I've never been a big video game / computer game guy. As a kid I played what I think is a fairly normal amount of Nintendo for the average American teenager of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The last video gaming system I owned was a Super Nintendo, to let you know how much I stay on top of console technology. In fact, with the exception of a $5 copy of Counter-Strike I put on my PC five years after the game ceased to be popular, I am essentially game-less.

OK, OK. Also the Call of Duty series. Lately I don't even have time for that, though. Still waiting to get Black Ops. Despite this damning exception, hopefully the point holds: I've never been a Gamer. So I don't really get what compels people to be Gamers. Not dabblers or dilettantes, mind you, but the obsessive "I play WoW 19 hours per day" kind. The games people play these days, especially the "role playing" kind, are a little too…intense for me.

My sense that this is not a world I have the time or inclination to enter was reinforced when I saw this story about how Chinese prisoners are being forced to "gold farm" en masse in World of Warcraft and other popular MMORPGs. For those of us not in the know, players can perform mindlessly repetitive tasks to amass in-game currency ('gold') that can be used to purchase items of value to one's character. And apparently players looking to save time are willing to pay money – real life money – for these in-game currencies. So Liu and his fellow prisoners play WoW until they amass 100 gold doubloons or whatever, and then some gamer kid pays $50 in real money for them via PayPal, credit card, etc. Man, I remember when good ol' prepaid credit cards were good enough for transnational money laundering.

Since this is not my subculture, this story shocked me. I have a vague sense of how "into" these role playing games some people get, but it's surprising to learn that enough people people are willing to shell out money for goblin armor and wizard spells or whatever to sustain a multi-billion dollar black market. I mean, when Chinese prisons are forming work details to turn out vast amounts of a given item, it's safe to say that global demand is high.

I suppose the following is true of any hobby – we know how expensive hobbies get, right? – but it blows my mind that people get enough of a psychological benefit out of a video game to make a second life out of it (and don't get me started on Second Life). The idea of getting far enough into virtual / alternate universes to start shelling out money to buy fake objects from Chinese prison sweatshops is…as I said earlier, a little intense. All these years I thought games were supposed to be, you know, fun. This just seems like work. Work mixed with escapism. In a way, the fact that someone managed to combine those two is pretty impressive. I'll stick with Tecmo Bowl.

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52 thoughts on “NPF: NET BENEFITS”

  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES is the greatest video game of all time. I'm just throwing that out there. I've heard of people buying fake items using credit cards before, and I feel it is an extremely dangerous activity. It seems sad that some of these games allow that in their game world. Video games for me are a solo activity. I simply enjoy playing by myself a lot more than dealing with cutthroat

  • I had hoped to find a youtube clip of the great line out of the South Park WoW episode.
    "I don't play. I've got a life!"

    I first found out about "gold farming" and this: while working on a contract with a "gamer". He kept trying to get us to join up.

    All I can think is, nuh! I've got a life. Outside of reading this blog, I've got jack for time. Though I do enjoy Quake and Prey.

  • Meatspace or cyberspace, time is money. Or at least it can be.

    But there are also a lot of people out there who just have an unhealthy relationship with video games – but isn't that the case for just about any other activity that might provide people with something they don't get in their day to day existence? Back in the 80's I knew college students who majored in Moria, and it had to hurt to lose your future in an ASCII-graphic dungeon crawl.

    Still, there are probably worse fates for a Chinese prisoner than gold farming.

  • BF Skinner showed us that one of the surest ways to train an animal to do something is to reward it frequently for something really easy, and then increasingly rarely as it continues to do the thing you want it to. The levelling and item-acquiring process in WoW and similar games is basically that exact process on a grand scale. You go up a few dozen levels and gain a lot of power right off the bat, and then it slows down and eventually you're spending 5 hours in Onyxia's Lair avoiding the dragon's breath and hoping for a *chance* at maybe winning that sweet helmet. …I may have revealed too much here.

    Combine that with the social aspects and a culture of suburbia where you have to choose between driving somewhere else to interact with people face to face, as opposed to just signing on, logging in, and chatting with people all around the world who are at least theoretically likely to share some similar interests, and it's no contest.

