Is gold farming a $1 billion market?

What do we know for sure about gold farming? Not nearly enough, according to University of Manchester professor Richard Heeks. In a recently released 87-page analysis, Heeks calls for more research on the massively multiplayer online game practice, noting that he couldn't find a single journal...

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What do we know for sure about gold farming? Not nearly enough, according to University of Manchester professor Richard Heeks.

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In a recently released 87-page analysis, Heeks calls for more research on the massively multiplayer online game practice, noting that he couldn't find a single journal article on the subject. On the other hand, informal real-world gold mining in Ghana employs as many people as gold farming, Heeks says, and has been the subject of dozens of articles.

With a dearth of scientific research to work from, the report references a variety of sources, including scraps of online gaming research that happens to mention gold farming, mainstream media coverage (like NPR or CBS News), MMO-focused blogs (TerraNova and Play No Evil), Wikipedia, and even an individual poster on the GameSpot forums.

Despite that, Heeks cobbles together best guesses based on the information at hand. For 2008, he suggests that 400,000 worldwide farmers are earning an average of $145 a month to serve between 5 million and 10 million customers. He pegs the total revenue of the sector at $500 million, but adds that number could easily be more than $1 billion.

"The main uncertainty of estimation relates to the gold-farming market in East Asia, which appears much larger than that in the US/EU," Heeks said. "That uncertainty in part arises because gold farming operates at four levels – local, national, regional, and global. We should encompass all four but, to date, the focus has been almost entirely on the global trade."

Heeks draws parallels between gold farming and activities of varying legality, from actual farming to the drug trade. He also casts doubt on some conventional wisdom surrounding gold farming, specifically that it leads to in-game inflation. While he acknowledges short-term inflation happens, Heeks said there are few long-term examples of it, noting that games like Eve Online and Runescape have actually experienced deflation over multiple years.

The issue of publishers trying to crack down on gold farming is also called into question. "Put economically, gold farming is utility-maximizing for both parties--gold farmer and player-buyer--otherwise, of course, it would not take place," Heeks said. "Doing nothing about gold farming also costs nothing, whereas doing something costs money in staff time and other resources."

As for future research, the first thing Heeks calls for is a set of basic, reliable facts about gold-farming pay, locations, ownership, working conditions, and the like. With that taken care of, he wants to find out about the impact the work has on the individuals doing the farming, what its impact is on unemployment and poverty reduction, and whether it's something that should be supported as a socioeconomic strategy for developing countries.

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lew_0911

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Anybody who played KoL remember meat sinks? Man, that was crazy. Maybe the mainstream games, WoW and whatnot can use that kind of tactic to drain the money flowing.

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ValKilmerStyle

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"ValKilmerStyle, the problem there is that the same arguement can be applies to ANY exploitive industry, so where do you draw the line other than not allow exploitive industy in the first place... ANYONE that believes gold farming to be benificial is about as right as saying that the rising of the mafia was benificial during prohibition and I challenge others to attempt to refute that..." Here's where I suggest a line should be drawn: in real life. If you consider that the only downside to gold mining occurs in a game, then it has no true downside. A fictional economy many be adversly affected, but a true economy is positively affected (the operative words being "fictional" and "true"). Of course this isn't 100% true as much money and time is spent cracking down on these activities, but to tell you the true I have absolutely no sympathy for a company who charges users $15 a month in the first place. The gold mining "industry" is never going away because there will always be people out there looking for an edge; someone might as well cash in on it, and all the better if it's the people(theoretically, of course) in developing countries. If you want someone to hate, though, perhaps hate the gold-miners' customers instead. And by the way, a strong argument could be made that the Mafia contributed to the economy during prohibition, thereby making it beneficial in at least one regard. Just sayin...

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stfolife

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People take this stuff way too seriously.... This is why the us economy is in recession... because people are worrying about the economy inside a video game(most of them being from asia meaning that it goes to their economy...)

