Digital imaginaries: How we know what we (think we) know about Chinese gold farming
First Monday

Digital imaginaries: How we know what we (think we) know about Chinese gold farming by Bonnie Nardi and Yong Ming Kow


Enter the Chinese gold farmer
Pop culture: Ni Hao (A Gold Farmer’s Story)
Low wage, low tech playbor
A more complex reality
Digital imaginaries




In this paper, we analyze “digital imaginaries” — social constructions consisting of a set of cultural notions, predicaments, and anxieties expressed in, and circulated by, digital media. We borrow (or perhaps appropriate) the term “imaginary” from anthropology, in which it exhibits multiple, unstable meanings (see Murphy, 2004). We use the term in a particular way, and with the qualifier digital, to signify certain representations created and sustained through digital technologies. Our notion of imaginary denotes constructions that fascinate — as things imagined do — and which hold a touch of the illusory. Empirically, we situate our discussion in the practice of online Real Money Trade (RMT), that is, the purchase of virtual items for real money. We consider one class of real money traders — Chinese gold farmers.

In what follows we explain RMT, and the role of Chinese gold farmers in the video game sector of RMT. We describe the imaginary of Chinese gold farming, analyzing the specific ways in which Chinese gold farmers are represented across multiple, distributed media including mainstream outlets, blogs, machinima, amateur and professional video, and film. We examine a pop culture representation of gold farming and compare it to representations in more serious media. We observe that the imaginary takes its place in a long history of constructing Others as what Ueno (1996) called “mirrors of cultural conceit.” In this sense, the imaginary is part of a continuous history, consonant with streams of thought in EuroAmerican culture.

At the same time, we consider the digital context in which such constructions are circulated. We observe that the digital imaginary diverts attention from a larger set of economic practices that constitute Chinese gold farming, and thus evidences a certain distortion. We argue that technologies of the Internet, in particular networks of cross–referenced hyperlinks, shape methodologies of knowledge construction and the means by which we come to perceive ourselves and others. Through a network analysis, we present a quantitative demonstration of the dense crosslinks of sources that construct the Chinese gold farming imaginary. We examine how an Internet–based form of knowledge construction differs from empirically–grounded, methodology–driven scholarly research, while affecting and establishing connections with such research. We highlight the difficulties that a network of digital sources manifests in terms of traceability, as well as the brute force power of repeated cross–referenced hyperlinks to confer credibility and plausibility.

The aim of the paper, then, is to inquire into the ways digital media may change our methods of knowing. The agency of the network of digital sources appears to concern certification and reinforcement, rather than content proper, but a strong web of hyperlinked sources renders it difficult to critique, resist, or refuse a uniform, ubiquitous imaginary propagated efficiently and evenly across the Internet. In this sense, content and digital medium are not entirely separable. In particular, the digital medium has the capacity to strongly shape the perceived validity of an imaginary. The digital imaginary appears to diminish the power of scientific or critical methodologies to question or change the content of an imaginary.

We turn now to a discussion of the empirical materials upon which our analysis rests.




People who enjoy online games or activity in worlds such as Second Life can buy virtual items with real currency. In Second Life, for example, one must dress one’s avatar. It is important to look good (Boellstorff, 2008; Ducheneaut, et al., 2009) — so it’s off to shop for something suitable to wear to the virtual jazz club, church supper, or art museum. Second Life RMT is legitimate; it was designed into the virtual world to give “residents,” as they are called, an interesting in–world activity.

But in online fantasy video games, such as EverQuest, Ultima Online, or World of Warcraft [1], RMT is against the terms of service or end user licensing agreements (see Burk, 2010). Buying and selling virtual items with real money is an illegitimate activity that can potentially disrupt game economies which are designed to be entirely internal to the game, confined to fantasy currencies such as gold–silver–copper in World of Warcraft.

This within–game–only economic scheme, however, forces a contradiction (see Ilyenkov, 2008), that is, a systemic discrepancy or incompatibility, as it butts up against a powerful commodity culture. If capitalism is about anything, it is about empowering people to buy and sell whatever they like. Why not virtual items? It is no more or less strange to buy an item such as a piece of jewelry in Second Life, or Merlin’s Robe in World of Warcraft, than to purchase a game of checkers, or a book (certainly a virtual experience) or really, anything we could think of that someone values enough to pay for.

Playing a video game well requires obtaining game items to empower a player’s characters, or items that yield aesthetic enjoyment, such as a magnificent flying mount in World of Warcraft.


Figure 1: Flying mount in World of Warcraft
Figure 1: Flying mount in World of Warcraft.


These items can be acquired within the game itself, but it takes a good deal of time to play the game long enough to gain them. Busy people may resort to RMT to move the process along. There is contention in the player community about whether RMT practices are ethical, and whether they impact play experience negatively by altering game economies. One player, new to WoW, blogged about how she told an in–game friend that she had purchased gold, and how the friend shunned her: “I told him I purchased the gold I needed for the dual spec feature. He was silent a few moments and then said to me, ‘I don’t even want to know you when you do noob shiite like that,’ and he put me on his ignore list.” (Suzina, 2010) Nonetheless, a healthy RMT market exists for virtual currency and game items (Castronova, 2005). Players risk having their accounts shut down if they are caught, but they engage in RMT anyway.



Enter the Chinese gold farmer

So much for the demand side of the equation. What about the supply side of RMT? Who penetrates virtual spaces to conduct illicit activities against terms of service and end user license agreements?

The short, and not entirely accurate, answer is: Chinese gold farmers. Gold farmers create wealth by playing the game as any player would (although in more repetitive ways to efficiently generate high value items) or through automation, i.e., the use of “bots” programmed to mimic player actions. The virtual items or gold which are garnered by workers or bots are then sold through Web sites.