    As for the confusion at the fact that some people would pay real money for things in a game, I'm only confused at your confusion. If you were in a baseball league, you would go stand around in a field on the off chance a little white ball came your way, and then sometimes you would swing a stick at the ball, all for points in this game. That sounds like the very definition of "mindlessly repetitive task" for a worthless reward to me. I fail to see the difference.

    And, of course, if it were possible to pay Pujols (hehe, poo-holes) $50 to come and take your at bat for you with a reasonable certainty that no one would know it wasn't you up there, you can't tell me you would be surprised to find that there were people lining up for the privilege of giving away their hard earned money for worthless points in a game. You're way too cynical not to realize that. Or actually, a better analogy is that you're playing in a wooden-bat league, but you can pay $50 to have an aluminum bat made in a chinese prison for an inning, and they're pitching a tennis ball. Who doesn't like winning without hard work? People will pay good money for the sense of superiority that comes from winning, especially if it means not having to work at it.

    As for the idea that games are supposed to be fun, well. I can *still* remember the feeling from our first Lucifron kill back in vanilla WoW. And the cheering over Ventrillo. That was *months* of work and trial and error, and you have no idea of the sense of accomplishment you feel when you can get 10 or 25 or 40 random idiots on the internet to listen and follow your directions for *hours* to achieve a goal that requires massive intricate teamwork. That was always the part that was fun to me. You grab a solid core of a few friends, and then you fill out the rest of the group with some random idiots from the internet, and then you drag them through content everyone else said couldn't be done with a group made up of random people.

  • ….I feel like I should add that I no longer play WoW. I replaced it with a D&D habit, but I've never quite been sure if that was a step up or a step down.

  • Are video games are preferable to watching sports? Is that more worthwhile in terms of time and money?

    I spend my time reading blogs…

  • The South Park WoW episode is gold, pure gold.

    There are some things you just can't make up, and Chinese prisoners performing menial video game slave labor is one of them. I guess people being big enough nerds to buy this black market good doesn't surprise me because I've seen and heard about people whose gaming life is basically more important than their reality.

    I'm not a video game nerd, but I will say this:there are some pretty amazing games out there. Zelda:Ocarina of Time for Nintendo 64 was an incredible experience and the best video game I've ever played. I never played a Link to the Past. I was never obsessed with Sega or N64, but they did bring me a lot of enjoyment.

  • Spiffy McBang says:

    For what it's worth, WoW has created economy inflation on a serious enough scale to limit the usefulness of buying gold from "third party vendors" (aka Chinese labor camps). They still sell, and people still buy, but where some people would buy gold because they couldn't ever seem to get their hands on much, it's very hard to be broke in the game now.

  • Halcyon, I went the opposite after 4th Ed. was released.

    Gold-sellers spamming in-game chat channels are quickly reported on my main WoW server. It (Winterhoof-US) is only 2+ years old, but both the Alliance and Horde have made it a pretty good community, especially with trying to get rid of gold-selling. And I think we were among the first to start trading Tol Barad wins after Cataclysm dropped.

    Sorry for not typing any kind of recognizable English in my last paragraph.

  • My thoughts are along the same lines as jgalt's. I find it strange, bordering on incomprehensible, that people would shell out real money to upgrade their status in an online game. But I find it equally hard to understand why people would get so emotional over whether the Red Sox or the Yankees win a game of baseball.

  • There's a fairly simple reason why many people get sucked into WoW (and to a lesser extent, other games). It is an easy route to avoid dealing with your life and it provides a social zone where you cannot be ostracized for what people cannot know about you. Whether or not you work at a local dive bar is not important, but rather a new set of characteristics which you have much more control over determines your status and socialization possibilities. There are few people who play many hours a day that have a fulfilling personal life (usually lacking either professionally or socially, not necessarily both at the same time).

    That is what draws so many of the extremely devoted players. Escape from reality is alluring. Dangerously so.

