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.
[…] 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.
A great article on gold farming, power leveling and the fallout. Of all the fallout, this one is the most surprising:
It may seem strange that a wage-working loot farmer would still care about the freedom to play. But it is not half as strange as the scene that unfolded one evening at 9 o’clock in the Internet cafe on the ground floor of the building where Donghua has its offices. Scattered around the stifling, dim wang ba, 10 power levelers just off the day shift were merrily gaming away. Not all of them were playing World of Warcraft. A big, silent lug named Mao sat mesmerized by a very pink-and-purple Japanese schoolgirls’ game, in which doe-eyed characters square off in dancing contests with other online players. But the rest had chosen, to a man, to log into their personal World of Warcraft accounts and spend these precious free hours right back where they had spent every other hour of the day: in Azeroth.
Work? Play? How can you tell?
Related: Slideshow — Double Agents — folks and their game avatars; a look into their ids