What interests us about Chinese gold farmers is not simply their engagement in a new kind of economic activity, but the way we take time to imagine them as people. We argue that the very idea of the Chinese gold farmer, propagated by mainstream media, and through blogs, YouTube videos, and trade journals, is not just a way to talk about virtual economies, but a cultural manifestation of the perturbations and disturbances of a rapidly shifting global economy. Analyzing the available materials on Chinese gold farming, we examine the provenance of the notion, the specificities of the construction of the imaginary, the work it does to position “us” in the West in relation to “them” in China, and the means by which digital technologies rematerialize the virtual gold farmer into a very particular type of flesh and blood person. The notion of gold farming is not, we will argue, wholly an analytical attempt to investigate a set of economic practices, but is, in part, a kind of trickster’s looking glass in which we appear to be looking at them (gold farmers) but see ourselves — players, journalists, scholars, and, more broadly, a public interested in digital culture [2]. The imaginary is created, sustained, and rapidly propagated through multiple digital media.

Our notion of digital imaginary may call to mind “stereotypes.” The imaginary is not unrelated, but has some important differences. First, stereotypes are generally targeted at actual individuals (women, African–Americans, gay men, and so on) whom we believe we understand based on propositional knowledge about members of their class. We encounter people who are members of the stereotyped class, rather than imagining distant Others. We may even belong to a stereotyped class ourselves. We freely self–reference stereotypes — in solidarity, or as humor, or to dismiss shortcomings (such as the first author’s lack of a sense of direction). Stereotypes may be funny (the absent–minded professor) or pernicious (certain racial stereotypes in the U.S.). But there is generally some contact with an intersubjective reality, however distorted it may be. (Stereotypes that preserve power relations tend toward distortion.)

A second difference is that imaginaries are conveyed in a series of images and visual signs. Images may embody a stereotype (a picture of a fit gay man, since we all know that gay men keep themselves in shape at the gym), but the images are based on propositions constructed through practical encounters. By contrast, visuals build up, construct, and propagate an imaginary. Since we lack practical contact with the Others we are imagining, visuals concretize them. As we shall see, videos, photographs, and machinima are crucial to the digital imaginary of the Chinese gold farmer.

It is unusual for those of us in the wealthy Global North to pause to reflect on who makes the products we purchase. Unlike faceless workers in dozens of countries outside North America and Europe whom we encounter only through the products they produce, Chinese gold farmers appear to us as precise representations in a variety of digital media in which they are materialized in definitive ways, their very bodies presented in characteristic figurations. The factory workers who sew clothes, farm laborers who produce food, artisans who craft luxury goods, are rarely thought of. They remain invisible, disembodied. Gold farmers, however, engaged in virtual work in virtual spaces, have been yanked from the shadowy reaches of cyberspace, and deliberately (re)materialized into physical bodies. This production of embodiment — the work of imagining who gold farmers are, and our fascination with the depictions that emerge — indicate, as we will argue, the following:

  1. We are disturbed that people from “outside” have entered our virtual spaces, are making money off us, and remain beyond our control.

  2. Incursions into cyberspace suggest that we are not masters of our virtual universes. We imagine gold farmers as a form of cheap, uneducated, Third World labor in order to assert a technical and cultural superiority in a rapidly changing world in which we are no longer so certain of that superiority.

Who are these Chinese gold farmers?

The most comprehensive report on gold farming is a white paper by Richard Heeks, an informatics scholar at Manchester University in the U.K. Heeks (2008) opens his paper by observing that there is “not a single journal article” on the practice of gold farming (italics added). A small body of academic work analyzes player response to encountering gold farmers within virtual worlds (e.g., Steinkuehler, 2006) but there is not even one academic study of actual gold farming. Accounts of gold farming consist of journalists’ stories, blogs, comments on blogs, and a series of YouTube videos filmed by a former graduate student at the University of California San Diego (Jin, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c, 2006d).

In the absence of large–scale survey research or a series of on–the–ground, in–depth ethnographic reports on gold farming, the first question we must ask is: Why do we think gold farmers are Chinese? Reputable journalists publishing in the New York Times have documented gold farming in China (Barboza, 2005; Dibbell, 2007). The YouTube videos by Jin (2006a, 2006b, 2006c, 2006d) are compelling. It is quite reasonable to assume that at least some gold farmers are Chinese. But as Heeks (2008) says, we really do not know the bigger picture. Estimates regarding the number of gold farmers, where they come from, how much money they earn, and who their customers are, are, at best, “wobbly–legged” as Heeks put it (see also Heeks, 2010). Only Barboza, Dibbell, Jin, and filmmaker Anthony Gilmore (2009) have visited China. Lee (2005) conducted two long–distance interviews with gold farmers.

These authors do not disclose their data collection methods, and we would not expect them to, since journalists and filmmakers usually do not. But the nature of the available empirical materials is such that we cannot apply standard social scientific queries to matters concerning how translation was handled, how much time was spent in the field, what questions were asked, and how the sample was drawn. In academic work, methods are divulged as a means of evaluating research. The “wobbly legs” of what we know about Chinese gold farming are in part an outcome of the small number of sources, and in part the outcome of standard journalistic and artistic practice.

The dearth of hard data on Chinese gold farming is not surprising. The challenges of data collection are daunting; gathering economic data in countries such as China is extremely difficult. Gold farming violates terms of service and end user license agreements, and may thus remain below the radar, especially in larger, more established businesses with more to lose.

Heeks (2008) observes that we have reports of gold farming in other countries. He notes that these countries include Mexico, Russia, Romania, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and the Philippines. He nonetheless concludes:

“There is a generalised assumption that the great majority of gold farmers are based in China. In the absence of any better evidence, we will go along with this and guesstimate that China has around 80–85 percent of employment and output in this sub–sector.” (Heeks, 2008)

While Heeks frames the assertion prudently, and labels it a “guesstimate,” the notion that 85 percent of gold farmers are Chinese has been transmuted, outside the borders of Heeks’s paper, into a “fact.” This “fact” is repeated in the mainstream media and blogosphere without benefit of the standard academic waivers Heeks carefully packs around it. Gold farmers have become, perforce, “Chinese gold farmers.”



