If you’re a gamer, particularly one who likes massively multiplayer online fare, the figure of the “Chinese gold farmer” is most likely already part of your digital consciousness. If you’re wondering how one can “farm” gold, and what Chinese nationality has to do with that, I should explain that “gold farmers” are people who are hired to “play” games like World of Warcraft or Lineage in order to amass substantial amounts of in-game currency for resale on online markets. The customers? Ostensibly well-to-do players who for one reason or another wish to bypass the “grind” of questing, raiding, and/or repeatedly slaying virtual creatures to gain better gear, who wield their credit cards with great vigor to purchase their way to higher levels or more powerful itemization. The gold farmers? Not so well-to-do young people, primarily in China but now increasingly in Vietnam, who work full time controlling game avatars not primarily for pleasure but rather to make some kind of living (not very much by our standards).

Though there may be some enjoyment to be had in this kind of working play as opposed to other forms of labor, don’t think of gold farming as a dream job (getting paid to goof off). The gold farmers profiled by Julian Dibbell in “The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer” made about 30 cents an hour, worked grueling twelve-hour day or night shifts, and got only a couple of evenings off each month. What’s more, gold farmers don’t exactly get to play games; they have to monetize them instead. Gold farmers are rarely encouraged to explore the full range of a game, because there is no profit to be had in, say, flying around admiring scenery, conversing with other players, or taking part in challenging and time-consuming progression raids that often end in failure (raids involve large groups of players who gather to try to defeat particularly difficult “bosses”). Typically, gold farmers repetitively slay more accessible monsters for small but guaranteed amounts of in-game currency, and thus it takes long hours to amass substantial quantities for sale on sites like IGE.com.

One clear takeaway is that the practice of gold farming mucks up some of the most common criteria for play: play has traditionally been defined as voluntary activity that produces no tangible results (see J. Huizinga and R. Caillois), and call me crazy, but play should be fun. Gold farming also violates the usual mapping of player-to-character identity (1 player: 1 or more avatars), replacing it with one based on maximum utility (multiple players: 1 avatar). A gold farmer’s avatar seems less like a second skin than some type of mechanical equipment–it need not rest, setting itself at the same tasks around the clock as its operators punch in and out seamlessly.

Okay, but why ramble on about gold farms when I’m interested in actual farms, or at least the virtual representations of actual farms? Do gold farms have any relation whatsoever to the recent surge of farm games in China, most prominently “Happy Farm” and “Happy Farm 2” on SNS services like Tencent’s QQ and kaixin001? Most information, though much of it is secondhand, answers in the negative. First, gold farmers and happy farmers belong to vastly different virtual communities and economies–the former group is part of a smaller, but arguably more “hard-core” population of MMO gamers (which still numbers in the millions), while the latter group is at the heart of the rapidly expanding “casual games” market, better counted in the tens of millions; in MMOGs, currency can be traded between players and is relatively difficult to acquire, while in casual games currency is almost entirely regulated by corporate middlemen and on the whole plentiful (recently, in Facebook’s version of Happy Farm, I sold three plots’ worth of carrots for over 1,000 gold coins… wow). Yes, Facebook games tend to rely on two entirely separate currencies (Faunasphere’s lux/bux, FarmVille’s farm coins/cash, Happy Farm’s gold coins/credits, FrontierVille’s coins/horseshoes, etc.) designed to get freeloaders to cough up real money for progression or pomp, but it is possible to progress without shelling out genuine money.

A second reason that makes it hard to bring gold farmers and happy farmers together is their apparent class difference. While gold farmers, as celebrated in Cory Doctorow’s recent book, For the Win, appear to be primarily young and working-class, players of games like “Happy Farm” seem to be white-collar workers who use their virtual farms to compensate for urban tedium in its many forms (this according to a variety of informal media that report on the behavior of Chinese “netizens,” such as ChinaSMACK and The People’s Daily Online).

A recent day on my “Happy Farm.”

Last but not least, I should be careful not to overstate the significance of the term “farm” being shared by two such radically different practices. As Julian Dibbell clarifies, again in reference to gold farms, “The polite name for these operations is youxi gongzuoshi, or gaming workshops, but to gamers throughout the world, they are better known as gold farms.”

Chinese gold farms are thus farms only in the most abstract of senses. If we extend the analogy, it becomes clear that gold farming is not subsistence farming but capitalist agriculture–the owner of the gold farm brings relatively unskilled workers onto his “land” (his rooms or building) to “farm” (execute repetitive tasks in a fixed location) using his tools (computer terminals with broadband), paying them a minimal wage and in turn profiting from a marked-up product (gold, not crops) given his access to distribution channels and markets. As with the farming that provides most of our daily calories, we know gold farming primarily by its end products, not its process. Clearly, the gold farm model borrows heavily from the factory sweatshop and service outsourcing models, though on a smaller scale. Gaming workshops (遊戲工作室), indeed!

All of these practical differences between gold farms and happy farms aside, there is still some conceptual value to be had in placing one paradigm against the other. Gold farms highlight those aspects of farming that are often overlooked in romantic notions of a return to the land–hard manual labor, long hours, effective servitude to capital holders, and often minimal and variable reward, while “happy” farms enshrine all the qualities so prominent in pastoral genres: leisure, plenty, organic connection between human and land, all in a world apart from the concerns of the city.

Of course, “Happy Farm” notwithstanding, all is not carefree and neighborly even in such apparently idyllic settings. After beginning my research into Happy Farm, I was surprised to encounter numerous reports about “vegetable stealing” and game addiction in its newest guise, the overzealous virtual farmer (see, for instance, “Hurry! Time to ‘steal vegetables'” or “‘Happy Farms’ Game Destroys Chinese Jobs, Relationships”). If setting your alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to tend your virtual crops sounds batty, how about the conversation starter “How many vegetables have you stolen today?”, shown below: