, for example, that first looked at somebody sitting in the dark playing an MMO and thought, ‘I can make some money out of him?’
A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a story on The Guardian’s website about Chinese gold farmers. For wages of around £80-£100 per month, thousands of Chinese workers will sit and play World Of Warcraft in ten- to eighteen-hour shifts for seven days a week with only a single day off each month. Their efforts are then sold on to gamers too lazy to grind away at WoW themselves; sites such as wowatm.com will sell you 8000 pieces of Warcraft gold for around $130, while wow7gold.com will take your puny Level 1 character up to Level 70 for a mere $320. According to a recent report, this rapidly growing industry is worth around £700 million a year – indeed, the industry has grown so lucrative that the Chinese government levied a 20 per cent tax on it.
Independent film maker Anthony Gilmour has recently made a documentary on the subject called Play Money, which tells the story of Nolyn Lee, a Beijing University graduate who makes a living as a gold farmer for a company called SCG Game. “Why pay for goods that aren’t real?” Gilmour asks on his film’s website, playmoney.com. “Why kill for a sword that doesn’t exist? In this documentary, we hope to answer these questions.”
While the Chinese government takes its share of gold farming profits through taxation (with the US and Australian governments recently following suit), the South Koreans take a more dim view of the practice, and have banned the gold farming industry altogether – the penalty for selling virtual goods for money could result in a jail term and a fine of up to $50,000.
And while businessmen in China are making a fortune from an army of minions hunched over PCs, there are other equally cunning types at the other end of the spectrum, who have come up with their own rather less lucrative schemes – a few months back I wrote about the buying and selling of XBox Achievement points on eBay. While the practice still continues there, it seems the market for points has expanded somewhat – sites have sprung up all over the net offering GS points for cash – one will exchange 2000 of them for $159.99.
Similarly, there are plenty of sites that will offer cheats for cash – if you feel like taking all the challenge out of an online FPS, then you can purchase an Aimbot for a few dollars, which will give you perfect headshots every time.
And while eBay have made attempts to curb the sale of Warcraft gold and other virtual goods, some sellers are still managing to slip through the net; 23 Euros will buy you an Aimbot for the Korean online strategy shooter GunBound, while another enterprising gamer is selling ‘perks’ (unlockable extras) for Call Of Duty for £1 – all proceeds going to charity.
Of course, gold farming and Aimbotting have been going on for years – the huge rise in popularity of online gaming has made these industries all but inevitable. The biggest mystery is why so many people are willing to pay for other people to either play their games for them, or purchase bits of software which completely removes the element of skill.
If endlessly grinding to get to the next level in WoW is too tedious to do yourself, why not just play something else? It’s like inviting John Prescott round because you can’t be bothered to eat your own dinner.
It’s a bewildering depressing industry, a glimpse into the murky, negative aspect of human nature; the greedy exploiting the helplessly poor in their native country and the appetites of the hopelessly lazy overseas.
Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.