Pop culture: Ni Hao (A Gold Farmer’s Story)

In this section, we begin our examination of the specific contours of the imaginary of the Chinese gold farmer. We analyze a video called Ni Hao (A Gold Farmer’s Story). This pop culture representation of gold farmers is compared, in the next section, to the gold farmer imaginary as it has emerged in mainstream media and the academy.

The most well–known depiction of Chinese gold farmers is the five–star rated YouTube video Ni Hao (A Gold Farmer’s Story). Ni Hao is a machinima production, that is, a video created from recording, and then heavily editing, game animations. Machinima often includes an original soundtrack (as does Ni Hao) or overdubs recorded music. Ni Hao utilizes footage recorded in World of Warcraft. With nearly five million YouTube downloads, Ni Hao has been viewed by a substantial portion of the gaming public. It is available at other sites as well, so the actual download count is undoubtedly higher.

Nakamura (2009), a media scholar, analyzed the “racialization” of gold farmers in the video, the way their “Asian–ness” is a central theme. We wish to draw attention not to racial themes in the video (which Nakamura analyzed astutely), but to the ways in which issues of culture, social class, and technical prowess (or lack thereof) compose the video’s discourse.

The conceits of the Ni Hao video are that Chinese gold farmers are low wage, low tech, low culture, and low class. These themes weave together to imagine a Chinese gold farmer putatively very different from the Western viewers of the video, and inferior in distinctive ways. Player discourse on gold farmers is universally derisive; as Nakamura observed, “While YouTube [is] full of machinima or trophy videos of farmer–killing replete with racist imagery, there are no pro–farmer user–produced machinima to be seen.” Undoubtedly more nuanced responses to gold farming are to be found in the player community, but they remain unarticulated.

A critical line in the Ni Hao lyrics is: “10 cents an hour’s good money when you are Chinese.” This assertion clearly positions gold farmers as low wage workers — very low wage workers. The original musical score is catchy and the video well–produced. Viewer comments often note that the song lingers, e.g., “the damn song gets stuck in my head ALL the friggin time” (Ni Hao comment). The memorable “10 cents an hour” line is accompanied by a dancing female troll from World of Warcraft superimposed on a vivid red background with yellow stars recalling the Chinese national flag.

The words and graphics establish an economic divide between viewers, who, however working class or out of pocket as students, do not make 10 cents an hour, and “the Chinese,” for whom such wages are “good money.” The declaration of the absurdly low wage is a mocking rhetorical device to construct gold farmers as Third World, inferior. That viewers will never have to cope with making ten cents an hour (even if they understand it as an exaggeration in the video) asserts their superiority, their lack of need to engage in an activity as despised as gold farming.

The low culture of the Chinese is signaled through the following lines in the song:

Where did all the doggies and kitty cats go

Since the gold farmers started to show

Don’t want to know what’s in the egg roll

The repugnance with which Americans and Europeans regard eating the flesh of dogs, a practice clashing with deeply rooted cultural notions of dogs as pets, or even members of the family, affords the video makers a potent, if not particularly original, means of marking Chinese culture as barbaric. (The kitties seem to be thrown in for good measure.) While most of the video references genuine WoW elements, the appearance of the grotesque egg roll — outside anything in World of Warcraft — serves to illustrate just how low culture in China is. The egg roll builds the Us–Them dynamic in a visceral way.

Other elements of the video’s storyline flow naturally from the game itself, and yield emotional impact in a different way — by engaging players’ own experiences. “Farming,” that is, the repetitive collection of items for game wealth, is a native player practice, not an activity just for gold farmers. (Players use the wealth within the game, not in RMT.) The video hinges on the conflict for scarce game resources between Chinese gold farmers and players. The video portrays this conflict in several scenes, for example:

Fire elemental, ready to attack now

Savin’ all my gold, so I can buy an epic mount now

Try to shadowbolt, but the mob’s already gone down

When the hell did Shadowmoon get bought out by China Town?

The player wants to attack a creature (or “mob”) (the fire elemental) which provides a valuable commodity he can sell in the game economy as he saves for an epic mount. The player is launching a shadowbolt spell at the mob in Shadowmoon Valley, but the creature is already dead, killed by a Chinese gold farmer.

Players and Chinese gold farmers contend for the same resources. Chinese gold farmers are represented as encountering the high tech virtual space with low tech tools — picks and shovels. Shovels are not game elements, but images deliberately implanted into the machinima to suggest the manual, low tech nature of the work. Gold farming, as depicted, is repetitive and requires little skill. For gold farmers, the game is reduced to nothing but farming, which players also refer to as “grinding.”

In the video, then, Chinese gold farmers are imagined in a very specific way — as poor people using primitive (virtual) tools to eke out a living in cyberspace. The culture to which they belong is outlandish, and they have invaded pleasing spaces of Western leisure with grinding persistence. The lyrics repeat the line “It’s getting old” and “I’m getting sick of it,” stressing the ubiquity with which gold farming has supposedly intruded into the game.


Figure 2: Shovels edited into Ni Hao machinima
Figure 2: Shovels edited into Ni Hao machinima.


Players would like for Chinese gold farmers to go back to where they came from:

Not supposed to be here in the first place

I don’t know any other way to convey

How much we wish you’d all just go away.



Low wage, low tech playbor

In 2003, Julian Dibbell, a journalist writing for Wired, coined the term “virtual sweat shop.” He wrote about “Third World wage slaves with mouths to feed” who labored to produce virtual wealth for the games Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot. This account of gold farming concerned workers in Tijuana, but the term virtual sweat shop hit a nerve, and has stuck. It now generally refers to gold farming in China (see Barboza, 2005; Jin, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c, 2006d; Heeks, 2008, 2010; Davis, 2009).