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Sarcerok

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Ok now having read the main 60 pages of the article I have some more focused comments. First of all I recognise the work involved in this analysis and its level of comprehensiveness. Having read the full submission I find myself sensing the author trying so hard to present a certain pro-gold-farming-industry slant that he goes out of his way to not mention things he sees that work against his arguements. Example: In making his case that gold farming does not cause in-game inflation, he fails to mention that all virtual worlds have an extreme deflationary trend even without gold farming. For instance, on day 1 on a new WoW server certain L19ish player-crafted swords/daggers (I can't remember their name) are immensely valuable. Later on they are of little worth. The author also states that gold-farmers are not actually adding any resources to the economy if they are just taking resources that players would have otherwise had the opportunity to aquire. What he means here is that if you run up to that iron node and a farmer is on it, that does not hurt the economy because he is just farming a node you would have been able to farm if he was not there. Then later on he goes on to state that providing these resources back to you in RMT is "utility-maximizing for both parties". Now clearly if I have to pay real world money for that iron that I would have been able to get if the farmer was not on the node is NOT utility maximizing for me. I have other issues with the article. In talking about the naturual deflation of currency in games (which he tries to credit to gold farmers in another section in some bizarre twist of non-logic) he says "Productivity increases, disintermediation [removal of the middleman], and profit erosion seem the most plausible explainations for gold-farmer survival in the face of devaluation of in-game currency." Um, he forgot to mention that the main method farmers use to maintain profitability in the face of deflation is to hop to the latest, newest game out there where they can maximize profits before perfect competition makes profits impossible. This is a pretty big ommission. Despite his fairly detailed analysis of this industry I get the feeling he is really not all that familiar with it from the gamer perspective or even game producer perspective. This research is, however, a somewhat helpful (if biased)construct from which I hope more analysis will flow. I am still working on my Ph.D. in economics but I would love the opportunity to bang heads with this Richard Heeks if it helped resolve the problems this industry causes to our industry.

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TheBrownBlazer

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WoW has 10 million people playing it. 10 million x 15$= 150 million. Ofcourse not everyone buys gold, if 10-20% of the population does and they pay like 100$ a year it is very much possible. 500 million-1billion sound like a reasonable estimate to me.

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AzureWind213

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What's so bad about wanting to know more about it? What are people so afraid of here, anyway? You KNOW the governments are going to get their cuts in the end, no matter what happens. I may take time but it is inevitable and there's no reason to fight it if you ask me. Maybe that's cause I only play albatross 18 and it's not a big problem there...

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PwningStick

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"While he acknowledges short-term inflation happens, Heeks said there are few long-term examples of it" Wow he really didn't do enough research. Lineage II's economy was DESTROYED by gold-farming and is still in the same shape today. Items that would normally only cost 100,000 gold were being sold in the millions only 6 months after launch. Also the fact that so many farmers were active gold on ebay started to get really cheap, like 10million adena for only $15 or something. By yourself that would take like a year to accumulate ingame but $15 would take bearly 2 hours working at a restaurant. The reason this is such a problem is real world markets and virtual markets shouldn't be intertwined because it ruins the whole point of PLAYING the game.

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Magick_Mike

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Oh and BTW Richard Heeks is an idiot, and a known one at that...

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Magick_Mike

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ValKilmerStyle, the problem there is that the same arguement can be applies to ANY exploitive industry, so where do you draw the line other than not allow exploitive industy in the first place... ANYONE that believes gold farming to be benificial is about as right as saying that the rising of the mafia was benificial during prohibition and I challenge others to attempt to refute that...

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viewtifuljon111

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I don't understand why this is a problem for anyone. Some people want WoW gold. Some people can get WoW gold. Some people want WoW gold so bad that they are willing to pay RL money for it. If it inflates prices in WoW, then it is simply a side-effect of a free market. That is simple economics. Also, mattgdrums..... What the hell? This has nothing to do with the RL gold standard.

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jazilla

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get rid of gold from games. make everything quest based. items are earned in game not bought. it would fix a lot of issues. this will never go away. if you think the people who make the games aren't selling their own gold either, you are wrong. there is no way that people who have access to gold aren't selling it themselves for real world money. this problem will just continue to worsen as well. making money off of something that has no existence except in a virtual world is astonishingly easy to do, and it is a completely infinite resource.

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ValKilmerStyle

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Red_Jester: "Do you have any idea how rampant piracy is in eastern Asia?" "...these gold-farmers use hacks in every game they can get their hands on them for." "Why help them when they log into our virtual worlds to hurt the in-game economy, thereby hurting our game experience by forcing us to spend more time making more money to buy items with inflated prices?" "Let's also not forget that some of their money comes from stealing other players accounts and selling everything on their character. They invade the games web sites and place keylogger links in order to steal the account to make gold faster. Is this really worth it to you or do I need to bring in more examples?" I repeat, if we are unwilling to make a tiny sacrifice in a virtual realm to help others in the real world, then THAT would make me uncomfortable about where this world is headed. So to answer the question: yes, you need to bring in more examples. Then I challenge you to think on this: How arrogant, ignorant, and spoiled would we be to think that the livelihood of our WOW characters is more valuable than the livelihood of real people? NONE of the above examples are more important than someone bringing home food to his/her family. If they do it by hacking our video games then so be it. You can make the argument all you want that a game experience is changed or worsened by gold farming, but REAL LIFE experience has a chance to be IMPROVED, or so the article suggests. If this is true, and the situation of others CAN be improved, then gold farming is brilliant. I play MMOs too, but I like to think I can distinguish my time with them from my time out of them. And out of video games, gold farming only affects people in a positive way. If gold farming affects your real life experience negatively, you should get help. No one should be so invested in a video game.

