Like a farmer who spends months tending to their crops, gamers also work for a hard-earned bounty.
With Animal Crossing: New Horizons serving as a perfect distraction from the daily tedium and stress of self-isolation, farming has never been bigger. Animal Crossing is decidedly capitalistic, pushing players to squeeze every penny as they pay off increasingly large housing loans to the game’s deep-pocketed taskmaster, Tom Nook.
In Animal Crossing, which was released for Nintendo Switch in March, the work can mean chopping digital trees all day, spending hours waiting for a rare fish to swim by your rod, or waking up early to turn a profit on turnips. But you won’t hear anyone complaining for one simple reason: Because gamers love to “farm.”
FORTY YEARS ON THE FARM — The concept of in-game “farming” has existed for more than 40 years and the word can be applied to any game that requires hours of grinding to collect gold, items, or level up. Gamers are so obsessed with these kinds of mundane tasks that titles, like Farming Simulator (2008), have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide.
But this catch-all phrase that describes putting in work to gain in-game loot has a dark past that rocketed it to the forefront of popular culture and it has stayed there ever since.
The gaming terminology originated from the practice of harvesting mass amounts of in-game currency and selling it off for real money, or “gold farming.”
Exchanging cold-hard cash for virtual wealth or power was traced back to the late 1970s and early 1980, according to a 2008 research paper by Richard Heeks, University of Manchester professor. New players of text-based dungeon crawlers like Avatar (1979) would pay more seasoned gamers to level them up or earn certain items that would normally take hours, weeks, or even months of gaming to achieve.
The “real-money trades” for these early role-playing gamers were described to be small scale and between friends, but the earliest detailed account I could to track down was $2,000 for a character in the early online game GS II. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 90s that large-scale gold farming operations began to form.
The creation of eBay in 1995 and the surging popularity of MMORPGs like Ultima Online (1997) and Lineage (1998) turned gold farming into an exploitative industry and led to the establishment of account traders. These shady dealers would pay others meager wages to “farm” the game’s currency which they then sold off to the highest online bidder.
Lineage II (2003) was an even bigger hit and demand for its in-game currency, adena, rose sharply. This created a lucrative market that took advantage of economic disparities between U.S. gamers willing to pay large sums of money and the Chinese traders who ran workshops where “farmers” grinded for in-game currency, sometimes for more than 12 hours a day.
A year later, World of Warcraft (2004) landed with a thud and the “adena farmer” model spread to other MMORPG as “gold farming”. It was around this time that the number of gold farms rose from “dozens to hundreds and then thousands,” according to Professor Heeks.
GOLD FARMING GOES MAINSTREAM — Gold farming is in a legal gray area, it’s technically not illegal but it’s an immediately bannable offense in World of Warcraft and many other games. This incentivized traders to keep their operations clandestine, but an influx of media coverage in the mid-2000s blew the lid off many gold farming rings.
The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, and others published stories about this gaming black market. Roughly six months after the Times story, Blizzard began a severe crackdown on gold farmers, announcing that it had banned “over 30,000 accounts” in one month and removed “well over 30 million gold” from its digital economy. Despite these efforts, gold farming continued to be a problem for games like WoW years later, and it remains an issue today.
Gold farming even caught the attention of the Internal Revenue Service in 2008. The IRS’s National Taxpayer Advocate’s Annual Report to Congress that year included various sections all about the practice, suggesting that gold farming kingpins were dodging taxing on large sums of money.
A CRITICAL MASS — While farming gold and items to sell in real life isn't kosher for a majority of online games, spending hours farming virtual wealth for yourself is completely fine. The origins of “gold farming” might be tainted by sketchy business practices, but it wasn’t long before gamers who just wanted to be rich in WoW, Runescape, and other online games emulated the same grinding methods that professional gold farmers mastered.
There are myriad videos, guides, and how-tos on how to earn digital currency in MMOs were published just a few years after gold farming gained the attention of the media, but online searches for “gold farming” reached a critical mass in late May and early June of 2012, according to Google Trends.
Many of these gamers were looking for tips on how to earn gold in Blizzard’s dungeon crawler, Diablo 3, which was released on May 15 of that year. The game is known for its replayability at various difficulty levels but requires a deep commitment to accrue wealth and find the best loot.
Today, farming isn’t tied to a specific game, it’s a broad term that says a gamer has dedicated a lot of time to collecting in-game baubles. At the moment, farming Bells in Animal Crossing is the talk of the internet, but once the next big sim or MMO launches, gamers will be rushing to tend to their virtual crop.
Just like they always have.
COINED is your guide to the language of video games and the people who play them. If you've ever been told to "get rekt" and couldn't tell if it was a compliment or an insult, we're here to explain where terms like that came from, what they mean, and how to use them in everyday conversation.
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