Published on Tuesday, 19 April 2016 00:00
Written by Cheryl Teo Kai Lin
Getting paid to play your favorite game every day probably sounds like a dream come true for hardcore gaming geeks everywhere, but it is not all that great as it sounds, as one man who grinds World of Warcraft all day as his primary source of income spills the beans.
Based in Toronto, Jeremy is part of the massive multiplayer online role-playing game that is the World of Warcraft (WoW) developed by Blizzard Entertainment. Personally, I have played WoW ever since its inception in 2004, when I was just 12 years old and I immediately got sucked into the whole beautiful fantasy of exploring strange and magical lands, striking down enemies with bombastic skills, soaring through the air on your very own Wyvern mount, and fighting gigantic bosses alongside friends. Over the last 12 years, I have played it on and off with every release of a new expansion pack, sometimes even going without sleep for more than 24 hours and tirelessly hammering away at the keyboard.
So being able to earn money from playing WoW every day would seem like the ultimate dream job for me. You will get to work from the cozy confines of your own room, take a coffee break any time, and basically just enjoy playing your favorite game while the cash rolls in. But Jeremy who has been toiling in the lands of Azeroth and beyond for a couple of years now begs to differ. He is essentially a gold farmer in WoW, and his job involves killing monsters over and over again for virtual gold and then selling the cyber currency for real world money to players who need the virtual gold to buy various in-game items. Here are his 5 reasons why being paid to play WoW all day, err day sucks.
1. You have to compete with Chinese sweatshop workers and prisoners
At its peak, virtual gold farming in WoW was a $1 billion industry in China. As many as 100,000 Chinese workers were employed full-time in these virtual mines, and many of them pulled 12-hour shifts (as does Jeremy). These employess only earned about 10 cents on the dollar for gold gain. "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, but that has not stopped them from operating illegally as I have personally witnessed them advertising their gold rates in mandarin on WoW's chatboards. Jeremy also runs into his Eastern counterparts who are equally as aggressive in farming gold as the Chinese are.
Despite the ban on gold farming in China, the Chinese government hypocritically added gold mining to their prisoners' itineraries since it raked in a lot more moolah than hard physical labor. So Jeremy finds himself pitted against people who not only have a quota but can be beaten up for not meeting it. As one former ward of the Chinese state put it, "We kept playing until we could barely see things."
2. Gold farming is part of the black market, much like the drug trade
Jeremy is based in the United States of America, and as of now, gold farming is not illegal in his country yet although laws overseeing this sort of thing are certainly coming because when real world money is involved, real world regulations will follow too. Gold farming is a death penalty in WoW, and if the staff at Blizzard finds out that you have been selling gold for real cash (it is really not that difficult to get spotted out because players can report gold farmers who try to push their virtual currency on chatboards to administrators), your entire WoW account will be banned for life. Of course, you can always create another account but it will involve you losing money from paying for all the expansion packs, renewing the monthly subscription, and all the progress you made in-game to be able to hit the max level for optimum gold drops.
Jeremy plays WoW for about 12 hours a day, and later sells the gold he has made in-game to a third-party company that stockpiles and resells it to gamers, with 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." Yes, Blizzard staff actually go on covet operations to flush out gold farmers.
Jeremy has actually gotten busted multiple times. He has 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.
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 with the drug industry complete with a supplier-middleman-dealer chain. And much like the drug trade, the guys at the bottom of the foodchain winds up getting screwed over.
3. You can't get rich
Jeremy makes over 100,000 virtual gold a day, and that usually comes up to US$80 in real world currency. That means he works about 72 hours a week and makes about US$2480 every month. Since he is self employed, he obviously can't rise up in the ranks and get a promotion. Jeremy works from 9am to 9pm. He leaves his apartment only on Sunday to buy food and have dinner at his parents' house. “I talk to American and British gold farmers on instant messenger, and their lives are about the same,” he adds.
Jeremy likened his daily life to the hardcore gaming middle-aged nerd from the South Park episode about WoW. “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',” he said. Homecooked food is out of the option for him and he says that microwavable food and pizzas are the only way to go as those are efficient foods for someone in his position. "We need to be farming for all of those hours to have money to live off." He has also cultivated an unhealthy addiction to energy drinks. "Right now, I have a stack of 40 Red Bull cans from the last week by the door."
In addition to the decline of his health, Jeremy's career has also sucked all the joy out of gaming with the mindless repetition. "It becomes a to-do list: 'Go here, fight here, and get gold.' That's it."
4. Like any commodity, the price fluctuates daily
You can lose a fortune in a heartbeat. WoW's gold is 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, the same can happen in WoW.
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.
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 which is a factor that's more common around New Year's.
In fact, the market is fragile enough that circumstances in Jeremy's own life has 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."
5. The virtual gold bubble has popped
WoW has finally gave in to the demands of players and let them buy the gold directly. A WoW player who wishes for more in-game gold can buy a token for US$20 which 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, this was implemented to prevent farming.
This caused a panic among the gold farming community. And although the demand for black market gold still exists, Jeremy has seen a steep decline in his income, and has to clock in more hours in this year than the last.
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 has 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 himself and his friends. "I don't know what's going to happen to them," he says.
But perhaps the most terrible part of earning your income through an online game that Jeremy failed to address is how lonely it can be. You are stuck at home in front of your computer screen burning your retinas off without actual human interaction, stuck in a fantasy world and cut off from the real one. After gaining an insight to the life of a WoW gold farmer, it actually sounds like one of the most depressing jobs in the world.