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mikefat

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As a person who has never purchased farmed gold in an MMO due to fear of banning I would love the opportunity to buy goofy items same as you do in WoW's card games. In this example if you buy enough packs of cards you'll eventually get a crazy looking see through tiger mount. Another example is if you pay and travel to Blizzcon you get blizzcon items/gear. Why not allow for a system of buying stuff that doesn't give an advantage to people who wish to have wild items or special stuff without a time sink. As for the time issue I'd say it's more about what you want to spend your time in game doing. A) level my dude B) try to make money. Most people will pick A) but sometimes we have to pick B) cause we're broke! Which sucks. But what do I know I've only been playing MMO's since UO...Name the game my pic comes from and you're cool.

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spoonthemoose

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blooice i have no idea what you just said

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geist9049

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a gold farming research paper. i wonder how many hours at the governments expense he wandered around leveling his character while thinking this out. sad.

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blooice

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The aeroplane vs bus analogy is extremely inaccurate. You are talking about real-world transportation that is paid for in real-world currency. What is going on here is in-game imbalance paid for in real-world currency. Allowing players to buy in-game currency is the same as allowing players to buy more powerful skills with real-world money. The only thing this accomplishes is disrupting the balance between players. Everyone does have to take the bus just like everyone has to farm his own currency. The game should not treat players with more money differently than players without. Just like it should not treat players differently based on any other real-world criteria. I agree that players with more time on their hands may have an advantage, but that is not an unfair advantage, it's how games work. A player has less things to do outside the game so he will play more and have a richer experience. Players with more time to play can do more within the game in the same way that players with better skills can accomplish more within the game. Buying in-game gold for real-world money is the same as making characters have analogous stats as their players (the strong player gets more strength and the short player gets to play a gnome). The point of playing a game is to compete fairly against other players in a virtual world where no real-world attribute matters and only the amount of skill you have FOR THE SPECIFIC GAME distinguishes the advantage a player has over another. Buying gold is like buying skill points. It gives Mr Rich Richardson the most expensive equipment without him lifting a finger, while I have to work to get half of it and that is not how any game should work.

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Ruqus21

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All I can say about this is that MMO's always come down to two things... time and money. The people that have the time always complain about the people that have money and vice versa. Unfortunately, this will always be a problem with MMO's and its players within and until a game can relatively balance both (which is pretty much impossible). I mean if you look at it from two different angles, it makes sense. You either spend the time working at your job making the money that you can use to spend on the farmed gold, or you could spend the time that you would be using to make money IRL farming gold in a MMO. It would just depend on your IRL expenses, and what you would prefer to sacrifice more. Also, notice how this doesn't even tap into how MMO developers and such build their games with time syncs. Ensuring gamers will spend that much more time to make it to the next billing cycle, paying the developers bills. Time and Money... IMO. Also, I guess I must reiterate my point that I'm not choosing sides in this debate. Personally I've gone through the gamer transition of having plenty of time and not a lot of expenses, to the real world 40+hour a week job, with more bills and more mouths to feed. So, I think it just lies in where your focus is and where your priorities are...

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grigjd3

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This article is desperately in need of exposition. Half through reading, and I wasn't entirely sure what I was reading about. So Polybren, while this is a gaming website, not every reader immediately knows what gold farming is.

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toddze

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@paslaugh @nestea king You dont need to be playing MMO's if you have to buy currency. This "I dont have time to farm" excuss is bogus. In all actuallity if you dont have time to farm currency you dont have time to play. Your are just to lazy to farm currency. You guys are the kind of people who use cheat codes to beat single player games. Buying currency can plain flat ruin an economy period. It does affect every fair player on the server. Lets put the major fact of economy inflation aside. The second side effect of currency farmers (aka cgf) they are in all the decent farming spots 24/7 making it many more times difficult for the fair player to farm currency. But you people with more money than brains do not realize this and you dont even care. In future MMO's I hope theres better ways to find the buyer and once one is found, I would love to see a full BAN of everything they can ban (IP, CC, character, etc.) Currency buyers are the druggies of the MMO world. Kill the buyers, you kill the farmers. I could write a novel over this subject but this is not the place for it.

