Online: A Virtual Gold Rush

With his longish hair, casual polo shirt and baggy shorts, Li Zhi looks like the entrepreneurial boss of a small-town computer company, which is what he used to be. Now the thirtysomething Li runs an unusual sweatshop in the Hubei-province city of Wuxue, the kind of place where a farmer might buy a computer in town and transport it home by donkey cart. Wuxue also has high-speed Internet access and hundreds of residents playing the popular online role-playing game called World of Warcraft. Some 200 of them work for bosses such as Li, single-mindedly playing Warcraft to collect in-game currency and trade it for real-world cash. Li's so-called gold-farming operation is modest, but profitable.

If you think Chinese have an image problem in real life, take a look at the virtual world. World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, or MMOG, that boasts more than 7 million players worldwide--with some 5 million reportedly in China. The game--which has been called an Americanized version of "Lord of the Rings"--is populated by everything from dwarfs and night-elves to orc-hunters and rogues. Then there are the gold farmers, who have just one goal: to scoop up as much in-game currency, or gold, as they can in the shortest amount of time.

They sell this for real money to other gamers who crave the gold to buy valuable magic spells and weapons. The practice is frowned upon by much of the Net establishment, including WOW's designers at the Irvine, California-based firm Blizzard Entertainment. "We're trying to make a game. We're not trying to create a second business for people," says Blizzard president and co-founder Mike Morhaime. "We do try to police the game so that this sort of thing doesn't happen."

That's because gold farmers don't play by the rules--Blizzard's rules, that is, which bar "real-money trade." Gold farmers, most of whom are ethnic Chinese, also shun much of the in-game social interaction that Blizzard's designers envisaged. Instead they obsess over "items" that translate into gold, from magical weapons to corpses that can be looted. Blizzard contends that monetary ambitions within WOW degrade the players' enjoyment; some, though not all gamers agree. But real-money trade isn't illegal in real life--and the Web is crawling with intermediaries offering to swap gold for money, quoting the latest gold-to-greenback exchange rates, or recruiting Netizens to work rotating shifts as gold farmers.

The brouhaha has a slightly familiar ring. Change just a few nouns and Blizzard's complaints about Chinese gold farmers begin to sound like Washington's criticism of China's real-world "mercantilist" behavior, especially when globe-trotting Chinese diplomats clinch deal after multibillion-dollar deal to lock down supplies of oil and natural resources, often with despotic regimes.

In both the real and virtual worlds, many Chinese seem oblivious to the controversies arising over their money-minded behavior. One of Li's workers, Zhang Hanbin, is a lanky 24-year-old with floppy hair who began gold farming two years ago. He slouches in a chair and stares intently at the in-game explosions and mythic battles raging on his computer screen. There's a screw-top jar half full of tepid tea by his left hand, and a computer mouse clutched in his right, constantly circling and clicking with the smooth economy of motion that comes with repetition. "I think it's a cool job, getting paid to play games," says Zhang, who collected about $170 on his best day of gold farming but typically earns only a few U.S. dollars during each eight-hour shift. "I didn't even graduate from junior high. I never think about the future ... I don't care, as long as I can make some money."

In recent months Blizzard has cracked down on Chinese gold farmers. Thousands of WOW accounts have been shut down because of suspected gold-farming, traced through their server locations, their gaming activity and what language their in-game avatars use. One mainland Netizen posted this complaint on a Chinese-language Web site: "Actually the gold buyers are all foreigners, so what is Blizzard's logic? Robbers are guilty but the dirty-money buyers are not?"

Li is more resigned, even though he claims gold-farming is useful because it boosts the enjoyment of players who don't have time to collect game gold on their own. "I know Blizzard bans real-money trade, so we have to accept it," he says of the clampdown. "But it's a little like real life, where the West is bigger and more powerful so it makes all the rules. It's kind of unfair." Since July, when Li first detected Blizzard's campaign against gold farming, over 90 percent of the WOW accounts used by his workshop have been shuttered. If only China's real-world mercantilism could be curbed so easily.