We will analyze accounts of gold farming in the mainstream media, trade press, blogs, blog comments, a film, and a series of documentary YouTube videos. Across these media, depictions of gold farming, while more subtle than those in Ni Hao, are composed of similar elements. Multiple, distributed accounts develop the gold farmer imaginary by binding the low wage/low tech/low culture memes into the notion of an Orientalized virtual sweat shop. We critique the refusal of these accounts to examine a more nuanced reality, and their absence of a systematic view of complex economic practices. We show how the accounts are tightly connected to one another, mutually reinforcing a structure — a kind of “web on the wind,” to borrow a phrase from Bernshtein — sailing across the Internet.

As in Ni Hao, portrayals in mainstream media, blogs, and videos, emphasize that Chinese gold farmers work for low wages. The workers’ low wages are estimated to be about 25 or 30 cents an hour, although room and board are often part of the compensation (Barboza, 2005; Dibbell, 2007; Heeks, 2008; Davis, 2009).

The sweat shop notion contains a further element: long hours.

The New York Times, for example, reported:

“Every day, in 12–hour shifts, they ‘play’ computer games by killing onscreen monsters and winning battles, harvesting artificial gold coins and other virtual goods as rewards that, as it turns out, can be transformed into real cash.

‘For 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, my colleagues and I are killing monsters,’ said a 23-year–old gamer.

At another factory in western Gansu Province, the workers log up to 18 hours a day.” (Barboza, 2005; see also Gin, 2006; Dibbell, 2007; Davis, 2009; Gilmore, 2010)

The low culture meme is quite distinctive in mainstream accounts. Where Ni Hao robustly invokes low culture through the rollicking image of the doggie–filled egg roll, mainstream texts are more subtle, shuddering quietly at the lack of cleanliness in gold farmers’ working and living environments:

“Another operation here has about 40 computers lined up in the basement of an old dilapidated building, all playing the same game. Upstairs were unkempt, closet–size dormitory rooms where several gamers slept on bunk beds; the floors were strewn with hot pots.” (Barboza, 2005)

Heeks (2008) noted:

“There is a report of poor hygiene and poor food quality in some gold farms.”

In the videos, depictions of hygiene become culturized, portraying not just crowding or dilapidation, but an unmistakably Oriental materialization of poor living conditions. The camera lingers on rice bowls, sleeping pallets, the press of bodies against one another. While of course there are rice bowls in China, the question is, why are they made visible in a discussion of RMT economic practices?

In the New York Times video Wizards of Warcraft (Johnson, et al., 2007), the narration near the beginning concerns not the work of gold farmers, but where they sleep:

“During the day, the night shift workers sleep in crowded dormitories just upstairs.”

Young men are shown sprawled on mats on the floor, possessions such as shoes and shopping bags ranged untidily around them. Throughout the video many of the men are shirtless, whether sleeping or working. Close up shots of bare shoulders and backs substantialize Third World bodies. The video ends with a scene of another dingy dormitory, and the narrator remarks, “This is the life of the Chinese gold farmer.” The very life of the Chinese gold farmer — not just his work — is at stake, and is purported to have been disclosed and demonstrated in the video. A complex set of economic practices involving a chain of transnational transactions has been abbreviated to a presentation of foreign bodies conducting the strange work of playing a game for money.

A series of three videos recorded in 2005 and 2006 by Ge Jin, a former graduate student at the University of California San Diego, presents similar images of young male Chinese gold farmers. Chinese Gold Farmers Previews 1, 2, and 3 can be found on YouTube. Jin collaborated on the New York Times video; footage in the Previews is also used in Wizards of Warcraft.

In Chinese Gold Farmers Previews 1, workers eat rice with chop sticks in a run–down looking kitchen. While this video contains interesting interviews with gold farm owners and workers, it closes by showing a small, home–based gold farming outfit in which workers appear to be conducting business in a cramped, grubby kitchen–living space. The final scene pans to rice bowls and chopsticks on a decrepit table. Taken together, the various videos impart a sense of the seedy and slovenly.


Figure 3: Embodying virtual workers through depictions of the food they eat
Figure 3: Embodying virtual workers through depictions of the food they eat.


A recent article in the Guardian entitled “Welcome to the New Gold Mines” observed:

“After completing his shift, Li is given a basic meal of rice, meat and vegetables and falls into a bunk bed in a room that eight other gold farmers share.” (Davis, 2009)

Workers’ bodies (their food and sleeping habits) are shown in the context of the Third World surroundings in which they live and work. The title of the article, invoking gold mines, references a classic image of poor working conditions.


In Ni Hao, the low tech nature of gold farming is indicated by equipping the animated characters with picks and shovels. In mainstream accounts, the low tech theme is developed through the notion of “playbor.” Playbor is work that is also play. The videos show many scenes of gold farmers “playing” World of Warcraft. Heeks (2008) says:

“What do gold farmers actually do? They sit at an Internet–connected PC and they play an online game for the purposes of making real money.”

The work so easy it is play. Workers get paid to do what other people do for fun. That most of the workers are young males with little formal education is consistent with the imaginary of work that is merely play. Heeks (2008) notes:

“The main jobs created are those of in–game ‘playbourers’ who are predominantly male and 18–25 years old.”

The videos show shirtless young men, so casual at work they need not bother with conventional work attire.


Figure 4: Chinese gold farmers in Wizards of Warcraft and Chinese Gold Farmers Preview
Figure 4: Chinese gold farmers in Wizards of Warcraft and Chinese Gold Farmers Preview (which share footage).


Technologically, only cheap commodity PCs are part of the gold farming mise–en–scène. The imaginary depicts none of the technical infrastructure needed to run a business; rarely is there mention of databases or customer lists or spreadsheets or servers — which must exist somewhere. It is usually stressed that gold farming operations are very small, so that examination of topics such as management practices, liaisons with business partners, and customer service, seem less relevant.



A more complex reality

We believe there is another account of Chinese gold farming that examines a set of evolving economic and technical practices situated in a rapidly shifting global economy. This account does not deny the existence of the gold farming activity depicted in the videos. But it indicates the smallness of the imaginary, its failure to look beyond a vision of the virtual sweatshop and its Third World paraphernalia.

