The New York Times has an interesting article about gold farming, which does a lot to help us understand what gold farming is really like. The author is very insightful, both in his grasp of how WoW works (though he seems confused on details, like "night-elf wizards"), and he is able to communicate well with the Chinese who work as gold farmers. The article goes into greater depth than I've seen so far in any report on the issue, and even includes a video, apparently part of the gold-farming documentary we reported on a while back, to give you a first hand look at what the farmers' lives are like.
There are many interesting things in the article, but I'd like to highlight one particular insight here, regarding our relationship to these seemingly strange people in a far away country. "On the surface," the Times reporter observes, "there is little to distinguish gold farming from toy production or textile manufacture or any of the other industries that have mushroomed across China to feed the desires of the Western consumer. The wages, the margins, the worker housing, the long shifts and endless workweeks - all of these are standard practice." Many of the Chinese who moved to the cities from the poor villages scattered all about are facing the same problem. The system provides little to no opportunity to arise out of poverty fueling the demand for cheap products to be sold in the West. Understood in this context, gold farming looks just one of many industries arising out of the relationship China has with the US, providing everything they can as cheaply as possible -- a relationship neither country is quick to change. (Some of my own friends from the countryside work under similarly grueling conditions running their own small restaurant near where I live in China. They seem happy enough but it may be that they just put a good face on things for me every time I see them. Their lives are not easy.)
This is different from the usual textile sweatshop job, however: these people work in the same virtual space that we play in, and we the players are not happy about it: "In the eyes of many gamers, in fact, real-money trading is essentially a scam - a form of cheating only slightly more refined than, say, offering 20 actual dollars for another player's Boardwalk and Park Place in Monopoly." So true.