  • ladiesbane says:

    We've always had gold farmers (they were my nemesis in EQII), but WoW generates Blizz a metric assload of subscriptions and wins for most gold farmers. (See They're even popping up on Rift, damn it. But I had no interest in playing an MMO until I had a horrid case of the flu, and my then-fiance (now husband) cajoled me into creating a toon on his account to while away the fevered hours. We both used to be D&D players, so there was some amusing resonance. It's fun, but believe me, there is still time for work, sports (playing and watching), concerts, book-larnin', gin-swilling, and teasing the cat. There just may not be time for Grey's Anatomy or whatever the young people are watching these days.

    Halcyon probably said it better, but I have to second it: achieving a series of small, attainable goals is a cheering reward after a crap day. Having a wee cartoon character thank you and give you a treat reinforces the pleasure. And some in-game activities are repetitive and soothing, the way solitaire used to be. I know some people play Zynga games for that reason, and they seem to have replaced Pop Cap (TM) games as the #1 cause of repetitive stress disorder in insomniacs. That I don't get, but to each his own, or hers.

    (It seems a waste of computer, in a way. When I took my first class, 800 years ago, I thought PCs would spawn a nation of home programmers, but I don't think I know anyone who so much as builds custom PCs or fools around with Red Hat anymore. Sad.)

  • Though I've worked in the computer industry, even close to the game industry, I don't get it either. The last thing I want to do after sitting with computers all day is come home to them at night. And the slave farms…shudder.

  • How is buying game gold different from a coin collector shelling out a million dollars for a penny?

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    I heard a story about this a few years ago. The workers weren't prisoners, just normal sweatshop factory employees….who made WoW money instead of Nikes.

    The jawdropping part of that story is that when these folks finished their shifts for their factory, you know what most of them did with their free time? Played more WoW.

  • Wow (the word). Straight out of early William Gibson, with a soupçon of Guy DeBord.

    The value of human vs virtual capital expressed both by this phenomenon, and our response here, is incredibly chilling. There is ugliness on an unprecedented scale in this, which I can't quite seem to wrap my head around.

    Stealing the lives of other human beings for imaginary value? Priceless.

  • Just supply and demand at work, folks. Probably better than sewing Nikes or operating a machine press in a generic smog-filled factory.

  • Apparently I'm in the minority of G&T readers who will readily admit to playing the occasional videogame.

    I don't play WoW, but I do play Lord of the Rings Online, which is another MMORPG. It gets about two hours of my time each week, and it's what I do instead of watch TV.

    Gold farming is a pretty obnoxious practice, and the MMOs seem to be doing what they can to fight it, but I can't help but marvel at how effective it is at transferring wealth from the first world to the third world. And not just any wealth: mostly suburban, white, upper-middle-class wealth, that would otherwise be spent on other toys, or, I dunno, maybe Cheez Doodles.

    That leads me to think that maybe some of the charities who struggle to convince Americans to care about the plight of people in [you name it] ought to set up gold farming operations there, and undercut the Chinese. Think about it: the people get jobs, training in the use of computers, language training, and stability (and they DON'T have to work in dangerous or inhumane sweatshops). The charities get to accomplish their missions without having to waste quite so much effort begging. The Chinese slave operations might have to change their business model in order to compete. And the Americans still get to buy pretend things for real money.

  • This article is coming into question amongst a lot of China-based foreign journalists and China watchers, as most Reeducation-Through-Labour centres (different from prisons, FYI, as you don't need a court to send you to a RTL centre!) would certainly *not* allow their labourers internet access.

    That said, I wouldn't doubt it occurring at one or two centres. Gold farming *is* an industry here, after all.

  • The plot of Black Ops, like Modern Warfare, seems to be written for ritalin-addicted 13-year old boys whose fathers watch Glenn Beck(Islamic insurgents and Russian nationalists who seem to like the USSR are the enemies). I really liked the original Call of Duty games, although their historical research for the Soviet missions typically went something like: Rent Enemy at the Gates Again, note things we haven't stolen yet.

    But one day I decide to try Modern Warfare 2. First off, I will say it looks good. The problem is that there is just too much shit going on. People always screaming at you and stuff happening on the screen and what not. And the story was just downright idiotic. We have "Russian Ultra-nationalists" whose glorious leader has an un-Russian, possibly Caucasian name. Last year there were riots involving nationalists all across Russia; they were against Caucasians. Even the nationalists who don't have such a problem with other non-Russian minorities hate Caucasians. A Caucasian guy leading "Russian ultra-nationalists" is about as realistic as Will Smith becoming the leader of the National Socialist Movement.

