Backdrop of Economic Gameplay in World of Warcraft: The Effect of Goldfarmers

By: Alex Maat
On: September 9, 2012
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About Alex Maat
Starting with the ICT Management school to support his hobby of building websites, Alex Maat has developed a particular interest in the internet. The only right choice was to attend to Communication and Multimedia Design (Interactive Media) at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam to gain more in depth knowledge about the broader image and while keeping websites in mind, he received his first Bachelor degree - completing the Technology, Design and Interaction program. But he felt this wasn't enough and there was something missing. This was found in the New Media Masters program at the University of Amsterdam, but to be allowed to participate, the second (shortened) Bachelor Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam had to be done. He succeeded. Currently working part time in web development at IDSGN in Hoofddorp, Maat is continuously improving his programming skills as well as the knowledge needed to keep up with new technologies and new improvements of his own skill set. He is interested in the technologies that drive websites and trends in webdesign and -functionality.


Image of a virtual environment inside a bank

The first computer game which could be played by multiple users at the same time and used a virtual world as environment was created in 1978 and was called Multi-User Dungeon. This game represented the first of its kind thus creating a model for future multi-user online games that utilize a virtual world in which players can purchase and own virtual objects and have adventures with one another. The most successful example is the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) “World of Warcraft”. In World of Warcraft, a player creates an online virtual avatar within the world of “Azeroth”, the virtual environment of World of Warcraft.

Having a virtual economy enabled players to accumulate wealth in the game. World of Warcraft’s in-game currency is called “gold”. In, for example, Ultima Online and Second Life, it is possible to buy in-game items with real money. This phenomenon is known as RMT (Real Money Trading). RMT also takes place in World of Warcraft, but because of Blizzard Entertainment’s – the game’s developer – Terms and Conditions, it is illegal to do so. World of Warcraft’s virtual economy bares great resemblance to our real life economy. But digital goods are untouchable, so why do we attach value to it? It is because we attach the same values to real-life items as to in-game items: “Like other leisure goods – whether physical objects, ‘services’, opportunities for communication, or impalpable ‘experiences’ – they have the affective structure of commodities that we fetishize, and frantically accumulate and consume. And this remains the case, even with goods, services, and experiences that we get online for free” (Shaviro 3). And just as it is in real life, artificial scarcity is also applied to virtual worlds. We prefer scarcity over abundance, to give us a reason to play the game. It enables players to advance in-game and fantasize about more wealth and more digital goods.

The need for in-game currency: goldfarming as an answer

Because there is a need for in-game currency, “gold farmers” are people – mostly in developing countries – spending hours in order to create as much digital money as possible to fulfill that need: Gold farming means the real-world sale of virtual goods and services produced in online games. A goldfarm, also called a “sweatshop”, is the location of the place goldfarmers meet to do their “playbour” (Kücklich). The term playbour is a hybrid form of the relationship between work and play. Goldfarms are usually inside old buildings or abandoned warehouses with good ICT infrastructure (Heeks 11).

Image of goldfarmers in a goldfarm in China

Goldfarmers in a goldfarm in China

The larger part of the goldfarming businesses are usually found in Asia, where over 80-85% of them are located in China (Heeks 12). Gold farming seems a natural thing to do for a normal player. If a player is short on gold, it can also go out to farm for gold. The difference between a normal player and a goldfarmer is that the player uses the gained currency for in-game activities, while the goldfarmer’s primary purpose is to gain as much in-game currency as possible to be able to sell it to other players. Because farming for gold is labor-intensive, players are temped seek alternatives.


The effects of goldfarmers on economic gameplay in World of Warcraft

Heeks states that goldfarmers tend to make money in three different ways:

  1. Selling in-game currency
  2. Powerleveling
  3. Selling in-game items

Selling in-game currency (1) is the most profitable way for goldfarmers to use, because it is least labor intensive and the most effective. Players are able to buy their own goods with the gold they have, instead of buying specific items (3) from goldfarmers. Powerleveling (2) is a service where a goldfarmer is given access to a player’s account in order to advance the players character in-game for them. This saves time for the player, but has a great negative impact on gameplay. Because gameplay is experienced both solo as well in groups, it is important players took the time to advance in the game with their own characters. The term “flow” as defined by Csikszentmihalyi in his work on “The Psychology of Optimal Experience” from 1990 describes part of the problem. Players have to experience a certain degree of difficulty in order for the game to be interesting to play. If it is too easy, players will lose interest. If it is too hard, players cannot advance. Balancing the flow is an important part of gameplay, making the relation between easy and hard for each player almost the same.

Players who have engaged in RMT and bought a service from a goldfarming agency, have an imbalanced gameplay. The flow they experience differ from normal players, who have played, learned and experienced the game’s narrative, quests, challenges and environments their selves. Therefore, engaging in a group to overcome the games hardest challenges will often lead to failure of the whole group, name calling, being removed from the group or disbanding the group altogether. The player does not have the experience other players have, do not know what to do and do not know how to play their character to the full extent.

Players who see this kind of activity usually think this is unfair against other players. This can be seen as a form of cheating, because it is deliberately destroying the way a game is meant to be. Using a game in such way may “essentially destroy traditional gameplay by deviating from the established rule set of the game” (Galloway 13). This is why most players do not hate the fact that other players buy gold, but the fact that RMT ruins gameplay.

On the 9th of August 2012, hackers have tried to gain access to the internal network of Blizzard Entertainment, enabling the intruders to see the personal security question, information relating to Mobile and Dial-In Authenticators and encrypted versions of the users password. Blizzard states that this information alone is not enough to gain access to user accounts, but in reality, this could just as well lead up to the use of those accounts by goldfarmers to use the stolen characters to farm gold with. Source:

For more information on goldfarming, you can find a small documentary below. The video’s descriptions read:

The story is no longer about gaming; but about how people face their reality or virtual reality, how people distinguish play and work, and how people deal with cross-cultural interaction in our real or virtual global village.

Feel free to take a look: (part 1) (part 2) (part 3)

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

Galloway, Alexander. Gaming Essays on Algorithmic Culture 18. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Heeks, Richard. Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on “Gold Farming”: Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games. Manchester: University of Manchester, 2008.

Kücklich, Julian. “Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry”, Fibreculture Journal 5. 2005: 15-05-2012. <>.

Shaviro, Steven. Money for Nothing: Virtual Worlds and Virtual Economies. 2007.

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