Is Gold Farming Mandatory? A Question in Applied Virtual World Ethics

The following propositions are at least plausibly true:

  • Most virtual world participants seek either entertainment (“players”) or employment (“professionals”).
  • Gold farming is generally carried out by professionals.
  • Professional gold farmers are generally from developing countries.
  • Professional gold farmers are generally in their jobs voluntarily.
  • Professional gold farmers are generally, by the standards of their countries, in “good” jobs, with reasonable pay, decent working conditions, and job tasks that might under some circumstances be considered fun.
  • Players are generally in the developed countries.
  • Developed-country players are generally economically better off than developing-country professional gold farmers.
  • Professional gold farmers are made significantly better off when players buy gold from them, primarily because the gold trade generates their “good” jobs.
  • A player who buys farmed gold with money available for entertainment is not made significantly worse off by the transaction.
  • A large-scale gold trade generally makes a virtual world less fun for players, but it does not make the world so unfun that most of them would choose to quit.

At least on some ethical theories, is it not therefore mandatory to purchase farmed gold? If you use money you’d spend on your personal entertainment to do it, you make the gold-farming sellers better off, cause no significant harm to yourself, and hurt only the entertainment of the other players. Suppressing the trade in farmed gold means impoverishing people in developing countries—for the sake of players’ fun. It’s possible to justify that, but it takes some contortions.

Some people will object that the inhabitants of a virtual society should have the right to choose the rules they will live by. That objection begs the question of who the inhabitants are, and why the interests of the gold-farming poor can be ignored. If the claim is that by entering into the virtual world, all participants have agreed to a rule against gold farming, the reply is that the choice to enter or not to enter is not as meaningfully free for the professional as it is for the player.

This question is one instance of the larger question of global inequality and justice. Indeed, recognizing the larger question provides a stronger counter-claim: there might be better ways to alleviate inequality than by buying farmed gold. (On the other hand, gold farmers are to most accounts highly industrious and developing sophisticated computer skills, so this might be a comparatively effective form of wealth transfer. Back to the first hand, the developed-country middlemen or developing-country elite capital owners might be taking most of the surplus. And so on and so on.) What gives the social question of farmed gold its piquancy is the collision of player and professional, so that the one might seem to have a special ethical duty to the other, a duty that both transcends the general moral claim of redistribution and is also profoundly shaped by it.

Of course, this is only the weak version of the argument. The strong version maintains that one has a duty not merely to buy farmed gold in the worlds one participates in, but in fact to join virtual worlds for the sole purpose of buying farmed gold. Morally mandatory leisure, if you will.

Hey, why stop at gold farming? There are opium poppy farmers in Afghanistan just trying to scrape together a living: your propositions seem to apply to their situation, too (except maybe the one about opium poppy farming being fun).

If you want to give money to gold farmers, why do you feel you need to buy something from them rather than just giving them it?


The author should consider working an extra hour at Starbuck’s and sending that money to someone who needs it, instead of having the same thoughts on the same topic that thousands of other academics and students have already had.

Spending hours reading and writing redundant blogs for personal amusement while people elsewhere are starving right now is morally dubious at best.