I asked him why he wanted such a role in the first place. "It's hard to find a job here and this job is easier to get. Also when I got the job I was quite young and I liked to play games."
As he went on to outline, the company boss (he didn't reveal the name of the outfit, "a very big company") rented computers in an internet cafe. "The computers that he rents are set up to only play WOW. The first gold farming company I was in was really big; I guess that this company owned at least 10,000 gold farming accounts. In my workshop there were 40 people who took turns to farm, some in the daytime, some at night. So the accounts are used for farming non-stop for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."
Most of his fellow players were young: the oldest was about 35. The company was so big they never even met their boss.
Mr Li says when he was farming WOW pre-Burning Crusade, he used two level 60 mages to work the back door part of the Stratholme dungeon. "I did this instance again and again to get gold and loot. Other people used rogues to do herbalism, mining or finding rare monsters to kill. But I only used mages for farming."
Although he started playing in the internet cafe, later he bought his own computer so that he could play at home. "I could play half of the time and do farming half of the time," he says. "That way it is more comfortable and more convenient." His parents knew what he did and had even given him his own room "to do this work to help me earn money for our family."
When asked about his pay, he says there was no hourly wage in China. "I was paid by the day. Every day the workshop set a minimum amount of gold that we must deliver. If I can reach this target every day then I get the standard salary. If you get more gold then you get more pay. But it's so hard to get more gold and you will be so tired."
Could he make a decent living from all this farming? "Yes, but every day I feel very tired. You can imagine, every day I need to do at least 10 hours farming. I'm always looking at the computer screen and always seeing the same instance and the same mobs. So I feel very tired," he repeats.
Nor did he much like the job in the end. "The thing I like is playing the game. Some people are happy when they get new gear from an instance. It's the same thing for me: I'm happy to get gold in the game. But I don't think it's worth the hassle. This is only a game. I always feel that I'm wasting my time doing this job."
He believes that this boss was rich, though, and earned a lot of money from the business. "They must have the capital to rent the computers and advertise in the newspaper and rent a room for people to stay in. The boss must be rich to have the business relationship with the top people in the company who organise the business, run the website and sell the gold to European customers."
Li denied they were using hacked accounts, as often contended by players and MMO companies alike. "All our business was done by cash. We never dealt with credit cards. On Chinese realms, customers pay by cash, not credit card," he reveals.
When his European WOW account was banned by Blizzard, he switched to these Chinese servers, playing on his own and no longer with 40 colleagues. There, he says, he saw a very different attitude from the MMO company. "In Chinese realms you won't get your account banned for gold farming. It's treated as a very common thing in the game. In European realms, at the beginning it was fine and they didn't ban accounts. But later Blizzard banned so many accounts of Chinese gold farmers."
Now he sees the price of MMO gold plummeting, just like the real world, and says he wants to do something different with his life. "I don't want to do this for ever. I'd like to find a job that I really like and is suitable for me, so that every day I will have a real sense of achievement."
The Big Business
After speaking with Mr Li, I spent some time hunting down a gold selling company that would talk to me direct. It wasn't easy, but in the end one, SwagVault, agreed to talk.
"Sophia", a Chinese graduate in English who specialises in marketing (and doesn't play MMOs herself), told me something about the company's background. She says it was set up in April 2004 in Washington, USA, with branches in both China and Europe. It started out by selling WOW gold on eBay, later expanding into a "full featured website covering virtual currency [as well as power levelling, game guides and other services] for all the major MMOs in order to serve the US and European customers".
It is now the largest gold seller in China. Sophia's colleague, Benjamin, then explains that the company doesn't "farm" the gold itself, it "sells" it.
"We purchase the gold from tens of thousands of farmers. And we resell it via retail platforms like SwagVault. So to some extent we are an exporter," he claims. "The only difference is that the goods are virtual and the procedures are operated in an digital environment."
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