Invisible Labor, Invisible Play: Online Gold Farming and the Boundary Between Jobs and Games

Julian Dibbell · 18 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 3

Abstract

When does work become play and play become work? Courts have considered the question in a variety of economic contexts, from student athletes seeking recognition as employees to professional blackjack players seeking to be treated by casinos just like casual players. Here, this question is applied to a relatively novel context: that of online gold farming, a gray-market industry in which wage-earning workers, largely based in China, are paid to play fantasy massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) that reward them with virtual items that their employers sell for profit to the same games’ casual players. Gold farming is clearly a job (and under the terms of service of most MMOs, clearly prohibited), yet as shown, US law itself provides no clear means of distinguishing the efforts of the gold farmer from those of the casual player. Viewed through the lens of US labor and employment law, the unpaid players of a typical MMO can arguably be classified as employees of the company that markets the game. Viewed through case law governing when the work of professional players does and does not constitute game play, gold farmers arguably are players in good standing. As a practical matter, these arguments suggest new ways of approaching the regulation of so-called virtual property and of online gaming in general. More broadly, the very viability of these arguments shows that the line between work and play is not so much an empirical fact as it is a social one, produced by negotiations in which the law has a leading role to play. This insight contributes to an ongoing debate about commodification and play that grows more urgent as digital technologies suffuse the world’s economy with gaming and its logic.