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Gold Farmers on the Web

It seems that there are few things more fun than playing massive multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft. I don’t play these games, but an incredible number of people do, investing significant amounts of time and money in them.

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published an article on what it seems to consider the dark side of these games: Chinese gold farmers. These are Chinese workers who are paid to “play” these games all day, capturing as much loot as possible so their employers can sell it to Americans who don’t want to spend the time earning it the old-fashioned way. (Not long ago, we blogged about an upcoming documentary film on the subject; the Times has also written about gold farming before.)

While Times writer Julian Dibbell seemed troubled by gold farming, I could not agree less with that assessment. From the perspective of demonstrating how free markets work, how reassuring it is that the exact same forces that lead us to import clothes and Thomas the Tank Engine toys from China also work when the good is virtual doubloons?

In addition, is playing these games all day such a bad job? My assistant Amber would love it if I paid her to do that instead of her current duties. My sister-in-law “Saint” Theresa Ewing willingly breaks virtual rocks for hours at a time online, just so that her son Scott can acquire the latest weaponry. She says she finds it relaxing. All of this made me think of the recent New York Times column that Dubner and I wrote, in which we pondered what turned something from a hobby into a chore. Our answer, more or less, was that it is a job if someone else makes you to do it.