Of critical importance in considering a wider set of economic practices characterizing Chinese gold farming, we note a key omission from the imaginary: botting. The manual work of playing the game is displaced by automation through the deployment of software programs that obviate the need for a human worker to interact directly through the game’s user interface. Software is written, debugged, compiled, updated. Computers are monitored to make sure bots are performing correctly. Botting in the context of commercial gold farming is technical work.

The use of bots in Chinese gold farming is not new or unknown. Botting is discussed in Chinese Gold Farmers Preview 3 and by Lee (2005). In interviews the second author conducted in China with software developers who write extensions to video games, study participants reported that gold farming is often accomplished with bots. Players are well aware of the presence of bots in the game (although they cannot know who is behind them).

Heeks (2008) discusses botting, although it is downplayed:

“[Automation] is possible but there is little data to support or reject it. Mithra (2006) claims low wage labor can even undercut bots since the latter does have its costs.”

Because there are no academic studies of gold farming practice, and available accounts are small in number, there is little data to support or reject almost everything to do with gold farming. It seems premature to dismiss or downplay botting. Heeks’ argument references a blog comment by Mithra, an American gold farmer who wrote:

“The only new component is that the Chinese are weighing in with cheap labor where American automation leaves off. Honestly I think the Chinese will win this economic contest, since it takes considerable time and resources to develop a bot or discover an exploit, whereas the Chinese need only grind per the rules of the game. In fact, the only way to compete with the sweat shops in the current market is to exploit, so for better or for worse it’s narrowed the field on what types of opportunities to pursue [for Americans].” (Mithra, 2006)

It is difficult to see how Mithra might arrive at the conclusion that Chinese use only cheap labor for gold farming (how would he know?). The assertion neatly divides the high West from the low tech East, fitting the imaginary snugly.

Botting has been part of Chinese gaming since before World of Warcraft (Lee, 2005; Kow and Nardi, 2009). It would be surprising if botting were not a part of commercial gold farming. Searching with the Chinese search engine Baidu (more widely used in China than Google), we found advertisements for Chinese companies offering consulting services to gold farming companies, such as advised that gold farming companies invest 20–30 percent of their income on R&D. Part of these monies should be allocated toward the development of specialized bots, moving away from less effective generic bots. The consultants urged that bots be continually updated and re–crafted as games change. Mithra correctly noted that it takes time and resources to develop bots. Creating and managing bots is work that demands technical acuity; it is not “grinding per the rules of the game.”

Botting does not play well with the notion of the virtual sweatshop. It is unlikely that the BBC (2007) or the New York Times would discover fascination in Chinese people writing software programs. The empirical reports of Barboza, Dibbell, and Jin, while useful in drawing attention to the gold farming industry, and faithful to what they observed during short periods of reportage, tell only one part of the story. This small, incomplete part has come to stand for the whole.

The illusory quality of the gold farming imaginary lies in its capacity to divert attention from an examination of gold farming situated in a larger, more comprehensive scope; we are ignoring elements of gold farming such as botting, consulting, the lengthy value chain required to deliver RMT products, and the evolution of gold farming practices. These practices have yet to be fully examined — we point to their importance and the need for further research. Gilmore’s film (2009), not yet released, will address retailing and customer support in gold farming firms. We want to keep such business practices visible so they do not disappear into a narrow conception of Chinese gold farming that may obviate deeper understanding of the significant emerging global market in RMT.



Digital imaginaries

Because of our interest in software development in China, in particular botting, and the ways Chinese players alter World of Warcraft through the creation of software modifications (Kow and Nardi, 2009; 2010), we have been puzzled by the uncontested presentation of playbor in framing Chinese gold farming. An important story of China as an emerging technical power is attenuated by an imaginary centered on low tech work–as–play.

We examine the empirical sources upon which the Chinese gold farming imaginary rests in an effort to understand its provenance, and the reasons the imaginary may be at odds with a more complex picture of Chinese gold farming. The alternative view is consistent with a typical evolution in practice towards increasing automation (see Heeks, 2008 on the general trend). In what follows we endeavor to provide a kind of forensic analysis of the digital imaginary, tracing the mesh of hyperlinks that construct, sustain, and distribute it. We metaphorically visualize the structure of the hyperlinks as what Russian physiologist Nikolai Bernshtein called a “web on the wind.” Bernshtein proposed that the elements of complex physiological phenomena are like a web on the wind: highly structured, but floating and difficult to detect unless you look carefully. Bernshtein observed that a moving web is visible if you train your eye on it; it floats past undetected if you do not (see Nardi and Engeström, 1999). Bernshtein’s work preceded the Internet; he invoked a web such as a spider web, although the image’s resonance with the World Wide Web adds a double meaning to the phrase in the contemporary context. Figure One visualizes the web of hyperlinks that compose the digital imaginary of the Chinese gold farmer.

In Figure Five:

  1. A colored node represents an artifact — an article, a video, a book, or film — about gold farming.

  2. A white node represents a gold farming site.

  3. A red node indicates an artifact for which the author visited a gold farm or interviewed a gold farmer online.

  4. A blue node indicates an artifact about gold farming for which the author has no direct relationship to a gold farm.

  5. A line indicates that one or more relationships exist between two nodes. A relationship is either a direct link to a gold farm or gold farmer through research, or where the same author has acted on — cited or authored — both artifacts.

  6. A grey line indicates one relationship.

  7. A light blue line indicates two relationships.

  8. A dark blue line indicates three relationships.

  9. The number in a node indicates the number of its neighboring nodes.


Figure 5: Hyperlinking the imaginary
Figure 5: Hyperlinking the imaginary.