    What I found most disturbing is this "mission", which can be skipped(but who'd want to skip a whole level, right"?), where you are an undercover agent for the CIA. You have infiltrated a gang of Russian terrorists, who then proceed to slowly and methodically kill everyone in their path in a Moscow airport. You are not required to kill any civilians(but you must shoot at FSB troops later), but you cannot stop the terrorists even though you clearly have the opportunity. Oh yeah, and then because your player is blamed for the attack, Russia invades America. Yes, the same Russia which since 1991 has one glorious victory to its name, over the Georgian army.

    I always see these invasion USA scenarios as being a kind of projection. Americans want to root for the resistance, the underdogs, and such, but so often the resistance is resisting us.

  • canuckistani says:

    Harper's ran an article 3 or so years ago ("I Was A Chinese Internet Addict") that detailed the Chinese government's concerns over internet addiction and the psychological treatment of those diagnosed with internet addiction. Strange how behavior decried as deviant becomes the basis for punishment when it becomes a platform for profit.

    Also, we already buy pretend or not-yet-viable things with real money all the time. Couldn't gold farming be usefully compared to derivatives and some futures markets? I mean, they're selling a product whose price on global markets is based as much on the buyer's future time spent playing that character in the virtual world, as by the costs of the labor and material that went into it.

  • Maybe not better than sewing Nikes: "If I couldn't complete my work quota, they would punish me physically. They would make me stand with my hands raised in the air and after I returned to my dormitory they would beat me with plastic pipes. We kept playing until we could barely see things…"

  • @Arslan-

    I kind of disagree with you on Modern Warfare's plot- it's not good, by any means, but it is kind of interesting. The main thing I mean by that is that (Spoilers) the U.S. Military fails, utterly. It's unable to prevent a Red Dawn-style invasion, and its biggest 'success' is preventing the White House from being bombed flat by its own Air Force. And the Petraeus-like Army General turns out to be the bad guy in the end, who (I think) engineered the ridiculous Moscow attack for the express purpose of starting a war inside the US (at least I think that's what happens, like I said, the plot isn't that good). While I think you're right that people want to root for the resistance, I think the game does present some ambivalence about whether the US is the good guy at all. Then again, this is probably way too much thinking for a video game sequel.

  • Wait, so slave labor works at slave wages to support the first world's God given right to pursue distraction driven non-fiction to disastrous ends?

    At least it's marginally more engaging than television. Who knew?

  • I play Civilization. I don't play online against others, just against the computer, and not all the time. I sometimes go a year or more without playing, and then I have a stint where I spend all of my free time (a couple hours a night) playing for a few weeks, and then I shake it for a while. But I always come back, especially when there's a new version or a new fan created mod out there that I feel the need to try.

    I love video games, but I do have a life, and a wife who hates video games. Civ is where I draw my line.

  • People spend real life money to get digital gold for the exact same reason that people will pay hundreds of real dollars to get a little card with a picture of some famous baseball player on it.

    As regards video games as a hobby: Some people like the escapism, some people like the advancement of technology, some people like seeing what kind of new experiences can be created via video games. It's like any other hobby; some people get a little too wrapped up in it, some manage it just fine. I work full time (and then some, usually) as a software developer and have a decent-if-not-outstanding social life within a small-but-close network of friends that get together several times a month, and yet I am also a huge video game 'nerd' that dumps a substantial amount of time and money into the hobby — getting mint-condition copies of 15+ year old games can be rough, at times. It's all about finding a balance.

  • @punkdavid: me too. Civ1 was my first experience of playing a video game all night, and realizing in the bleary light of dawn that I _really_ needed to go to the bathroom, as I hadn't left my chair for about 7 consecutive hours. But just one more turn…

    Also, for those of you who like MMORPGs, I'd recommend City of Heroes/Villains. It's superheroes, not fantasy, but seems to me (having played a bit of WoW, DDO, Warhammer, and a few others) to have the least grind-y feel of any of them, and a good community of folks playing. Even most random pick up groups tend to be bearable.

