Gold Farming: Challenges to ToS?

This semester our first blog posting will be about the activity known as “gold farming.” The class has discussed the Terms of Service that regulates Second Life, the virtual platform that we use. In a world that is increasingly relying on technology and the software that runs our devices, legal documents known as either Terms of Service (ToS) or End User Licensing Agreements (EULA) are governing more and more of what we do. The user rarely knows or understands what rights he or she has given away by clicking the button that requires them to accept the regulations, mainly because the user rarely reads the agreements and at the point when the document is presented the user is commonly anxious to begin using the new software but cannot do so unless they accept the document. Later, much to the surprise of the user, the software developer will often change, without advance notice, or an opportunity for the user community to offer comments, changes which materially alter the conditions under which they can use the software. There are many examples of when these unilateral changes have created a backlash against the developer. A few examples would be Second Life‘s change in ownership rights of user created content or any of Facebook’s multiple changes to how it can sell user’s content. We started by contrating the current ToS for Second Life with the ToS that was at issue in the case Bragg v. Linden Labs, 487 F. Supp 2d 593 (E. D. Penn 2007) where a lawyer claimed the ToS was unconscionable.


The ToS and the EULAs operate to protect the intellectual property of the software developer, but offer few concrete protections for the user of the software. And the user is not in an “at arms length” position and is therefore never able to negotiate the terms of the ToS or EULA. In the game environment, as with other software, the developers protect the intellectual property (the coding and branding of the game) and usually prohibit the user from manipulating the game for the user’s benefit. The benefit may sometimes be to acquire more virtual goods than he or she would be entitled to or to actually use the game to make money for the user. In the minds of the developers and many gamers, gold farmers violate the ToS. Gold farmers are workers who play game accounts solely for the purpose of acquiring virtual goods or currency for sale. Gold farmers are mainly Chinese.


Gold farming activity takes place in games where players need to acquire the virtual currencies (gold) in order to acquire gear within the game. Activision/Blizzard‘s game World of Warcraft was plagued by gold farmers. This activity was clearly prohibited in WoW’s ToS. Yet the gold farmers catered to a community of players that needed the gold and either did not have the time to earn it in-game or didn’t want to use their time to grind activities to earn the gold in-game. The class watched two interviews: one with a gold broker, Jared Psigoda and one with the staff of a game, who discusses the phenomenon of gold farming. In addition, we read an investigative report in the New York Times about the realities of life for the gold farmer. The article was written by Julian Dibbell, a journalistic, who himself engaged in gold farming to see what the process was about and to learn what kind of money was passing hands through gold farming. Dibbell’s research was turned into a book called Play Money. Finally, we watched a documentary created by Ge Jin, a social scientist (at the time a PhD candidate) who studied gold farming in China and filmed the actual work, the working conditions (commenting on the “sweat shop” qualities of the work), and reactions to the farmers from gamers and from the farmers about gamers. Mr. Jin’s work looks at the commodification of play and work and draws some interesting conclusions.


There are so many questions raised by the attack on gold farming. These are just a few that come to my mind:

  1. If the developers create a system that requires currency, shouldn’t they anticipate players will seek easier ways to get the currency?
  2. Is there anything inherently wrong with gold farming?
  3. Many players see gold farmers as leeches on the system, but in fact the accounts gold farmers play on are paid subscriber accounts, so Activision/Blizzard gets money from the gold farmers as well. Isn’t Blizzard being somewhat hypocritical here?
  4. How is it that the farmers accounts get banned, but the accounts of the players who purchase the gold do not get banned? In the documentary Ge Jin inferred this has to do with racism: the farmers are Chinese but those who buy are predominately white males.
  5. Psigoda suggests the game companies should work with the gold farmers. What might be the pros and cons of that?
  6. If a player wants to buy gold, why should the ToS prevent him from being able to do so?

I am looking forward to hearing what the class thinks about gold farming, the issues that were raised in the film and the other assigned materials.


~ by profjacobs on September 14, 2014.

