There are a litany of black markets out there; Drugs, weapons, sex, death, body parts – basically anything you'd find gratuitously splashed through a George Romero film or in the sketch book of that class crazy who makes instructional videos on how to properly service a katana blade.
The newest addition to that pack is selling virtual gold from video games for real currency. Impatient gamers who can't be bothered to spend hours legitimately earning the gold needed to buy level-ups, armoured battle cloaks and pixellated crossbows are now just purchasing that gold from other people who have worked for it. Because combining laziness and money is far more convenient than spending all day in a darkened room and relentlessly clicking on stuff while your skin turns pallid and you forget what it's like to interact with real human beings.
Chinese prisoners are put to work on games like World of Warcraft and Diablo, Romania has a thriving gold-farming industry and freelance gold-farmers sell their stock through sites like USFINE and Sythe. While all of that probably isn't what game developers were hoping for, it's pretty innocuous and doesn't disrupt gameplay too much for other users not involved in the gold-farming scene.
However, there are companies who unleash thousands of bots into games to undertake menial tasks like cutting wood or mining rocks – all of which generate online gold. Those bots make the industry an estimated $500 million each year, but have also drawn fire from regular gamers, who say the bots ruin the games for everyone else.
I got in touch with an American gold farmer, 17-year-old Josh Miroslav, who told me he makes $10,000 (£6,448) a month farming gold in the MMORPG RuneScape.
VICE: So Josh, you've made $10,000 from gold farming on Runescape?
Josh Miroslav: Yeah, but that was just in the last three weeks. I’ve been doing it for a long time, but I just recently had to start selling to Sythe as well because the game is more or less dying. I need to find more buyers.
Why is Runescape dying?
The whole game was completely put out of perspective when bots took over; it meant the game didn't "work" any more. I'd definitely say the updates also hurt it a lot, but at the end of the day the gold farming community – both those who farm and those who buy the gold – were the sole problem.
Yeah, that makes sense. How do you gold farm?
I’ve recently been playing around with the gambling side of Runescape. It's changed a lot because of new rules set by Jagex, the Runescape developers, so there are plenty of ways to get good odds on people, which can lead to some really easy money.
What’s the most money you've made in a day?
Well, due to the risk of being banned, you try to sell as much gold as you can as quickly as possible, and all in one go if you can. In one day I’ve managed over $5,000 (£3,224) in transactions a fair few times. That said, the gold I was selling those times might have taken up to two or three weeks to farm.
How many accounts have you had banned?
A lot. I would have no idea, really. In one day, Jagex managed to take out every single account I'd ever touched, which was a lot at the time. I'd say at least 50 have been permanently banned, with many more accounts locked.
Do you still play Runescape for fun, or is it just for the money?
I used to love playing the game – it's more or less the only game I’ve ever played. Sadly, as I got more and more into gold farming, it started feeling more like a job than a game and I slowly lost the enjoyment I used to get from it.
That makes sense, but I guess the money kind of makes up for it. So do you sell to gamers? Or just people operating gold-farming sites?
Nah, not gamers. I sell my gold to the major gold-selling websites, which are generally operated by the Chinese.
Sites like USfine?
USFine would definitely be one of them, sure. There are mediators of sorts who take your gold then distribute the gold between all the gold sites, depending on how much they need. This makes it very convenient for big GP [gold piece] sellers, as they basically have to put in little to no effort.
A short documentary about gold farmers in China.
As a gold farmer yourself, what do you feel about the whole thing? Do you think it ruins computer games?
I believe it's a scene that really corrupts people. Before Jagex made the updates that allow people to exchange virtual gold for real currency, I saw myself as someone who really hadn't ever done wrong by anybody. That changed, though. The atmosphere of gold farming, due to the complete anonymity and lack of any sort of regulation, really hit me. I went from being someone who had never really wanted money and, by definition, a "good kid", to someone who had been fully corrupted by this idea of hoarding gold and selling it.
Wow, dark. Sorry, I didn't realise I was going to drag all of these feelings up.
Yeah, it's led to me getting involved in stuff like mass hacking and a lot of other "unethical" things – basically whatever method could make you the most gold at the time. I regret this and, for this reason, I’ve never been proud of the money I’ve made. Gold farming basically involves taking advantage of people in some way or another. People think gold farming is an awesome job – getting paid to play games – but in reality it's nothing like that. You're either stealing money off legitimate players or running massive bot farms, which completely ruin the game. At the end of the day, it's just a free-for-all on who can make more money through illegitimate means.
You sound pretty guilty about gold farming.
Yeah, no doubt. I’ve been trying to get out of this scene for a long time now, but with no avail. It's a nasty place with a lot of nasty and greedy people.
How does what you do differ to the large Chinese gold farming companies?
The Chinese are mainly involved in the distribution – moving gold around between sellers who need stock – the sale and marketing of gold to average players on sites like Gold4fun, and the mass botting of gold. They've basically got the main aspects of the whole industry under control. They're more or less completely in control of the gold selling aspect of Runescape.
How many bots would a massive bot farm have?
The Chinese gold farmers who use bot farms keep it on the down low, but it's no secret that the bigger companies would have thousands of bots in their name running 24/7.
Okay. And what do your parents think about your profession and income?
They were worried at first and, to some extent, still are. But they're more or less all good with it now. They understand what I do and don't disagree with it, so I'm fine with that.
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