As seen in Figure Five [3], four accounts are based on research conducted in China — those of Barboza and Dibbell (journalists), Jin (a graduate student at the time he made the videos), and Gilmore (a filmmaker). (Gilmore, 2009 refers to a Web site about the film which has not yet been released.) The products of this work reflect the professional aims of the authors, i.e., the creation of news or art. Methodologically, they reflect the authors’ access to gold farmers, which may not have included high–end gold farming enterprises (or possibly they reflect disinterest in the high–end). The products evince a lack of need for sampling and constructing generalizations based on samples, which involve techniques and approaches outside journalistic and artistic practice. Other materials on Chinese gold farming are speculative (such as Mithra) or based on a small number of interviews conducted long distance (such as Lee, 2005), and for which little background is provided.

We believe the power of the digital imaginary lies not only in its cultural significance as an expression of anxiety and doubt, but also as a beneficiary of the capacities of the Internet. However small the actual empirical base, the imaginary of Chinese gold farming achieves a digital amplification effect through repeated hyperlinking. As Paul (2005) observed, “hypertext remains implicated in what it creates.” The amplification effect amalgamates multiple hyperlinks to engender a consistent, reliable, pervasive depiction of gold farming. Because we lack practical encounters with the Others represented in digital imaginaries, and because patterns of links are not visible unless specialized analysis is performed (as in Figure 5), we cannot easily verify or evaluate digital imaginaries. Stereotypes are persuasive, but always vulnerable to encounters with real members of the class whose actuality may pierce the surface of the stereotypical portrayal.

Virtually all materials on Chinese gold farming hyperlink one another, and most repeat and reference the four empirical accounts. News reports, blogs, and videos circulate rapidly, distributing a homogeneous story. Accounts of gold farming stretch across multiple media that seem to be, literally, in conversation with one another. As we saw, Wizards of Warcraft reuses footage from Chinese Gold Farmers Previews. Gilmore, Dibbell, and Heeks are linked through Play Money (both versions). Barboza (2005) is a keystone reference in many accounts. Heeks (2008; 2010) goes furthest afield to locate new sources, but many loop back to the four empirical accounts. For example, Heeks (2010) cites Debatty (2008). The Debatty reference is a blog with a short interview with Ge Jin. The blog reproduces images from Jin’s videos (including the shirtless boys and their messy sleeping quarters).

Some of the sources on gold farming cited across the mesh lack rigor. For example, Carless (2007) is a blog reporting a single long distance interview with a gold farmer. The interview is acknowledged as a translation, but the English is so smoothly flowing and idiomatic that the effect is a little too pat. Some of the references to gold farming are no longer available; for example, Wang (2008), cited in Heeks (2010), turns up a page of ads. Qiu (2009), in an otherwise excellent discussion of working class laborers in the IT industry in China, suggests that gold farming of the playbor variety is widespread, based on one news account and one unpublished conference paper. Neither source is available online nor archived in a library. (Qiu reports that gold farmers “usually sleep on the floor next to the computer they are using.”)

Morley and Robins (1995) wrote cogently about ways in which media shape and perpetuate conceptions of the Other “against which [our] own identity has been, and is now being, defined.” The digital imaginary of the Chinese gold farmer is consonant with their analysis of Others serving to “bring the projects of the West into focus,” instigating a kind of “cultural narcissism.” But the cultivation of images of Others now occurs in a dramatically changed technological landscape.

Morley and Robins (1995) conducted research from 1987–1994, a period of “transformation” to a “new media order” characterized by the dominance of a small number global media corporations. Time Warner, Sony, Matsushita, Murdoch, Walt Disney, and a few others defined and directed channels of information and communication. Another dramatic shift has occurred with the Internet. We continue to construct Others as we devise cultural cameos that make Us look good and Them seem inferior. But restructurings made possible by the more open nature of the Internet have altered the production of Others. New voices are heard. Big media, small media, individual bloggers find audiences; even a comment on a blog is audible.

More voices of different kinds saying the same thing coalesce into a contrivance of credibility that appears to defeat the univocality of single–channel corporate media. A multiplex of overlapping hyperlinks establishes connections that lend confidence and assurance to the materials they propagate. Doubts we had about bias in big media, our awareness of the narrowness of corporate interests, dissolve in the chorus of multiple voices that seem to come from everywhere.




Our analysis has a dual character; it fuses close attention to the minutiae contained within the content of accounts of gold farming with understandings of the technological capacities of the Internet that propagate the content. The imaginary of gold farming is, then, actuated via two forceful, mutually reinforcing means: potent content is coupled with efficient and effective circulation through powerful, technologically–enabled, Web–based tools. The imaginary builds a head of steam both ways: (1) the content fascinates and offers illusions simplifying complex, disturbing realities about our place in the global economy, and (2) repetition fueled by the ease of hyperlinking empowers the accounts, as they affirm and certify one another. The hyperlinks imbue the imaginary with the nearly incontestable credibility of consistency and ubiquity; they are part of the very fabric of the imaginary, increasing its perceived truth value.


The first author was piqued into this analysis because mention of her field research in China to study Chinese World of Warcraft players (see Nardi, 2010) nearly always prompted the fascinated question, “Did you study the gold farmers?” The research investigated ordinary Chinese players who comprise about half of all WoW players and are critical to understanding the ways in which software artifacts such as World of Warcraft are reordering social life around the world. The gold farmer imaginary not only distracts from deeper economic analysis of RMT, it effaces ordinary Chinese players whose relations to World of Warcraft are of crucial importance in understanding the culture of play in the context of a global artifact such as WoW.

Chinese players are much like players the first author studied in North America; they enjoy the challenges of attaining mastery in the game, as well as the beautiful game graphics, and the sociability of playing with friends and guildmates (see Nardi, 2010). These players autonomously plan their own play experiences which span a variety of game activities including questing, raiding, trading, and crafting — activities prohibited to gold farmers who are required to adhere to a narrow regime of simple, repetitive actions to accrue game wealth. Although some of the gold farmers in the videos appear “happy,” smiling and chatting, this may not be because they are having fun playing a game (as per the imaginary), but because they are not unemployed or digging ditches. They are indeed working; laboring 12 hours a day with only a few days off per month is not consistent with players’ notions of play, in either China or North America (Nardi, 2010).