5 Responses to “Gold Farming: Challenges to ToS?”

  1. Certainly the developers should anticipate players trying to find easier ways to get currency. In fact, MMORPGs like WoW are designed with “experience farming” in mind. As you play the game, your character’s stats increase due to questions and encounters with enemies. These events generate experience points, and when you accumulate enough experience points, your character “levels up.” There are some quests and enemies that are too difficult to handle if you play the game naturally, so you have to farm experience points. You do that by sitting around for a few hours and killing enemies. Once you’ve reached the necessary level, you try the quest again. Similarly, gold farming on a smaller scale is necessary to buy equipment that you could not otherwise afford. As a result, this farming mentality is already ingrained within players.

    Moreover, in modern games, the “pay money to avoid spending hours farming” mentality is also ingrained within the players. Many games allow you to buy experience points right off the bat to avoid spending your first few hours in the game farming experience points. Some games take this to an extreme. These are called “pay to win” games – the game itself is free, but it’s nearly impossible to beat the game unless you buy items from the developer (in real dollars).

    Combine those two mentalities, and you have gold farming. The only real difference is that players buy from other players, rather than from the developers. That makes gold farming a harsher crime in games where players have the option to buy from developers – it takes money out of their pockets.

    The fact that players can thwart the money-making attempts of the developer answers a lot of your questions. It’s not inherently wrong, but in a virtual world where the developer can set its own rules, it makes sense to outlaw it. It’s just like the scrip system in the early industrial era – make yourself the sole source of currency.

    On the other hand, there is no reason to ban the purchasers of gold. If anything, the ideal solution would be to have a lot of people buy gold so that they have a dependency on it. Then the developer could cut their supply by making it harder to buy from gold farmers, so they have to buy from the developer.

    Finally, as to the idea of working with gold farmers, what’s the point? I suppose the developer could decide to legalize gold farming, in exchange for a tax on it [this argument sounds familiar…]. On the other hand, that would encourage more gold farming, which would be a drain on system resources and drive down the real money price of gold. That would be bad for the developer.

  2. 1. Yes, Game Developers do anticipate ways that players will seek to acquire valuable virtual goods by the easiest means feasible. As Psigoda, the self-proclaimed king of Chinese gold farming said in the interview, “Game companies are actively pursuing us”, in the sense that they are implementing measures that limit the secondary market of gold farmers and power-levelers. Game companies do this not only through account banning, but also by patching exploits and glitches used to grind out valuable virtual goods.

    2. Gold farming is just paying someone to play the game for you and using their time and skill to earn you a higher status or more valuable virtual goods within the game. I think there is an important ethical difference between paying someone to earn you goods through normal game mechanisms and hacking a game to acquire those goods. The latter is clearly unethical while the former is simply distasteful (and by that I mean its dishonorable for a player to pretend he earned something when he did not). But terms of service do not need to be limited to what is ethical but could go further to prevent behavior that is not beneficial to the gameplay environment. For example, a game could ban political references in clan names, but that doesn’t mean that making political references is unethical.

    3. I’m not sure how disapproving of gold farming makes Blizzard hypocritical. The fact that Blizzard is still paid is irrelevant to the fact that they do not want players reaching a status or acquiring goods that those players didn’t earn within the strictures of the game and its mechanics. Allowing gold farming or “botting” could be counter to the interests of the game company or the interests of their userbase. Both from a game design perspective as well as a business perspective, there is merit to the concept that only those who have the skill and dedication to earn a certain status or item should be able to have that status or item.

    4. Ge Jin is simply race-baiting with that comment and misleading his audience about the mechanics at play. As Psigoda said in the interview, one of the ways game companies thwart gold farming is by banning accounts that create the supply. That means accounts which the game company determines are simply grinding out gold to sell on the secondary market are banned. Psigoda spoke of this as being the equivalent of owning a shoe company and having your factory set on fire. As some farmers accounts are banned, other farmer accounts emerge and the cycle continues. However, in the case of power-leveling, the account of the customer (stylized here as “White Male”) is banned, not the account of the farmer (stylized here as “Chinese”) because the costumer’s account is the one that was used to violate the terms of service. This is why power-levelers use proxy servers to try to not get caught. A user’s account can also be banned for using “bots” to level up. None of this has anything to do with a preference for “white males” or a bias against “Chinese”.

