The rise of games like World of Warcraft has led to a new economic niche, that of the professional gold farmer.
Since I am most familiar with World of Warcraft, I will discuss farming in this context. However, there are other games in which farming takes place.
A professional Warcraft gold farmer earns his living by playing the game and accumulating game gold. These farmers typically work for a company that then sells the gold to players. The players who buy the gold then use it in the game, typically to buy expensive items like epic gear or the highest level of flying skill. Not surprisingly, such farmers have to work long hours (known as “grinding”) in order to accumulate enough gold. Also not surprisingly, many of the gold farmers live in China and are paid very little. However, the pay is relatively good-at least compared to the usual pay scale in China.
It is, of course, somewhat ironic that a gold farmer’s work is what so many people do for fun, namely playing Warcraft. Apparently the farmers find their job to be both fun and boring.
In addition to the farmers who grind to sell gold, there are also people who steal Warcraft accounts and use this to make money. This is not, of course, the same thing as farming. However, it is suspected that some farmers do use stolen accounts so as to avoid having to pay the monthly fee for playing. Gold selling is also supposed to often be a cover for credit card theft-people use their credit cards to try to buy gold only to have their credit card number stolen. Obviously enough, such thefts are uniformly condemned. While the ethics of theft can be debated, it seems reasonable to accept that this sort of stealing is wrong.
As far as the practice of farming itself, most players profess to hate it. There are, however, presumably enough players who buy the gold to make the practice worth the effort. As far as the ethics of the matter, there are two main arguments against farming/buying.
The first is that it violates the TOS for the game. If it is assumed that people should stick with their agreements, then the practice of buying and selling gold would thus be wrong. Naturally enough, there is the question of whether such a limit should be in the TOS. Interestingly, one of my friends contends that Blizzard actually drives the buying and selling of gold by making things rather expensive in the game. As such, players who do not have the time to grind for countless hours might be very tempted to buy gold so they can get their fast flying skill or buy that epic gear at the auction house.
The second is that gold buying is cheating and that selling the gold is enabling cheating. If it is assumed that cheating is wrong, then clearly buying and selling gold would be wrong. In this case, it is cheating because the player did not earn the gold within the game and is thus gaining an advantage due to a factor outside the game. This could be compared to using steroids in sports (although it is obviously far less extreme).
Of course, players can get gold from their friends and this would also seem to be on par with buying gold. After all, having friends who grind for gold would confer an advantage over players who lack such friends. But, perhaps it is the fact that the gold is purchased with money that somehow makes it unacceptable.
However, purchasing advantages in sports seems to be perfectly fine. For example, an athelete who can afford to buy a top of the line racing bike has an edge over someone who cannot. Yet, this is not generally regarded as wrong. Likewise, it would seem that a person could buy gold in WoW and be acting like the person who buys the expensive bike.
In my own case, I do not buy gold. In addition to the reasonable worry that my credit card would be stolen, I also prefer to play games within the game rules. Also, buying gold would, at least for me, tend to damage the suspension of disbelief that I enjoy when playing a game.
A final point about the farmers is the concern that they are being exploited. This is no doubt true (just as all workers tend to be exploited). However, playing WoW for a living seems to be far better than many jobs.