Reports of gold farming in media outlets such as the New York Times Magazine (a pinnacle of media exposure), Wired, the Guardian, and the BBC, evidence our fascination. Chinese Gold Farmers Preview 1 has been downloaded over 1.2 million times. Casual Google searches turn up countless mentions of gold farming such as Doctorow’s recommendation of the Guardian article:

“Great Guardian piece about Chinese gold farming, an elusive and fascinating and weird phenomenon.” (Doctorow, 2009)

In some accounts the weirdness and fascination are pressed through a baroque literalization; real farmers are engaged in gold farming. In Gilmore’s film, Play Money, a Chinese man named Ma:

“runs a small powerleveling workshop just outside of Beijing. His employees sleep, eat, and work on his family’s farm — a real farm with sheep, chickens, and crops.” (Gilmore, 2009; see also Gilmore, 2010)

(Has any other class of laborer ever had their sleeping habits so carefully scrutinized!?)

Dyer–Witheford and de Peuter (2009) assert that “actual peasant farmers” work as gold farmers:

“When Blizzard polices the digital realm of Azeroth for virtual gold farmers, the offenders it seeks are likely to be actual peasant farmers who have left or been thrown off their fields by Chinese capitalism’s enclosures, abandoning an impoverished and ecologically devastated countryside for its cyber–connected cities.” (Dyer–Witheford and de Peuter, 2009)

While migration from rural areas to cities is an important aspect of the economic landscape in China, images of gold farmers as “actual peasant farmers” seem to serve the imaginary more than functioning to delineate worker demographics. Eighteen–year–old boys are not generally members of any specific workforce, and certainly they are not “farmers” — a difficult profession requiring the accumulation of years of expertise. The vast rural areas of China encompass a good deal more than work in “fields”; artisans, craftsmen, merchants, tradespeople, government officials, teachers, and practitioners of medical arts populate rural China. We have no studies in which the previous professions or work experience of gold farmers are documented.

The digital imaginary of Chinese gold farmers has not faded away. The first mentions are from 2003. The storyline is stable, and continues to be repeated, and to move to new media. Ueno (1996) spoke of Orientalism as “the subordination of others in various areas of the world through a sort of mirror of cultural conceit.” The mirror reflects us back to ourselves as culturally superior. At the same time, it expresses and reveals agitation and anxiety. The troubling notion of a huge, powerful China has not abated; if anything it grows in our imagination, nourished with knowledge of fresh incursions, now into realms of virtual experience.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek observed that “ethnic fantasies” are of two basic types: (1) the ethnic Other has a peculiar access to life–enhancing enjoyment, and (2) the ethnic Other is busy attempting to steal our life–enhancing enjoyment (Žižek, 1989; see Myers, 2003). While these observations do not exhaust the meanings of the gold farming imaginary, it is striking that the second observation precisely identifies a disturbance we experience as gold farmers enter our pleasure domes of virtual gaming. For viewers of Ni Hao, enjoyment is corroded as virtual economies are upset and strangers invade paradise. Media and academic discourse invest such power in the gold farming imaginary through the concept of playbor that play must merge with work. The very notion of play is fatally weakened; we can no longer sustain a clear distinction between play (a kind of life–enhancing enjoyment) and work.

Digitally–accelerated repetition

The Chinese Other has been part of American consciousness, on and off, at various times since the nineteenth century. However, digital media seem to scaffold a credibility and plausibility going beyond, for example, the old “yellow peril” imaginaries that depicted nineteenth and early twentieth century Asian immigrants to the U.S. as uncouth devourers of American jobs. Notions of yellow peril derived not from top drawer news outlets, but emerged in pulp fiction and tabloid news.


Figure 6: An expression of the yellow peril
Figure 6: An expression of the “yellow peril.”


While recognizing the immense influence such sources may assert, the current dissolve of amateur accounts, mainstream media, and academic discussions —all linked in a round robin of mutual hyperlinked citation — appears to suggest a new dynamic in which distinctions between sources with differing levels of credibility and accountability yield to a single imaginary dominating through force of fast, easy replication across the Internet.

In some regards, the dissolve is the opposite of the process described by Lanzara (this issue) in which the introduction of new digital media exposed and problematized practice. Practitioners became more, rather than less, aware of their practice. The difference may be attributable to the locales in which the introduction of new digital materials has occurred. Lanzara described established practices with distinctive, historical configurations in the domains of music and jurisprudence. These more bounded practices supported a reflexive “reweaving” of representations and routines, undertaken from the foundation of a stable, shared practice. The digital imaginary, by contrast, is a highly distributed phenomenon, touching many interlinked practices but central to none, and therefore less liable to the kinds of purposeful reflection and remediation Lanzara documented.

Kallinikos, et al. (this issue) argue that digital technology produces “a context of experience in which certainties of recurring and recognizable objects are on the wane.” We have found, however, that digital technology may in some cases yield the opposite effect, perpetuating recurring and recognizable objects such as the imaginary of the Chinese gold farmer. Through the ease with which culturally urgent objects are distributed across news accounts, blogs, videos, and machinima, the Internet exhibits a powerful agency elevating and sustaining compelling imaginaries. Kallinikos, et al. point to “distributedness” as a key attribute of digital objects. We agree with this claim, but find that processes of distribution also have the capacity to cement digital objects in our minds, rather than dissipating them.




The Third World inflection of accounts of gold farming — stretched across multiple media in small bite size pieces — reinforces a notion that those of us in the “developed” nations of North America and Europe continue to constitute the high–tech, high–culture world. This world evinces order and cleanliness, and is characterized by advanced technical and economic infrastructures. This world, however, is not secure; it is threatened by grinding Chinese.

