And I thought I had it bad: The lure of virtual currency

Chinese prisoners were forced into 'gold farming' – building up credits on online games such as World of Warcraft.

I’ve been bummed that I have to work with a painful autoimmune-vision condition, one that would resolve much faster if I didn’t have to stare at teeny-tiny text in fine detail all day. Woe is me! Then I see this piece below, which helps put things in perspective: 

(Guardian UK) — As a prisoner at the Jixi labour camp, Liu Dali would slog through tough days breaking rocks and digging trenches in the open cast coalmines of north-east China. By night, he would slay demons, battle goblins and cast spells. Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for “illegally petitioning” the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do.

In the virtual worlds inhabited by millions of people there is often an economy running on virtual money. Much like the real world, the more virtual currency you have the more cool virtual stuff you can buy, your status goes up, and gosh darn it, people just like you! For big communities like World of Warcraft or Second Life, the demand for virtual money is big enough that there’s a secondary black-market for it. Think of a conversation rate, N number of real dollars gets you X numbers of fakes ones.

The problem, for anyone wishing to sell the fake money and collect some real shekels, is that that fake currency is controlled by the gaming/community developer. That’s where our reluctant work camp hackers come in. Using a variety of tricks they gain access to legitimate accounts, grab whatever virtual currency they can off those nom de nets, and sell any high value items for rock bottom virtual prices on sort of virtual eBay exchange to other players. The latter is so ubiquitous in some games that there are entire communities of legit players devoted to watching these exchanges, constantly looking for low ball deals on highly valued items that they can flip for a virtual profit.

Technically, one would think this is theft. But in some countries taking virtual money or virtual items is not a crime — in fact it may not be a crime here in the US, or at least not much of one compared to breaking into a real house and grabbing real stuff. So the online hacking centers can operate somewhat freely in developed nations, with all the technology and other infrastructure benefits that come with it, at least compared to full-blown identity theft rings or phishing scams that mostly operate in lawless or incredibly corrupt regions of the world.

Incidentally, if you happen to be a member of one of these communities, and are tempted to buy some virtual currency, I have some advise for you: don’t. One of the main ways they gain access to your account is by grabbing info from you or installing a stealthy key logger on your PC when you set up an account to buy the fake stuff. Today’s virtual currency buyer is tomorrow’s hacking victim.

This is all stuff I work indirectly with on a regular basis, the job that’s currently causing my eyeballs to burn and water, but which also provides the health insurance critical to my treating that very condition, without which I would slowly go blind and become crippled. But an article like that really brings it home for me. As someone who plays video games and wanders the virtual landscape of the cyber world day and night, I occasionally come into contact with and once in a blue moon literally do battle, so to speak, with some of these hackers. But whenever I hear about their real plight in life, it makes me sad for them, and I’m ashamed to say, a little bit happier for me.


  1. noastronomer says

    “Using a variety of tricks they gain access to legitimate accounts, grab whatever virtual currency they can…”

    I don’t think most gold-farmers are hacking accounts. The goods are 100% traceable so it’s an easy way to get caught and banned. Rather they’re farming resource nodes and monsters to get rare (ie expensive) items to sell.

  2. says

    They are doing what you describe but they are also indeed hacking accounts. They use various botting programs to mine and stuff, but hacking directly into accounts, grabbing money and items, dumping them on the auction house, then transferring it to other realms is the SOP.

  3. Timid Atheist says

    I can’t count on my fingers and toes how many friends and acquaintances I’ve known that have gotten hacked and had their accounts cleaned out in WoW. And it happens fast. Even one day and everything is gone. A lot of times they’ll even move characters to other servers where prices are higher so the things they sell go for more gold they can steal.

    I had no idea, however, that some of those gold farmers were actually part of the prisons over seas. That puts a whole new level of ick and disgust to the practice. And now I have some sympathy and a bit more perspective on the whole situation. How wretched.