    Buying in-game currency is for those who want to cheat. I don't really see the point. Accruing power/stuff is part of the game play for which I'm paying; if I spend more money to buy it, it seems like I'd be cheating myself of actually playing the game.

  • The people buying gold are not generally the people that play 19 hours a day. Those are the people who actually have extra to sell back to the retailers. The gold buyers are the people with more money than time, meaning professionals who play the game as a hobby. Last time I checked, the average age of a WoW account holder was ~27.

    The amount of in-game enjoyment you can get for $50 is a lot more than what you'd get for a $100 putter, imo.

  • I've played WoW since 2004 and yes it is an addiction but so are so many other things in life (including checking out this website daily). I've always been a RPG nerd since the AD&D goldbox series for the C64 came out in the 80's so WoW is a step up in that I'm playing with other real human beings instead of just the computer. I play on Proudmoore, WoW's unofficial gay server, in one of the largest guilds on the server which is mostly gay. Living in the Bible Belt, being able to socialize with other gaymers every day makes WoW worth playing. I won't buy gold but I will pay real life money for my WoW subscription and don't see it as a waste.

  • I played WoW from 2004 until earlier this year. My guild became a raiding guild a year or so ago, and the raiding schedule just burned me out. Raiding was a lot of fun, but the time sink involved was heinous.

  • chautauqua says:

    I've played WoW for about two years, but my heart will always belong to Empire, which I still play occasionally on a 386, itself nearly a museum piece.

    My musings on the draw that WoW exerts lead me to believe that, escapism aside, most of it for me is about solving problems of various kinds (and not only with Epic weaponry) and being an (Auction House) entrepreneur with virtually no risk. The Gold buyers are, IMO, only cheating themselves out of a lot of the enjoyable thinking and trying out of various economic and social strategies. Also, there's very little in the way of politics, unless you're a big fan of dysfunctional guilds.

  • I think that most of the time you can make money in the games doing non-menial tasks. But you can't design a gold farming assembly line around non-menial tasks. If it is one task, they can train the farmers more easily and they get steadier returns. Of course, it is more boring, but I'm guess they don't care much about prisoner welfare.

  • My ten year old son plays a game called "Adventure Quest". Besides having the most generic name imaginable, it is St. Joseph's WoW for Children. Not so long ago, he did a number of chores around the house to earn money – and immediately spent it all on upgrading his character.

    He's TEN.

  • Jose Jacobo says:

    If you actually believe any article that starts with "Chinese prisoners forced to do…." regarding our cold war leftover, I would just like to suggest that while WoW could probably be considered a human rights abuse in itself, there are far worse things going on in prisons. It's interesting but as far as the "how much do I care about this?" scale this ranks up there with Justin Bieber getting tattoos.

    But I guess that's why it's in NPF.

  • I love video games. I don't play much during the school year but in the summer, I probably play a few hours a day never to exceed three. I even taught a video game art class in the winter quarter. To my students (mostly engineers since I teach at an engineering college) video games are not just a way of life, but also their conduit to understand art.

    There's a fantastic book called Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World that discusses how we might be able to do good with video games, because the reality is that they're not going anywhere. 50% of people in the US play games and 49% of those are women.

    I fail to see why gaming is a lesser activity that watching the shit on television or the crap that Hollywood churns out. If I have a few hours and no football or futbol is on, I'm going to game over watching sitcoms, rom-coms, reality television (including the awful Swamp People) or anything else. Except South Park. I always make time for South Park.

  • Gaming tells you a lot about the world. I'm not a gamer but years and years ago I went through a brief "Sims" infatuation, where I would waste hours a day playing The Sims because I wanted to figure out how to "win." I created one character specifically to become President of the United States. I wanted to see what it took to get all of his needs met and all that other stuff so he could be president.

    You know what it took? Slaves. Or "drones." I created characters with very low personal needs who basically existed just to serve this "president" character. They existed to fulfill his needs for cleaniless and social interaction and entertainment I could trot out of a little cubicle to basically serve him as needed. It worked.

