Enormous container ships, endless strings of boxcars, 18-wheeler tractor-trailers blowing past you on the highway as you struggle to get your iPod hooked into your car stereo. That's the import-export business as the world has thought of it for decades. "Made in China" are the words U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow fears most, because to him they spell cheap imports flooding our markets and driving down the prices U.S. manufacturers can get for their own goods.
One of the things that has kept China's products cheaper than many of those made in Europe or America are the lower labor costs in the enormous Asian country, with its population of 1.3 billion souls. Many Western consumers are happy to sacrifice a small amount of quality in return for a large monetary savings. And more and more Chinese products are on a par with those of the West these days in any case, meaning there's no sacrifice for the consumer at all.
As gamers know, cheap labor costs - not just in China but anywhere in the world - can have an impact on their online lives as well. Everyone has heard tales of Chinese gold farmers who while away the hours monopolizing spawn sites in World of Warcraft, while honest adventurers are forced to look elsewhere for their experience points.
Just looking at a gold farmer in World of Warcraft or a macro-miner in EVE won't give you the first clue as to their typist's real-world whereabouts, of course. But enough evidence has surfaced in recent months to make it clear that the employment of gamers in low-income countries as virtual laborers in the service of a larger organization is a very real phenomenon. No container ships here. All you need is a fast Internet connection in Shanghai or Seoul and you're free to import all the WoW gold pieces you like, pay your workers a pittance and then re-export them via eBay or IGE.com at a tidy profit.
The problem most gamers have with such schemes is that gold farmers, whether they're located in Boston or Beijing, aren't really playing the game. World of Warcraft is meant to be filled with avatars all intent on more or less the same thing: seeing the world, gaining experience, besting mobs and crossing swords when the opportunity arises. The only laborers on your server are meant to be NPCs, and if those get in the way you are welcome to kill them. Well, most of them.
But playing the game can mean different things to different people. Rodney the Wrathful may be hoping for renown as the most vicious player killer in the land, but Luke SkyMerchant might want to build an interstellar ship manufacturing empire without ever firing a shot. Both would be valid roleplaying choices in any number of virtual worlds. If your favorite asteroid belt has been mined out, it doesn't mean a macro-miner was there; maybe it was just Luke and his employees, gathering minerals for their next batch of Minmatar Stilettos.
The difference between work and play in virtual worlds gets more subtle when you consider the significant earning potential that such online environments already possess. In Second Life, for instance, more than one player earns something like $100,000 a year from their activities in the world, according to Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Linden Lab, the company that runs Second Life. An avatar named Anshe Chung, one of Second Life's biggest real estate moguls, is famous on the Grid both for the reach of her virtual business and the real world earnings it generates.
Is Anshe working or playing, then? Linden Lab takes pains to point out that Second Life is not a game, but the virtual real estate business - where you can turn your holdings from barren desert into attractive, affordable suburb in a few short hours - has got to be more fun than its real world counterpart, especially if you're someone who likes to spend time in cyberspace. The fact that what many would call a game world can support more than one six-figure earner is an important watershed in the development of such online realms. But what does it tell us about the future of virtual worlds, and the economic potential they may or may not hold?