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KOTORkicker

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Drivel drivel drivel. Does this mean my armour of noob-killing is worth less now? OH NOES!

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Vyyral

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@nestea king The reason that could never work is it gives more wealthy players (in real life) an unfair advantage as to what they can accomplish in the game world, which is grossly unfair.

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IDarkNight

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great article.

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nestea_king

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@paslaugh You're absolutely right, and that's a freakin good analogy. Gold farming should definitely be allowed for players who do not have enough time to earn the gold for themselves. It takes away from the experience if a player cannot afford to have good equips simply because the player does not have enough time to get enough gold like the other players.

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mrmime777

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I hope to hell that researcher actually played RuneScape, because if you just looked at when it started and when it is now your information would be SERIOUSLY in error. RuneScape made its game more friendly to the kiddies by making it IMPOSSIBLE to trade ANYTHING more than about 15k, and even that only if you're high level. Inflation was HORRIBLE before that happened, and this ridiculous cop-out was the only way Jagex could save face and fix the immediate problem but in the long run ruin the game.

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BadMonk

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hmm paslaugh your example is sooooooo wrong!! if someone has money to take the flight rather than the bus then fine, but if you compare this to goldfarming then they are paying someone else to get on the flight for them!!! that is what this is, they pay other people to play the game for them, so they dont even have the fun experience themselves, just so they can then sell the high level character on ebay etc

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somberfox

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Gold farming affects each game in different ways. FF11 for example, it doesn't cause inflation, it causes deflation because of the way the way its auction house works (the seller that puts up the lowest price always gets sold first). That makes it very difficult for normal players to make gil because gil farmers can undercut so much that profits are almost nil. But in WoW, which has a normal AH it is far more difficult for gold sellers to have an impact on the game's economy, because the AH is probably the least used way to make gold and daily quests are the most used. Plus added to that most of the best gear can only be gotten by the player actually doing the work themselves (bind on pickup stuff).

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blaskowicz

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Nice article. I would be interested in reading about his findings.

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dr_jashugan

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Some have the time but not the money and others have the money but not the time. 8)

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blackace

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Paying real money for fake money in a MMORPG is just dumb. I can understand why gold farmers exist, but the if the people buying this fools gold instead of just playing the game like it was suppose to be played, the gold famers would slowly disappear. It's really sad if you ask me.

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Blazius2

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Awhile back in wow, gold farmers would constantly spam the channel for selling gold, and there'd be many of them, from different websites. They were all level 1 characters with wierd, randon names. They'd send everybody in the area whispers advertising their website. They'd send you mail. They'd invite 10 people to a party and advertise their gold and prices. They were like our telemarketers, but WAY worse, and you'd see them a LOT more often. Believe me when I say, you couldn't go 5 minutes without hearing a level 1 human named xghd3y1 try to advertise their farmed gold. Of course now it's much better. Blizzard did a lot to subdue them, but they're still prominent. So yes, they can make a gaming experience a lot more irritating and less fun.

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InfertileNinja

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If it's only $16.99 for 1000 gold, how often do people purchase this? It's hard to imagine that this is a one billion dollar market.

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Sarcerok

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Well like most classic economists he fails to take into account the negative externalities involved in this activity, and at least from the short summary here, I would question wether he is even aware of those externalities. As far as his conclusions about inflation, I don't think he understands how inflation works in virtual worlds as it does not follow classic models. However I will have to see his original research analysis to see if this is indeed the case.

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paslaugh

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Different people want different gaming experiences. Some people don't have hundreds of hours to grind through games, some have girlfriends, real jobs, and athletic activity. If someone wants to pay to get ahead, why not just let them? This is why these markets form in the first place, there's something that people want and are willing to buy. For example, if I want to travel to Chicago to Los Angeles. I can either take a $200 Greyhound bus or a $500 flight. Disallowing gold farming means everyone has to take the Greyhound, should people with less time/more money have to take the less desireable travel option? Why shouldn't there be options for everyone? I don't buy the notion that gold farming ruins a gaming experience.

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Proman84

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I find these figures hard to believe and until I see more research I don't think that I will believe them.