    So the lesson learned is: if you want to be president, what you need are a bunch of mindless drone sycophants surrounding you.

  • So people pay money to buy the credits the Chinese prisoners are racking up? Like carbon credits, only the prisoners get nothing out of it? That's some fucked-up shit right there. Guess the gamers don't give a shit how they get those credits, as long as they get them?

    Then again, it's just like the rest of us buying cheap Chinese shit (or not-so cheap Chinese shit, like the IPhone) because, hey, it's CHEAP! Of course, one can argue that the workers making that cheap shit are at least paid. Or at least that's what we're told.

  • But I find it equally hard to understand why people would get so emotional over whether the Red Sox or the Yankees win a game of baseball.


    The last video game machine I had was an Atari. I fucken kicked asse at Defender.

  • @ladiesbane, if it makes you feel any better, I've been using various Debians and Debian-derivatives for the past fifteen years, a Commodore 64 turned me into a home programmer, and I still prefer to build custom PCs rather than buy stock boxes.

  • BostonCharlie says:

    Wasn't it Adorno who said that under late capitalism, entertainment becomes an extension of work?

  • Entomologista says:

    My first video game was Super Mario Brothers in the 2nd grade. I graduated to Civilization 1 when I was in 6th grade. Most people who play video games are not socially or professionally stunted, it's just that we choose to spend our time raiding in WoW rather than watching football or sitcoms or whatever normals do. My husband and I have a regular group of people we raid with, much like normals have a regular group of people they play softball or bridge with. I love gaming of all kinds – my husband and I met playing D&D. Sometimes I'll spend 12 hours on a Saturday playing Mass Effect, but I think the ability that allows me to obsessively focus on a video game for hours upon hours makes me a good scientist as well. Video games certainly have never hindered my career.

    While I grew up playing ice hockey, I actually hate most sports. Talking about sports is incredibly boring. I can't even stand being in the same room with people watching sports. Yes, there are Chinese people who farm gold. On the other hand, plenty of people collect tiny pictures of baseball players for no reason that I can discern.

  • Entomologista says:

    I should add that I've never bought gold in WoW, and I've been playing since day one in 2004. It's just not that hard to get enough gold to support two nights of raiding a week.

  • Interesting, the world of gaming is totally foreign to me. Except for Peggle (shutup!) which is like crack… Stupid Peggle.

  • I play video games from time to time mostly to help with my stutter. After about two hours of hard core gaming, the next day at work I'll be able to express myself in a much more eloquent and efficient manner than normal. If I have an interview or a big day planned, I'll often play Halo the night before. It helps a lot. There's some sort of connection between visualizing something through activity and being able to verbalize what I visualize. It's weird but, in my old age, I've found it to be a solution, at least a temporary one, to my stutter. Really intense exercising also often has a similar affect.

  • Our economy of excess doesn't just allow for extremes, it's marketed for extremists. I can't feel welcome if I want to go into a comic book store and just want a single issue comic that has a complete story or series of stories. No! All they sell are portions of sets of stories that must be assembled carefully so that the spinoff tale is also purchased but doesn't make sense unless you get the whole series of side volumes. And the story might be finished sometime next year. I just wanted the book version of an episode of Superfriends.

    You can't just bet on a football game anymore, either. No! They want you to get a fantasy team, have a draft, enter a league or many of them, get invested in the entire season and get a points system going, and the League loves it because those goofball degenerate gamblers are the most likely to buy pay-per-view packages for research purposes. The big players suck up the money, and the casual fan gets to see fewer games.

    You can't just buy a videogame anymore. No! You need the "strategy guide" which is really just a cheater guide to show where things unseen will appear under the right circumstances. Or some cheat codes. Or some cheat trading post. It's not about play so much as work, and while I enjoy the work and achievement aspects, I think too much went away from the fun. That's why my favorite games are the Lego video games: the Original Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Batman are fun because they are silly. I've "completed" two of the three (Batman has some goofy things going on on my PC,) but I've gotten a Wii now, so I'll do it again.

    I tried D&D online, but like the paper and dice version better. Mostly I like the dice. Haven't played in over twenty years, but I still have those dice on my desk.

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