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Most Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) use a system of currency for in-game transactions that can be acquired by players as they play the game normally (described generally as "gold"). The act of gold farming can range from playing the game for the specific purpose of amassing gold to exploiting a glitch in the programming to using "bots" and other hacks to automate game play. These programs allow the user to automate their characters and earn gold while away from the game. While the activities the bots engage in may be allowed under the rules of the game, the use of such programs are generally prohibited.
Once gold is collected it can be sold on a thriving market inside, as well as outside, of the MMO. Some recent estimates indicate that gold farming generates nearly one billion dollars a year in real-world transactions. From a videogame developer's standpoint, not only is there concern that third parties are engaging in the sale of their intellectual property, these activities can have a large impact on the game, as well as on the servers that host the game.
Enforcement Efforts Edit
In early 2009 the developers of EVE Online cancelled the accounts of 6,200 players (about 2% of the player base) due to suspected gold farming in violation of the Terms of Service; the demand on the EVE Online servers immediately dropped by 30% — showing what a disproportionate strain on resources the use of automated characters can have on a game.
With the rise of gold farming in the World of Warcraft (one of the most popular MMOs), Blizzard Entertainment also saw a drastic increase in spamming within the game. This spam mostly took the form of characters created by the farmers for the sole purpose of advertising websites where currency was sold and an increase in in-game mail to facilitate farming. Blizzard's response was to implement a method of player enforcement to watch over its millions of users. Now, if a player in World of Warcraft witnesses someone spamming they can report the character; if enough people report someone they cannot be heard by other players for a few hours; if reports continue once the ban is lifted the account is reviewed for suspension or cancellation.
It appears that buying in-game currency is still a minority practice within MMOs and carries a stigma among the players. Many users feel the sale of virtual currency has a negative impact on everyone that plays the game, having a destabilizing effect on the virtual economy. If more players purchase gold there is an influx of currency in the game leading to inflation. These views by the players are the main reason that user-based enforcement efforts, such as those put in place by Blizzard, are so effective.
Enforcement outside the games has been spearheaded by Blizzard in a number of lawsuits against both websites that engage in the sale of virtual goods and software developers who create programs to automate game play. To date, lawsuits against gold sellers in the United States have all resulted in settlements, shutting a number of operations down but failing to produce a sufficient precedent for future sellers. The suits against developers of automation software have been successful thus far as courts have accepted Blizzard's arguments of circumvention by the developers and copyright infringement based on unlicensed use.
Chinese Developments Edit
China has outlawed the practice of trading virtual goods for money (including both in-game currency and prepaid time cards for MMOs). China has been the leading source of gold farming operations and this ban should have a drastic impact on the supply of virtual currency. eBay also voluntarily implemented a ban on the sale of virtual property cutting out a major outlet for gold farmers to sell their wares.