Why Venezuelans are ganging up on Old School Runescape to combat the effects of an economic crisis

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On: September 27, 2020
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As the economic crisis gets worse, some Venezuelans look online to play video games. By selling the in-game gold for real life currency, they make a living. Recently, the Venezuelan players of Old School RuneScape have formed a big alliance to control an area of the game that yields them even more in-game currency, to the dismay of other players.

Ever since the start of the economic crisis in the mid-2010s, many Venezuelans have been struggling to make ends meet. With an unemployment rate of 35.5% in 2018 and an inflation rate that is expected to have hit 8.000.000% in 2019, the economic situation in Venezuela is not looking to get better any time soon. To make things worse, the prevalence of food shortages and the scarcity of basic necessities lead to increased prices which many Venezuelans can barely afford, if they can afford it at all. These circumstances demand a lot of creativity and persistence from the Venezuelan population as they struggle to keep their heads above water.

One way of ensuring a stable income was found in the digital world. To be more precise, in the form of playing an online game called Old School RuneScape (OSRS). To earn money, Venezuelan players partake in processes called gold farming and real-world trading, which can be defined as doing activities in game to acquire in-game currency only to sell this in-game currency for real-world money. This way Venezuelan players acquire American dollars, a much more stable currency than the Venezuelan Bolívar. Although playing video games does not sound as a lucrative career path, dedicated Venezuelans can make a month’s worth of the national minimum wage in one single day in the virtual realm of OSRS. The money is not only used to meet a Venezuelan player’s daily needs, but oftentimes that of his or her family.

Video discussing the early period of Venezuelan gold farmers.

Despite offering a way out of poverty for many Venezuelans, gold farming for the purpose of real-world trading is against OSRS’s rules of conduct. From an ethical standpoint the question is whether OSRS development studio Jagex should take measures to punish the real-world trading Venezuelans. So far there has been no evidence that suggests that Jagex has taken a special interest in the Venezuelan share of rule breakers. Still, their position remains dubious. When creating an account, one complies with the rules of conduct Jagex set in place. This means legal action is hypothetically possible if one were to be found guilty of disobeying the rules. Historically, player data from video games has already been used to persecute suspects and ‘the existing attempts to create guidelines for developers […] are frequently inadequate’ when it comes to data protection (Newman and Jerome 571-572). Considering that starvation is a possible alternative for many Venezuelan players if they can’t real-world trade, Jagex is in a precarious position when it comes to responding to the rule breaking.

Being a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), a sizeable part of the OSRS community actively engages in discussions concerning the current state of the game. It is no surprise that the influx of Venezuelan players that farm gold was heavily debated on the OSRS subreddit from the start.

Players’ participation in guilds and online forums provide them with opportunities to not only interact with other players with common interests, but also develop mutual trust and shared identities. High levels of relational embeddedness facilitate a better understanding of each player’s capabilities, prompt more cooperation among players,and enable a player network to compete more efficiently with other networks within the game environment. (Badrinarayanan 1047)

However, recently a post on r/2007scape described how Venezuelan players formed a massive alliance to control a heavily contested spot in the Wilderness, an area where players can attack each other and thus compete for resources and ultimately in-game currency. Complete control of the so called Revenant Caves or Revs ment that the Venezuelan players could acquire much more money per day than with older methods. The control of Venezuelan alliance resulted in counter attempts from other clans and groups to try and take over, while also turning the concept of the Venezuelan gold farmer into a meme.

Meme of Bane as a Venezuelan player, referencing the lag and their typical gear in-game.

Though not strictly a platform or a social media according to some definitions, the case of the Venezuelan players banding together highlights the social and communicative affordances of an MMORPG such as OSRS. With enough of the Venezuelan players in the same desperate real world economic position, the decision to take over an area of the game to increase income is an example of ‘the social structures that take shape in association with a given technical structure’ (qtd. in Bucher and Helmond 9) Even though Jagex promotes social interaction with other users, considering clan and friend systems and talking options in-game, Jagex does not actively encourage the selling of in-game currency for real-world currencies. Still, seeing OSRS as a platform to connect gold farmers and buyers and of gold can be seen as an unintended effect of the way OSRS was ment to be played, or programmed to be used. A set of network effects can also be described. ‘These effects manifest themselves either directly, when end-users or complementors join one side of the market, or indirectly, when the other side of the market grows’ (Poell et al. 4). In the case of the Venezuelan players, the direct effects are that when enough Venezuelans play, they can gang up and take over control of areas of the game that yield them more in-game currencies. Indirect market effects are that the financial worth of their digital labour can fluctuate following the demand and supply of the in-game currency.

All in all, the economic crisis in Venezuela causing some Venezuelans to test their luck online reveals the intricacies of the digital world. Moreover, the effect that a company such as Jagex directly or indirectly has over these vulnerable group of players is noteworthy. One simple game update, such as the deletion of the Revenant Caves, could have disastrous consequences for dozens of families in Venezuela. Just like the OSRS gold market, video games are dynamic and constantly updated. Perhaps other situations similar to the Venezuelan case will unfold over the coming years.

References

Badrinarayanan, Vishag A., e.a. ‘A Dual Identification Framework of Online Multiplayer Video Games: The Case of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs)’. Journal of Business Research, vol. 68, nr. 5, mei 2015, pp. 1045–52. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2014.10.006.

Bucher, T., en A. Helmond. The Affordances of Social Media Platforms. Sage Publications, 2018. dare.uva.nl, https://dare.uva.nl/search?identifier=149a9089-49a4-454c-b935-a6ea7f2d8986.

Newman, Joe, en Joseph Jerome. ‘Press Start to Track Privacy and the New Questions Posed by Modern Video Game Technology’. AIPLA Quarterly Journal, vol. 42, nr. 4, 2014, pp. 527–604.

Poell, Thomas, e.a. ‘Platformisation’. Internet Policy Review, vol. 8, nr. 4, november 2019. policyreview.info, https://policyreview.info/concepts/platformisation.

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