The initially apparent absurdity of this topic may be bewildering to some, but on further investigation and understanding, it should be of interest to everyone. Also, the inhumanity of certain scumbag first-world gamers you will find infuriating in the extreme. But then, it's 2017, and the world is a messed up place.
Not a happy topic today, folks, but an important one that raises many questions about the world we live in.
Venezuela in crisis
Not to dwell on the history or political details here, but the facts on the ground are that Venezuela's economy has been in a critical condition for years, and it continues to slide. With inflation rampant, their currency is close to worthless. Unemployment is widespread. Protests frequently turn fatally violent. Crime is an epidemic. Murder rates exceed those in war-time Iraq. Food shortages abound. People are eating out of rubbish bins (or often not eating at all). Three quarters of the population report involuntary weight loss, and deaths through malnutrition are common, particularly amongst infants.
For the uninitiated, ‘farming’ gold involves playing a multiplayer game (usually a Massively Multiplayer Online game, or ‘MMO’) and deliberately collecting large amounts of the game’s primary or secondary currencies, which can be exchanged for in-game items. Let’s refer to all of these currencies as ‘gold’ for simplicity’s sake.
The farming players then go and sell in-game gold for real world currencies like $US or Bitcoin, thereby turning gameplay (albeit usually very unenjoyable parts of the game) into a paying job. The payout isn’t very much, typically, but Venezuelans at the moment report earning $2-3 per day, which can be enough to buy some food and stave off starvation.
The problem with doing this is that the introduction of more and more currency into a game’s economy has the very same effect as just printing unbacked money in a real economy – inflation! This can destroy a game’s balance/difficulty curve, and since that’s kind of the point of playing, it can ruin the game for people. If left unchecked, this kind of activity can collapse a game’s economy and potentially drive away all its players, basically ending the game and potentially putting the company out of business.
Gold farming by (predominantly) Chinese farms has been a major problem for Blizzard's World of Warcraft, that readers may have heard about before.
If you'd like to learn more, Extra Credits did a very informative episode on MMO economies that I would recommend.
So what we're seeing at the moment is a very large number of Venezuelan players choosing to farm gold in the 2001 MMO Runescape. Personally I'm not sure why they chose this game in particular, though it seems to be that, being an older game, it can run on cheaper, older hardware. I'm reliably informed that electricity in Venezuela is cheap, but computer components are fairly expensive, so this would make it preferable to modern MMOs for new farmers
Importantly, the game also has dedicated players spending money in the game. That's the key. The game is alive and money is changing hands.
Runescape’s regular players are understandably upset about their game becoming unbalanced. Their hobby fantasy world is being invaded by new ‘players’ who don’t care about the game at all and are just there to farm their gold and log out. This ruins immersion for the players and is just generally disruptive of their hobby. The game gets easier and less fun as stat-boosting items get cheaper due to more of them appearing on the in-game market.
First world problems!
We’re talking about a situation where these gold farmers are trying to feed themselves or their children, choosing to ‘work’ inside instead of risking mugging or murder on the streets of Caracas, and even still they have to queue hours for food that might have run out by the time they get to the front of the line.
One can understand anyone being upset if their hobby is being ruined, but an ounce of human empathy (an increasingly rare commodity) would surely put these concerns in perspective. Sadly, this is beyond certain people.
One should rarely read ‘the comments’ or certain seedy corners of Reddit, but what can be found there on this topic is a vile new low (well…let’s just pretend that it’s a new low, shall we?). Guides have been posted on how to identify and attack specifically Venezuelan players deliberately! Not only that, but some useful Spanish phrases have been shared so as these loyal Runescape players can insult the starving Venezuelans while they do so.
Okay, PvP (player versus player) is all part of the game, and virtual death is a risk associated with farming the gold in these PvP areas of the world (that’s why the gold holds any value to begin with, because it’s not that easy to obtain), but to deliberately jeopardise a starving person’s sole source of income and mock them while you do it is sadistic in the extreme. It’s not good fun. It’s fucking sick.
Side note: this post is, to my knowledge, the first time that I’ve committed profanity to print on this blog, but there’s a time and a place for it, and this is it.
I’m not saying to let the farmers away freely. There has to be a risk to their players’ safety or the farmed gold has no value because everyone can get it, then the gold decreases in real $ value, and then nobody can make a living from it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s the racist insults and, more than that, the sheer glee exhibited by some of these first-world players (including YouTubers) at being able to cause real people real pain that sickens me. “That’s what makes it so funny” writes one Reddit user.
I’d like to quote from a Kotaku article on the topic:
"I was expecting people to empathise and for once realise that games might just be a way to change people's lives," said Yasser, a former Runescape farmer who moved to the US a year ago, in a DM. Instead, he said, "the whole thing just made feel rage. Not your normal 'political debate' kind of rage but something more personal, especially because my family is still [in Venezuela], and I know what starving feels like. To see these guys that had the luck to be born on the right soil dehumanize Venezuelans, man, that tore me."
Me too, Yasser. Me too.
You might argue that they’re killing ‘bots’ and not players, but according to what I’ve been able to discover, most of these farmers seem to be just one player farming away themselves. Not an army of AI bots designed to enrich one human person/company through nefarious means that more directly violate the Terms of Service.
So, let’s be clear. Farming is bad for the game, and is against the Terms of Service, but this is also an unprecedented situation that has some very interesting considerations.
The game’s UK-based developers Jagex are reportedly banning a whopping 10,000 farming-related accounts per day!! That hurts those banned, but that’s fine. Frankly, it has to be. Jagex have a fiduciary responsibility to keep their company afloat, and banning farmers is an important part of that. If they were to allow the farmers to operate unchecked, they’d lose their actual playing and paying community, gain more and more farmers, and then there’d be huge amounts of gold to sell with nobody to buy it, and the game would be dead.
Getting banned is just part of the calculated risk of operating a farming scheme. These farmers know that they’re ruining (or contributing to disimproving) the game for people, but, to again quote the Kotaku article, a farmer by the name of Fhynal said "When you don't know what the future promises, and you fear for your life and the lives of those you [care about], you kind of don't care about people's opinions."
There are a lot of issues tied up in this one topic. I’ve mostly written it as if I’m trying to explain to non-gamers such as my parents (or the Irish government – still waiting on that investment and tax credit..) just how important a role games can play on the world stage.
Games aren’t just ‘pew pew’ time-wasting. They can literally be life and death for people now. That’s the world that we live in.
I’d like to thank my Venezuelan friends Carlo and Claudio for fact-checking this article.
Until next time…