Different Perceptions of RMT
“Perception outranks reality in the discourse on gold farming, and – at least in the West – those perceptions have been largely negative, serving to homogenise, alienise, criminalise and moralise about gold farmers. That this has happened despite counter-evidence supports the idea that racial stereotypes and views about immigrant labour are remapped into cyberspace.” ~ Richard Heeks, Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on "Gold Farming": Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games
Our perceptions of the world help shape and alter the attitudes we hold towards the things around us. When most of us perceive flowers, for example, we hold a positive attitude towards it. When we see filth, we hold an attitude that is more negative. At the same time, there are less prevalent perceptions to the same things. Someone with debilitating pollen allergies may see flowers as a threat and think of them negatively, while anyone who has had experience with farming and home gardening knows that even something filthy like organic fertilizer can be positively used for creating healthy crops and those same beautiful flowers that scare folks with allergies.
Today's Devil's Advocate article is on perceptions, and how opening yourself up to the possibility of a different way of looking at things can alter your attitude towards even those things we as gamers find reprehensible, such as the trade of real-world currency for virtual goods and the process we think of as gold farming.
There are two ways in which today's article seeks to do this. The first is by posting answers to some questions I asked in an email interview I had with Ken (last name withheld by request), the CEO and co-founder of OffGamers, a site that sells codes for games and acts as a sort of middleman service for those who wish to sell various wares for games, both those supported and unsupported by game companies. The second is by posting my own personal reason for changing my own perceptions regarding the business of virtual trade.
Hopefully, the two can help paint an alternate picture for people (though not necessarily a strong, reasoned argument, mind you) to think about the world of virtual goods and third party services. In short, it’s not always about ruining a game for anyone.
Interview With OffGamers' CEO
The first perception I wanted to discuss was the very nature of the RMT industry. Did all RMT companies operate in the same way?
When I asked them that question, Ken responded by saying that OffGamers is a “monetizing platform for all game developers, game publishers, and gamers alike.”
“Through the platform,” he says, people “can access a library of thousands of game titles worldwide, be it subscription based, free to play with item malls, one off or anything in between.” They also act as an intermediary between potential buyers and sellers of virtual goods.
Ken mentions that since they began operations, OffGamers has served the US, EU, and Middle Eastern regions, while making inroads into the Asia Pacific market over the past four years.
I also asked about what services were popular within OffGamers, and surprisingly, consumers aren't actually always there for the black market virtual goods. Instead, they were like me, looking to find virtual codes for the games they play or want to play. In addition, they work with business partners across various levels to distribute certain products.
“Leveraging on our market expertise,” Ken notes, “their products are made easily accessible to a larger customer base complemented with our wide array of payment options.” From their Corporate Partners page, you'll probably see a lot of names, including that of Ultimate Game Card. These partners are companies that have MMO products across various Asia-Pacific countries, including the Philippines, and they use physical top-up cards to gain access to virtual currency.
Of course, no interview with an RMT company is going to be complete without a mention of their practices. In order to get a better understanding of their practices, I asked them how their virtual services work, and whether they “farm the gold” themselves or purchase them from players.
Regarding this, I felt I was a victim of false perceptions. Where I thought they sold and farmed the gold themselves, thus asking questions with that particular idea in mind, they were instead acting as facilitators “between buyer and seller, allowing one to find the other (and vice versa) through our matchmaking system.”
They also made it a point to mention that they work on a code of ethics with the sellers of the currency, saying, “We do not condone the use of any third party programs, hacks or exploits when it comes to gaming. We take matters seriously if a seller is found to be acquiring virtual currencies via these methods.”
I also asked OffGamers about their stance regarding virtual currency sales, and whether or not they thought it was fair or ethical to being so given that some games do not support a economic system that fosters this type of growth.
To this, Ken wrote,
“We strongly believe that what is obtained in-game by the player, belongs to the player and he/she can trade it at their own discretion.
Casual gamers get the chance to play with the big boys (hard core gamers) through this trading, by getting up-to-par items through virtual currency or real world currency.
The idea of being able to cash out your virtual goods also creates more interest towards the game, drawing more players and more in-game time spent. It's no surprise that Diablo 3 is adopting in-game asset trading.”
I also asked them about negative perceptions, and how they react to them. Ken puts it thus, “It's a common misconception that the industry is tied to hackers, botters, in-game spams, exploits...you name it, the list goes on. There are a lot of rotten eggs out there, but they do not represent the whole industry.”
He mentions their use of rules and guidelines “to ensure that our sellers adhere to the code of ethics and buyers get quality services in return for their hard earned money.” He continues this by saying that OffGamers aims to “shed a new light towards this misconception with the services we provide, by making it easily accessible, reliable and safe to all gamers,” and also by noting that it is up to the organizations to withhold a code of ethics to deliver the best to consumers.
In the end, one of his responses struck me. Ken mentioned that OffGamers was trying to work towards a particular goal, that goal being “allowing gamers to make a living out of gaming.” I find myself wondering how to respond to that given that I also make a living through writing about gaming, and whether or not I can get behind an empowering statement like that at the cost of a game's economic and security infrastructure. I think that one will definitely take more thinking to really reason out in full.
What Altered My Perception
My perception of sites like OffGamers was once a bit on the extreme side: gold farming and illegal RMT was evil, and the people who engaged in it in any form, whether as an employee or a user of such a service was also going to be some evil, game-destroying alien bug that needed to be squashed like the aliens in Ender's Game.
The thing that made me reconsider my thoughts was a Facebook posting a friend had linked back in 2010. Apparently, he followed OffGamers, and the company at the time had visited a place in Malaysia (OffGamers is based there) called the Ti-Ratana Welfare Home, and the members of the OffGamers staff spent the day hanging out with the kids there.
I followed up on this in my recent interview with OffGamers, and this is what Ken told me about that event, “It was a local orphanage called ‘Ti-Ratana’. We visited the orphanage to offer our help and visit the the children. Food and utilities were provided; we also kept the kids company for the day, spending time with them. It came as a surprise to us when the kids performed a dance in appreciation to our visit.”
Now, after reading about it back in 2010 and seeing the pictures, I thought to myself, “This is not what I expected from a company that engages in horrible activities.” The second thought I had was that they had done more good that one day than I had done in two years. The last act of charity I remember doing was donating clothing and goods in the middle of a horrible storm that ravaged my country. Even then, I didn't go out of my way and just dropped it off at a relief center.
It made me re-evaluate my priorities and my perceptions of what it meant to be a good person. I still dislike the more severe forms of real-money trading, but I learned that day to distinguish a company and its activities from its people and not take it out on the person working for it or lump all the employees of every RMT outfit together as some sort of amalgamation of my fears and hatred for a business or practice.
Of course, this doesn't excuse the things that happen in the name of real and virtual money, such as the incidents of hacking, but at the very least, I can make that distinction: that not everyone is, as OffGamers' CEO puts it, a rotten egg.
Disclosure: I purchased the Game Code and Game Time Code for SWTOR that was partly the focus of the previous Devil's Advocate from OffGamers on December 22. Questions sent to OffGamers for the interview above were originally sent on December 19 and were given back on January 3.