  4. Paul from VA says

    EVE Online has an interesting way of combating this practice: they made it so you can buy an in-game item redeemable for a month worth of game time using Real Money. Sell in-game, get in-game money. Addicts can play the game for free by buying them with in game money. However, you can’t turn the pass back into real money. So now why would anyone by in-game currency from the Chinese, given that you can get it securely and without being hacked from the company that makes the game?

    All in all, I think it was a pretty clever solution.

  5. Zarron says

    Blizzard, the publishers of World of Warcraft, where this trade is practiced most widely, is actually testing an interesting response to this problem in their next game, Diablo 3, in a way that causes the real money for in-game items trade to benefit themselves and players, rather than enriching those who run these criminal enterprises you mention in your article.

    They are creating an ‘Auction House’ in-game, officially supported by the company, that uses real-world currency, in parallel to the in-game currency Auction House. Both are used in the same way, just with different currencies. If you use the real world currency version, Blizzard takes a small fee out of the seller’s profit if the item sells. You can also list in-game currency on the real currency auction house, creating a direct exchange between the two currencies.

    The theory is that this will end the dominance of Chinese scammers and gold farmers in this trade, by putting hundreds of thousands, or even millions of players in direct competition with these people.

    The reason they can dominate games like World of Warcraft is because of the barriers-to-entry inherent in the market; in WoW, trading with real money is technically against the rules, and may get your account banned. Regular players often do not wish to take that risk. Furthermore, regular players cannot list their virtual items or virtual currency in an easy, centralized location where they can be certain that buyers will see their listings, and must use ad-hoc, unsafe payment methods like escrow-less PayPal transfers, while the Chinese scammers have large web presences with easy-to-use payment methods. Thus, regular players cannot participate in this market in World of Warcraft; it’s too difficult and expensive for them to, and they can’t compete with the Chinese.

    The in-game auction house lowers the barrier to entry for regular players to zero, and provides a secure way of making payments, and receiving payments, making sure that both parties can trust that they will receive the goods/money in return, rather than being cheated out of their virtual goods or their cash.

    The Chinese will be in competition with many, many regular players, who are willing to list items for a very small amount of money, because it is not their main income; regular players are simply in it to make a bit of pocket money. This will cause real-currency prices to be much lower than they otherwise would be, hemorrhaging Chinese profits. The end result? The Chinese probably won’t have a very large presence in Diablo 3, since it will most likely be far more profitable to focus on other games, where they do not have any competition.

    It’s funny…in these ‘toy’ economies, a purely free and unregulated market works extremely well and has a good result. I sound like some kind of conservative economist talking about this. But in real-life economies, I’m very much pro-regulation and anti lasseiz-faire capitalism. The difference is that in real life, we are talking about real people and real lives that can either be ruined or enriched by the state of the economy and the amount of money they can get for a day’s work. In real-life, we have to worry about foreign nations and multinational corporations who can bend the rules to the detriment of others. In a toy economy, like an online game, we have no such concerns. It’s just a toy economy, and real people don’t live and die by these things.

    Sorry for the huge comment!

  6. says

    That’s a greta analysis. I wa scatually toying with creating an adjunct site, somehting like wowhead, for the D3 auction house. Where trading tips and techniques could be swapped, hot item bid/asks be listed, etc. I figured as a former stock broker and someone who could promote the site on other larger blogs I’d have a shot at grabbing the market and resulting ad revs. Lemme know if you’re interested in that.

  7. Zarron says

    I’d definitely be interested. I’m quite excited for the game, and I definitely plan to try to turn a modest profit through trading and selling.

    Heck, as someone who works in the software industry myself, I’d even offer to help you develop it. It’s an idea I had tossed around myself, actually, though I don’t have the name recognition and credentials you do. :)

    Thanks for the kind words, as well; I’m no economist, nor have I ever worked in the financial industry, but I like to think I have a pretty firm grasp on how the economy works.

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