Documentary Reaps Truth About Game's Controversial 'Gold Farming'

Ge Jin goes to China, discovers industrialized 'farms' devoted to 'World of Warcraft.'

Ge Jin had heard that people in China play "World of Warcraft" for profit.

He heard that they killed monsters for virtual gold that they could then sell to wealthier gamers around the world. He heard that they worked in dreary conditions — sweatshops even, people said. And he heard that many gamers hated these guys.

But he wanted to see it himself.

Over the last year Jin — a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego — has traveled to China to find the infamous "gold farmer," the not-so-unique type of "World of Warcraft" player who last year inspired a fan of that game to post a note on the "WoW" message board that read, "Get the goddamn Chinese out of this game." That gamer received dozens of messages in support.

Jin didn't just find the farmers. He found plenty of them. "Right now China is really the world factory of virtual goods," Jin told MTV News in an interview last month. He had spoken to people who did just what the reports claimed: They mined for virtual gold and sold it through a chain of individuals that eventually reached gamers in America and Europe who, disregarding the wishes of the "WoW" makers, would purchase the virtual currency with their credit cards and use it to purchase items that speed their advance through the game. Such is the marvel of relative economic value, where the 15 bucks an American player can spend on 100 pieces of virtual gold can help a Chinese gamer make a living.

Jin filmed the farmers for a documentary he is making called "Gold Farmer" (find out more about the doc at ChineseGoldFarmers.com). He did most of his shooting last summer at the Donghua gold-farming workshop in south China and has shared material exclusively with MTV News. (Watch a portion of Jin's riveting documentary right here.)

Jin found out that many of the rumors are true. At Donghua there were dozens of men in their late teens and 20s playing "WoW," rotating in shifts to keep up 24 hours of constant play. "One worker will work 12 hours a shift," he said. "They will play 12-hour games per day. And there are people who focus on gold farming, which means they keep killing monsters at one location to get as much gold as possible." Others do power-leveling, which basically means increasing a character's stats before putting that character up for sale or giving it back to its owner, who paid for a few-level boost.

The big question is whether these farms were really the sweatshops people claimed them to be. "The conditions of gold farms actually are quite diverse," Jin said. "Some gold farms are highly industrialized. They will have rows and rows of computers well-organized and they will have very disciplined worker regulation."

Others are more casual: "Just a group of friends, you know, with the big brother as the owner, and they just operate gold farms." The farmers would pull in about $100 a month, he said, a decent blue-collar wage in the farmers' region. In the bigger farms, 30-40 employees sleep in one big room, catching a rest before their next shift. They live on the virtual farm. "The working conditions there are not much worse than most factories in China," he said. "That may seem harsh for Westerners, but that's actually common for Chinese young people."

Among the things Jin learned is that some of the farmers know that many gamers and game developers can't stand them. "A professional gamer normally stays in one spot and kills the same monster again and again so that he can keep getting gold," said Donghua farmer Liu Hai Bin, in footage shot by Jin. "Because this is his job, and there is pressure from the boss, he has to stay there. If some other [non-farmer] players come to that spot, then he has no choice but to fight with them. Because he has to work and he is under pressure. ... So we professional gamers do have an impact on regular gamers."

Another worker at the shop, Min Qin, offered Jin, and by extension "WoW" players upset at the farming, his own defense. "This is just a job. It does not matter how we make our money as long as it's not immoral. We just do our job, we don't usually mess with regular gamers. They do their things and we do our things, so we have no influence on their game."

Qin's point of view probably wouldn't wash with Blizzard, the makers of "World of Warcraft," who frown on the real-world trading of their goods and the hacking by some farmers that lets computer-controlled characters do the farming for them. The company banned 30,000 accounts in May, 59,000 more in July and 76,000 in October. Each time the company charged that the accounts were tied to the trade of virtual goods and the practice of gold-farming. From those banned accounts Blizzard reported the seizure of 60 million pieces of virtual gold, worth more than $10 million. The company's point, as clear as it could be, was that those using farmed gold were not playing fair.

Chinese people aren't really the only ones farming, and Blizzard did not indicate that the bans were targeted at that country. As tech reporter Julian Dibbell chronicled in his recent book "Play Money," there are entrepreneurs making a buck off virtual goods everywhere

(see "Virtual-Gaming Tycoon Makes A Killing With 'Play Money' ").

Nevertheless, the Chinese gold farmers that Jin met talked of the cat-and-mouse game between Blizzard and its colleagues. An update of "WoW" would bring another round of bans. Farmers would get laid off or have to find new ways to start accounts without going detected.

Jin hopes his documentary can capture the adventure of it all, along with the mixed feelings of the farmer and the overall ingenuity of profiting by playing a game in a way that allows other gamers need to play it less to get ahead.

Maybe putting a human face on the farmers will change the debate. Or maybe some gamers just aren't meant to get along.

For more coverage from Gamer's Week 2.0, go to Games.MTV.com.

And stay tuned Saturday to check out "MTV News Goes Big Gaming" (MTV2 at 6 p.m. ET/PT), featuring reports from Austin and the rest of MTV News Gamer's Week 2.0 coverage.