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saturo123

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thats the problem with MMO's, no matter what you're going to have widespread farming especially if it's a hit like WoW, and there's plenty of people out there who will buy it unfortunately

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Red_Jester

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This is a very interesting article. I never thought of something like gold mining having real-world implications, but it does. Sure it can be annoying to those of us who play the games without buying gold, but if something like this can be used to help support developing countries, isn't that more important than a little annoyance or limitation for the players? Come on, these are video games we're talking about. If we are unwilling to make a tiny sacrifice in a virtual realm to help others in the real world, then THAT would make me uncomfortable about where this world is headed. It is clear now that there is no better example of the global imbalance of wealth distribution. Do you have any idea how rampant piracy is in eastern Asia? As we are an information based economy in the US, it hurts us more than anyone else to have your products stolen. Why help people who are most likely playing these games on an illegal copy of Windows with who knows what other illegally owned programs? Not to mention these gold-farmers use hacks in every game they can get their hands on them for. If the developer doesn't have the staff like Blizzard to crack down on all cheaters, most just don't get caught. Why help people low enough to hack games to increase their down time making gold and duping items? I've never played an MMO that had Chinese players where they didn't use hacks in large numbers. Why help cheaters? Why help them when they log into our virtual worlds to hurt the in-game economy, thereby hurting our game experience by forcing us to spend more time making more money to buy items with inflated prices? Let's also not forget that some of their money comes from stealing other players accounts and selling everything on their character. They invade the games web sites and place keylogger links in order to steal the account to make gold faster. Is this really worth it to you or do I need to bring in more examples? I if I want to throw my money out of the country with nothing material in return, I'll give it to a charity who can sure as hell give it to people who truly need the aid as well as promote the reduced need for gold-farmers thus helping the fun that everyone else has playing their games.

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Red_Jester

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[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

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vaejas

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"Republic Credits? Credits are no good here.. I need something.. more REAL." Bad quotes aside, even the abstract for the article is intriguing. And yes it is a big deal to economists when you can turn your head and see a $1 Billion industry you weren't even aware of. The radio had another story on Second Life today, but that's about individuals and virtual commerce, gold farming has always been a service industry, and now it would seem, an extremely organized one.

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ZOnikJJ

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hooray gold farmers!

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endocrine

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How does working long hours for little money benefit anyone? Instead of working at a job that can improve their country, they just help the owner of these sweatshops get richer while everyone else stays at the same level. Atleast real sweatshops bring with them real commodities that people in the country can buy for cheap, while they export their products for much more money.

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ValKilmerStyle

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This is a very interesting article. I never thought of something like gold mining having real-world implications, but it does. Sure it can be annoying to those of us who play the games without buying gold, but if something like this can be used to help support developing countries, isn't that more important than a little annoyance or limitation for the players? Come on, these are video games we're talking about. If we are unwilling to make a tiny sacrifice in a virtual realm to help others in the real world, then THAT would make me uncomfortable about where this world is headed. It is clear now that there is no better example of the global imbalance of wealth distribution.

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Atarii

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Hopefully Mr. Heeks can get some funding to continue to do research on this matter. I'd be extremely interested in finding some factual evidence regarding gold-farming and the people who do it, how they feel about it, what their personal economic hardships are, and why they do it in general.

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Kenji_Masamune

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I just skipped the gold farming and play on private servers where the pace in which you level/get money is where it should be. Playing a game and only getting 1 character to the top after 8 months is unacceptable. Other people like playing the same game for years on end, I however don't.

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terrene

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The author's contention that "doing nothing costs nothing" is naive at best and quite frankly wrong. As along time player of several MMOs, I have seen that gold farmers often monopolize good spots for earning coin, to the exclusion of those people playing the game for it's own sake. This lowers the enjoyment of playing the game, and contributes to players leaving. a reduction of revinue base. If Heeks can miss so basic a premise as that, it calls much of his other conclusions into question.

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Mercanis

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I personally don't like gold farming, but that's just a gut feeling; I have no facts to back it up. It would be really interesting to see what the actual effects of the practice are, however. As for its effect on poverty reduction, the idea that hordes of impoverished people would act as virtual servants to those rich enough to enjoy virtual leisure makes me very uncomfortable concerning where this world is headed.

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EE2lemmonhead

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if i play an mmo, i want to have a chance at the game without having to buy gold...

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akiwak

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I don't play those MMO's but I am going to my back yard and buring my wedding ring and watering it everyday!!!

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Black-Magic

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"does gold farming actually ruin the experience for those who don't have endless hours to spend trying to gain a few pieces of gold to buy stuff to go out and finish quests?" Not generally, no. But inflation can seriously affect a server's economy. Gold farming can hinder seriously hinder a game experience if it goes unmonitored and unregulated.

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IvanKavinski

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I find the lack of inflation suprising...

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