Accounts of gold farming sometimes express a measure of sympathy for the young men whose repetitive work garners low pay. But the activity of gold farming is not represented as savvy, sophisticated, technically advanced, complex, or progressive. The emerging economic enterprise of gold farming is abridged to young men playing a video game for money amidst unsettling, Third World surroundings.


Figure 7: Photograph from China's New Gold Farm
Figure 7: Photograph from China’s New Gold Farm (Gilmore, 2010).


Kallinikos, et al. (this issue) cite haunting lines from Borges’ “The House of Asterion”:

“Each part of the house repeats many times, any particular place is another placeThe house is the size of the world; better said, it is the world.” (Borges, 1949)

We invoke these same lines as a metaphor for the manner in which a single digital imaginary may come to stand for a more complex reality of which it is but one particular instance. So alive and present is Asterion’s house for him; so vital and complete, it becomes the world. The house–world fortifies illusions of grandeur as Asterion shrinks from the “the hoi polloi” whose “discolored faces” pain him. The Chinese gold farmer imaginary, in particular its construction of low culture, summons something akin to Asterion’s fastness in which he maintains himself as both distant and distinct from those lesser others outside his door. Asterion shows an imaginary double of himself around his house, pointing out its features “with great reverence.” The mirror sees its own reflection in its best light.

We conclude our discussion of the imaginary of Chinese gold farmers with two observations.

First, the compelling nature of the imaginary is evident in its provenance in two separate groups: machinima makers and viewers, on the one hand, and a media–academy constellation on the other. We documented the ways in which media and academic accounts hyperlink one another, relying on a few, shared empirical materials. The common resources on which they depend might account in part for the unified vision of Chinese gold farming as low wage, low tech, low culture. But the independence of the machinima presentation, with its identical memes, suggests that the mirror of cultural conceit is a product of common cultural propensities that seek to render, in a time of uncertainty, a notion of clean/orderly/high–tech/high–culture EuroAmerican societies through a depiction of their putative opposites constructed in the imaginary of the Chinese gold farmer.

Second, we observe that Internet technology endows a unitary imaginary with plausibility and reasonableness, breathing life into it through a profusion of densely connected, cross–referenced hyperlinks. Such effects of digital media appear problematic for deep, methodology–based inquiry, being ill–disposed toward careful, deliberate study deploying the complex (and often slow) empirical methodologies of economics, sociology, anthropology, information science, and statistics. These methodologies cultivate knowledge through accounts grounded in in–depth study of local activity, as for ethnographic investigation, or through statistically meaningful surveys and quantitative research. We have no such empirical accounts of, for example, sophisticated gold farming practices like botting, or detailed reports of the reach of consulting firms that inform gold farming operations, and how they are influencing and transforming these businesses.

Such accounts, as well as basic descriptive materials, are, as Heeks (2008; 2010) observed, absent for Chinese gold farming. In their stead is a kind of hyperlinked reality TV of videos, machinima, and photographs, supplemented with brief journalistic accounts. Are digital imaginaries, caught up are they are in a dense, self–referential Web, incapable of exhibiting the care and patience registered in empirically–based academic study? Is the slower pace of such study incompatible with the haste and immediacy of participatory Web–based knowledge production? Are norms of traditional inquiries, which carefully limit and bound their claims, antithetical to our preference, so easily satisfied on the Internet, for that which is weird and fascinating? And do we have time, as we rush from one link to another, to examine what lies beneath each?

It is certainly too soon to answer such questions. Our analysis of Chinese gold farming is a demonstration of the power of hyperlinks to assign truth value to digital imaginaries. Imaginaries, with their capacity to fascinate, and their articulation of cultural anxieties, may locate arenas in which to initiate more probing study. But care should be taken that we do not construct knowledge that feeds initial fascination but goes no further, and that the part, however visually and culturally potent, however seemingly consistent and reliable, is not taken for the whole. End of article


About the authors

Bonnie Nardi is a professor in the Department of Informatics, School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of many scientific books and articles concerning technology in human activity. Her most recent book is My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft (University of Michigan Press, 2010).
E–mail: nardi [at] uci [dot] edu

Yong Ming Kow is investigating modding communities as a subset of the emerging new media culture. His other works, co–authored with Bonnie Nardi (advisor), include a book chapter on cultures of modding communities in the U.S. and China, and on the new media construction of distorted images of the Chinese gold farmer (forthcoming in First Monday). His research interests include creativity and the new media, cross–cultural research methodology, anthropology in design, and network analysis. Yong Ming is currently working on his Ph.D. dissertation at the Department of Informatics, School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine.
E–mail: mail [at] kowym [dot] com



We are grateful to Jannis Kallinikos, Giovan Francesco Lanzara, Lisa Nakamura, and Chris Paul for insightful comments on earlier versions of the paper. We thank the second author’s study participants in China who discussed gold farming with us. Errors and shortcomings are our own.



1. Some multiplayer games have millions of participants worldwide. For example, World of Warcraft, with 11 million players, is available in English, two versions of Chinese, Korean, French, German, Russian, and two versions of Spanish. About half of all WoW players are Chinese, about one quarter are North American or European, while the rest reside in Asia, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, South and Central America.

2. The Chinese gold farmer imaginary is a kind of inversion of Anderson’s (1983) “imagined communities” in which people directly imagine themselves.

3. The network diagram was constructed with Pajek, a free social network analysis software suite (Pajek Wiki). The authors of Pajek — Vladimir Batagelj and Andrej Mrvar — assembled a collection of the most commonly used network analysis algorithms. The network in Figure Five was analyzed using degree centrality, and the visualization generated using the Kamada–Kawai energy diagram. For more information, see Nooy, et al. (2005).



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Editorial history

Paper received 4 May 2010; accepted 10 May 2010.

Creative Commons License
“Digital imaginaries: How we know what we (think we) know about Chinese gold farming”
by Bonnie Nardi and Yong Ming Kow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Digital imaginaries: How we know what we (think we) know about Chinese gold farming
by Bonnie Nardi and Yong Ming Kow.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 6 - 7 June 2010

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