'Gold farming' good for multiplayer games?

Virtual goods have a place in gaming, and developing countries may well gain from them, but there are risks associated with trading virtual gold--including destroying the game experience.

An article titled "Why a War on Virtual Gold Sellers Makes No Sense" got me thinking about the motivations behind playing massive multiplayer online role-playing games and why virtual economies can be both helped and harmed by "gold farming."

Gold farming is an Internet-age phenomenon in which players in less developed countries collect and sell virtual gold (common to games like World of Warcraft) to wealthier gamers in the developed world. This enables gamers who have the means to buy virtual gold to get ahead in the games without actually having to accomplish much of the grunt work.

Wagner James Au takes the economic viewpoint that the consequences of gold farming don't outweigh the risks.

Call me a radical, but when launching a big-budget online game, it doesn't strike me as a very good idea to risk alienating nearly a quarter of your user base right out the gate.

That, however, is likely to be the consequence of an extreme anti-gold-selling policy at Mythic Entertainment, the studio that developed Electronic Arts' new MMORPG Warhammer Online, which is widely seen as World of Warcraft's best competitor.

Mythic's Mark Jacobs makes a very strong counterpoint that gold farmers are destroying the game experience.

For years, lowlifes like (gold seller) IGE have told us, in defense of their behavior, that they a) are just providing a service; b) don't interfere with players' enjoyment of the game.

Well, I can't argue with (a), they are providing a service--just like maggots, I suppose--but I've always argued that (b) is total and complete BS.

Now, those old arguments aside, I can't see how this new generation of pond scum (new and improved, with 25 percent more scummy action!) can argue that their constant spamming of chat channels doesn't interfere with players' enjoyment of the game (I'm waiting for the whole "Oh, you can always just turn off chat" argument).

Having spent a bit of time playing WoW, I've been overwhelmed by the amount of spam on the chat channels--especially when I was too much of a newbie to turn it off.

There is a paradox of trying to succeed in a game by any means necessary versus the very point of playing the game. Gold selling is also contributing to both real and virtual economic development, providing jobs for people in less developed countries, and driving revenue into game companies, as more people look to advance their game play.

In a 2006 interview, documentary filmmaker Ge Jin discussed how gold farming is driving economic development in China.

GJ: I think these gold farms indicate that the game platform has the potential to engage more people in an Internet-driven economy. The gaming workers in China don't have skills like English, software (development), or graphic design to participate in other forms of Internet-driven work, but they can communicate and navigate in a 3D game world whose tools and routines they are familiar with...So if more social and economic activities happen in an accessible 3D game world, people who don't have access to other culture capital but (do have access to) gaming knowledge will be more likely to be included in global interaction.

Like anything on the Internet that has the possibility of making money, we'll see people try to take advantage for their own gain. Spam has made e-mail unusable without serious filtering, and there are risks that gaming could go the same way. For now, it's up to the providers to balance the development of their own economies.