Monday, July 09, 2007

South Korean virtual gold farming

I'm reading science historian Toby Huff's The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. Huff argues that by the end of the thirteenth Century, the West, through the university, had put rationality, logic, and empiricism in positions of authority from which they've not yet and will probably never be removed from. But solipsism is proving atavistic. It is resurging, in collectivistic South Korea of all places:
You might be surprised to learn that the nation whose people enjoy the most high-speed Internet access the nation is not the same country that created the World Wide Web. It's South Korea. Which may explain why around 30 percent of South Koreans are regular players of online video games.

For a price — monthly fees, or paying by the hour at Internet cafes — they roam virtual worlds, fighting virtual enemies, amassing virtual wealth. But now, some of that wealth is spilling over to the real world, and spurring enactment of real laws.

We sent Rico Gagliano to South Korea...
From my experience, skilled South Korean players (and East Asian players in general) are phenomenally good at executing a pre-conceived build/attack order with almost no inefficiency of misstep. To beat them, it is often imperative that you disrupt their build order as quickly as possible and make them try and improvise. This is where they're most vulnerable.

From Seoul:

Rico Gagliano: South Koreans love video games. Here's how much:

[Sound: Applause]

That's 150 people watching a live video game tournament in the city of Seoul. Players sit in futuristic pods, playing the sci-fi wargame "Starcraft." Announcers call the plays as the crowd watches the action on seven giant overhead plasma screens. ...

It's a boring name, but a one-of-a-kind law. The world's first legal crackdown on a form of video-game commerce players call "gold farming" — and non-gamers call "insane."

In a smoky Internet cafe in Seoul, a gamer who calls himself Nacho tries to explain gold farming to me. He sits at a beat-up PC, playing the online swords-and-sorcery game "Lineage II."

With a mouse, he guides his little dwarf character through a medieval landscape. Most of the creatures he passes — scary orcs, half-nude elves — are controlled by other players. He heads into a dungeon.

Nacho (voice of interpreter): This place we're going to, I'm guessing there will probably be a lot of gold farmers there.

Rico: Why?

Nacho: Because there's a lot of good items here.

By "good items," Nacho means virtual magic swords, or baby dragons, or lots of virtual gold. These things can make a player's character more powerful. "Gold farmers" are players who figure out when and where these items appear, and then spend time — lots of time — hoarding them.

Nacho: You see the same game character, in the same spot, doing the same hunting for the same item for two, three, four days, even up to a month. That's a gold farmer.
They're not playing for fun. They're playing for cash. 'Cause the farmers can sell this virtual stuff to other players for real money. ... was the first so-called "mediating site" in South Korea. It's the eBay of game-item trade. Gamers post their virtual scepters and laser rifles for others to buy. Itembay gets a 5 percent transaction fee.

Park: We get roughly 50,000 transactions every month, and $35 million is the amount that's traded on the Web site.

Gagliano: A volume of $35 million per month?

Sites like Itembay love gold farmers. Farmers post lots of items for sale, so Itembay earns lots of fees.

That's nearly $2 million a month for the virtual auction site.

The stories of low-paid gold farmers in China are well-known. Used to be that gaining experience was an intregal part of the epic RPG struggle, the part that tested sheer endurance and persistence over battle strategy or campaign preparedness. Now, you can hire some pimply-faced Chinakid to do it for you. That may seem to be an attractive solution in the short-term, but can a soldier of the wasteland lead his troops into battle successfully if he's relying so heavily on mercenaries?

The virtual world is putatively so enjoyable because it neutralizes all the extraneous stuff (who your dad knows, how much the coach likes you, your physical build) that pollutes pure competition in real life. But even in this fanciful parallel universe, the rich keep getting richer:
What's more, gold farmers supply rich players with such powerful items, it can ruin a game. Poorer players can't compete, some quit playing and the game-makers lose money.
That's why war strategy games in which the game template resets after each match (like chess) is where the true competitive purists reside!

Though approached tongue-in-cheek, this trend toward living (and making a living) in the virtual world raises a slew of important questions about the future that have scarcely begun to be answered.


Fat Knowledge said...

This was a really interesting article on gold farming in China. I keep meaning to write up my thoughts on it, but haven't got around to it yet.

MensaRefugee said...

"That's why war strategy games in which the game template resets after each match (like chess) is where the true competitive purists reside!"

Nothing like a good FPS (cant wait for Quake Wars: Enemy Territory!) or a well played game of Chess or, even better, Go.

al fin said...

High IQ people (Korea's population IQ is highest in world) are attracted to abstract problems, including sophisticated games.

Expect to see a lot of this type of intellectual escapism in China, Korea, Japan and in intelligent people in the west who have nothing important to do.

It reminds me somewhat of the drunken father who neglects his wife and children and spends his paycheck at the pub every week.

Except most "other world" addicts probably don't have families to support. Instead, they are neglecting the borders of civilisation, that seem to be eroding daily. Fair enough. To each his own. Killing one's allotment of time is one's right.

Stay tuned for news from the Society of Creative Apocalyptology. Now that type of escapism might eventually pay dividends, if the worst comes true.

Audacious Epigone said...


Interesting. I wonder why these game harlots have to report to a supervisor who makes three times what they do. Is it because the 'workers' cannot afford a computer and internet connection of their own? Why not just freelance?


Heh, in addition to being more purely strategic, it is also possible to indulge yourself in games for a few hours a week and still be competitive. In the MMOs, like WoW, unless you either drop bucks on gold farmers or spend 40 hours a week playing, you're never going to be top-tier.

Al Fin,

Great analysis. I agree entirely.

I've had the willpower to avoid getting myself into any new online strategy games or MMOs, but I still play W2 from time to time (like after I wrote this post last night).

There is a lot of self-loathing when I'm finished, like a pious Catholic must feel prior to penance. We fiddle, or use our opiates, or however you'd like to cleverly put it, while the developed world burns. It's nothing to be proud of.

Fat Knowledge said...

Yeah, good point, I don't know why they don't go freelance. Could be the cost of the computer as you suggest. Or maybe they just want to collect a paycheck and don't want the risk involved in doing it themselves.