    5. No, game companies do not need to work with gold farmers; they can simply circumvent them. As far as the game companies are concerned, I see no positive aspect to the scenario of bot farmers working in conjunction with the game companies. On top of that, it’s completely unnecessary. The much simpler solution which game companies are already implementing to circumvent gold farming is by adding features within the game itself that allow “power-leveling” and the acquisition of valuable virtual goods through real-world currency payments to the game company. This is a model frequently used in Free-To-Play games and pointed out by Psigoda as devastating to the gold farmer business model.

    6. As mentioned earlier, there is merit to the concept that only those who have the skill and dedication to earn a certain status or item should be able to have that status or item. From a game design perspective, the enjoyment and meaning of that status or item is increased when tied to skill and dedication, rather than payment or luck. In turn, this increased enjoyment results in more satisfied players and more numbers of players joining the game. So from a game design perspective and from a business perspective, there is value in having this in the terms of service. Of course, this might not be true of all gameplay styles, which is why the terms of service and game design philosophy can differ from game to game on this issue of “pay-to-win”.

  3. Understandably, the TOS is a prime focus when discussing the legal issues behind farming. Through the TOS, the game publisher or developer can govern and regulate player behavior. Moreover game publishers ostensibly have the right to sue those who gold farm in the game based on the TOS (setting aside the issue of whether gold farming actually violates the TOS). Legally enforcing the TOS is primarily the responsibility of the game developer or publisher but gold farming concerns the games’ community as a whole. In fact, gold farmers may not even been a problem for the game developers. As Trace suggested, the publisher could simply increase the supply of gold to maintain the market. Rather, the general game player, the player who does not buy from the gold farmer and works hard for his or her equipment, he has the most to lose when people gold farm

    This got me thinking, ‘What about other players. Could one player sue another player for gold farming? Would they have standing? What would such a cause of action look like? What recourse would the general community of players have if game publishers and gold farmers started working together like Ge Jin suggested?’ Then I started thinking about that pretentious nerdy guy from the documentary, the one who spoke about the “vigilante” groups, with his horrible misunderstanding of the entire gold farming debate. Would we really want to give this guy a cause of action at all? So I decided to do some light research into it further. What I found was pretty surprising. Lawsuits brought by players against gold farms seem to be widespread. For instance, in 2007, a WOW player filed a class action lawsuit against a gold farming company know as Internet Gaming Entertainment (for more info on it, here is the news article

    I was not sure how I really felt about these lawsuits. If you had asked me before I had watched the documentary, I would say that these lawsuits seem beneficial. As a gamer myself, I have seen firsthand how easily gold farming can dilute the gameplay experience. However, with the benefit of the documentary, I almost feel dirty for feeling that way. The gold farmers were simply making the best of their difficult situation. Who I am to stop them so just so my K/D ratio is not ruined by some noob who bought a level 42 armor from a gold farmer? It is a small sacrifice to be made

  4. My expertise in this field is limited to what we’ve discussed in class and what I’ve observed in the videos shown to us by Prof. Jacobs. Admittedly, gold farming is a new phenomenon to me. As a non-gamer, I think I’m beginning to understand both the benefits and detriments to gold farming.

    Surely, game developers have a significant interest in limiting or abolishing gold farming through EULAs and ToSes. They are simply protecting their own interests in monopolizing the market for virtual goods and currency within their own game; I find no issue with this. If I understand correctly, game developers are burdened by the hackers and the unethical (perhaps?) users who mod the game to gain goods and currency that was not earned properly.

