What is Gold Farming and How Can MMOs Fight Back?

If someone asked me to go “gold farming,” I’d probably assume we were going to grab a couple pans and head north to a stream in New Hampshire, and with any luck, strike it rich.

But gold farming doesn’t refer to literal gold. Rather, gold farmers accumulate virtual currency by playing massive multiplayer online games. That virtual currency, or “gold,” is then sold to other players, despite the fact that most game operators explicitly ban the exchange of in-game currency for cash. Gold farming is so lucrative, people in China and other developing nations can support themselves as full-time gold farming ring operators.

The Washington Post recently reported, “Low-educated laborers in Asia spend hours each day advancing through levels of an online game, picking up gold, swords and gems that enhance a player’s status. Then gaming studios, which employ the players, sell those virtual goods to online retailers. Finally, the retailers sell those items to more than 120 million players worldwide, many of them in North America and Europe, who are unwilling to play the games all day to gather the items on their own.”

Some argue that in certain developing countries, gold farming is tantamount to slave labor. The New York Times reports that in China, gold farmers often work twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three nights off per month. “For every 100 gold coins farmers gather they make about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20.”

Meanwhile, a recent report by the World Bank suggests that online gaming has a positive impact in Asia because 70% of the industry’s revenue remains in the gaming countries, with most of that money going to studios.

I don’t know. 12-hour days, for 30 cents an hour? What do you think?

The bottom line is that gold farming negatively affects game play in that legitimate players are now unable to enjoy the full game experience. Being unsatisfied, they leave for other games (and often take their friends with them) and this damages the brand reputation and reduces the gaming publisher’s profits.

Many leading MMOs are finding it increasingly necessary to deploy a layered defense to protect against gold farming, chargebacks and increasingly, account takeovers within gaming environments.  By leveraging the power of device reputation, which looks at the computer, smart phone or tablet connecting to the games, the gaming publisher can easily connect together players working together and shut down entire rings in one sweep.  In one case, a major gaming publisher saw the marvel of Oregon-based iovation’s fraud protection service and took action against 1,000 fraudulent accounts shortly after implementing the SaaS-based service.

Robert Siciliano, personal security and identity theft expert contributor to iovation, discusses another databreach on Good Morning America. (Disclosures)

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