November 5, 2012 by Ross Slutsky
Gold Farming and Problems with Common Conceptions of Fairness
This week, Alex brought up the issue of gold farming as it relates to notions of parity in gaming, and this discussion forced me to think about the implications of cheating both inside and outside of the “Magic Circle.” For those unfamiliar with the term, “gold farming” is an illicit practice in World of Warcraft in which one player pays another to augment the status of his avatar and/or accumulate virtual currency. At first, it seems obvious that gold farming constitutes inequitable behavior. Implicit in the hierarchical strata of WoW is a shared understanding that highly ranked players should attain their status with their own labor. Gold farming then violates this implicit social contract and affords privileges to players that they have not earned. Some would also argue that it violates commonly held notions of fair competition insofar as outsourcing labor constitutes unsanctioned enhancement that does not exclusively reflect the skills of the player in possession of the avatar. However, in this paper, I hope to interrogate the aforementioned ideas and demonstrate the limitations of this commonly held notion of parity.
Even in the absence of gold farming, I do not believe that World of Warcraft is truly a fair game. While WoW (absent gold farming) may be fair in the sense that the game does not systemically perpetuate inequality amongst players, it does not address the inequitable capacities of various players. In the same sense that some people have natural athletic talents and others are naturally unathletic, there is an unequal distribution of MMORPG-playing ability. Players do not necessarily enter the game on equal footing and are not necessarily similarly situated. A single parent who works two jobs, raises his or her children without much help and occasionally plays WoW as a temporary reprieve from responsibilities cannot dedicate the same amount of time to completing quests and beating levels as an eleven year old on Summer vacation. Likewise, a South Korean professional Starcraft player playing Wow for the first time will likely be at a considerable advantage when compared to a seventy-five year old grandfather (who previously only used the computer to check stock prices) persuaded to create an avatar by overeager grandchildren. In other words, if we limit our inquiry to whether or not the game systemically enables inequality without looking at the capacities of the game, we fail to completely grasp the issue of gaming fairness.
Even if we do not wish to sanction gold farming, we must think carefully about the possibility that popular conceptions of parity and condemnations of so-called cheating may perpetuate extant disparities. Not all games are as negligent as WoW when it comes to recognizing disparities in player aptitude. For example, golfers sometimes use a handicapping system to enable players of different levels of ability to play on a level playing field. While it may be more challening to determine what a handicapping system would entail in a complicated gaming environment such as WoW, if critics of gold farming are truly concerned about the fairness of the game, difficulty is not an excuse for inaction.
In a sense, the issue of player aptitude inequality raises broader questions about the meaning of games. What does it say about a game if it does not even attempt to reconcile external inequalities that are largely responsible for what happens within the confines of the magic circle? Player aptitude inequality also raises important questions about the complicity of audience/of the players for willingly partaking in such games. The interactive manifestations of participation may not differentiate video games from all other forms of media, but they certainly distinguish them from film and literature. A media consumer does not normally enter a cinematic or literary diegesis with the expectation that his or her actions will have any power to change the course of events within the diegesis. On the other hand, in video games, while there are considerable limits to player autonomy, player actions and choices do have material implications in the diegesis.
In games with a competitive and/or hierarchical component, we do not merely recognize the existence of player inequality but often direct our actions towards perpetuating such inequality. We try to prevail over one another and out-rank the other players. While not all games match the aforementioned description, what do competitive games say about the people who play them? It is somewhat unsettling to think that “fair” competition means simply creating a setting in which people with a certain set of abilities may assert their dominance over a set of people with a set of less contextually useful abilities. Furthermore, while pseuodonymity and use of avatars in MMORPGs may facilitate our suspension of disbelief, these elements of abstraction can also distort our understanding of the other players. When players see goldfarmers as invasive rule-breaking avatars, their perception differs from what it would be if they knew they were interacting with Chinese prisoner forced to play against their will by corrupt prison guards.
I did not write this paper as a lecture and make no claims to moral authority on games or anything else. With that said, I hope the gaming community will collectively think about what fairness means in and out of the games we play.