    It makes sense that those who are most successful at gold farming work as a team to acquire virtual property and currency, as we saw in the video last week. True to my capitalistic roots, I find little issue with this either. If the gold farmers can find a way to ‘beat the system’ and provide cheaper goods to users playing the game, then in my opinion, the game wasn’t created carefully enough, with enough safeguards to protect the developer from such hacks. I guess I’m split on the gold farming issue, maybe because I’ve never experienced this firsthand.

    Frequent gamers surely know that gold farming is prohibited, but new gamers who click through the EULA or ToS agreement without reading any of it might never know what gold farming is, or the legal ramifications that might ensue from engaging in such conduct. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if game developers want to truly get rid of gold farming, they have 2 options. 1) Sue everyone; or 2) Create the game with safeguards to protect against such conduct.

    It seems as though neither option is practical nor ideal, so what’s the point in even pursuing such action. The game developers are surely not at risk of losing substantial profits to these farmers. They should simply tax the value of the virtual currency + goods of all players to protect their interests.

    I also take issue with Ge Jin’s statement about why developers ban gold farmers and not the purchasers. Again, I don’t have very much firsthand experience here, but if users/players can get virtual goods on the cheap, then why wouldn’t they? There is always a black market for goods, in real life and in the virtual realm. Punishing someone for buying a fake Rolex off the guy on the corner because it’s $6,995 cheaper than its genuine counterpart is not in the State’s best interest. The issue here is fraud, and so too is the issue in the gaming world. Developers want to be sure that the legitimacy of their game remains intact and that users aren’t taking advantage of the privileges they have been given to use the game.

  5. Interesting comments from all. Here are some of my thoughts in response, some cross over to different posts but I will put them as they occurred to me when reading your individual responses:

    @Trace @Alan The developers make a game that requires grinding. In the developer’s mind this creates a highly valued product that only the most skilled players deserve to have. This mentality completely ignores human behavior. Whenever you create an item or a commodity that only elites can have, the race will be on for everyone to find a short cut method for acquiring that item. This is the point made by the social scientist who was discussing Lineage. The players (who pay monthly) wanted the market. It didn’t matter what the developers intended, the players wanted it and so they made it happen, informally at first and then formally off line. Players make their own values and judgments about what their time is worth and they will make accommodations however to allow game play to be fun for them, in a way that makes sense for them, not necessarily in the way the developers envisioned.

    If the developers are paying attention they will adapt the game to accommodate how the players need to play. Blizzard finally got it this year. They have allowed some players to purchase a character that is already leveled up. Why? Because the players had created their informal methods to acquire the same (through having the gold farmers level up an account). It took some time but Blizzard began to understand that if this is what the players wanted, it would make sense for them to control the process (and thereby earning more money) then to keep fighting the insane fight against the gold farmers.

    @Alan It’s not race baiting to bring up the Chinese/white male dynamic. It is the reality of it. It may not be pleasant to hear it but it is privileged white males who primarily pay to upgrade their characters and to buy gold. And it is primarily the low wage Chinese workers who make that happen for them. Just like its low wage Chinese workers who make it possible for middle class people to have iPhones. That is reality and there is a racial dynamic to it.

    I think there is also a difference between running a bot that is controlled by a script and having an actual player farm an area. The first is clearly against the rules. The second, meh! I am not offended by that.

    @Rzlatin great find on the lawsuits. I will follow up and see what, if anything has happened. Just from the quick read, it seems like they have gone after the middle man, the people like Psigoda. I’m not sure how they would be able to get jurisdiction over the Chinese companies if they do not have presence here in the U.S.

    @Chriscroce I totally agree that this is capitalism at its best. A product was created. There is a demand for it. Demand exceeds supply. That will create an opportunity for the person who sees the short coming of the system. Also, just as a gamer I sometimes wonder, do the developers want us to be like them, like what they like and restrict us to what they believe is the best way to “play.?” Or, when we pay our money do we get an opportunity to play as we see fit (within the confines of the law, e.g. no hacking, no bots running scripts, etc). I think about Rosedale’s comments about how he envisioned Second Life. But how he envisioned it wasn’t how the players envisioned it. When the two visions collide, what should a developer do?

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