... And The Ugly

... And The Ugly

And to wrap up this line, let's first look at some aspects the game that are best avoided altogether.

Gold Farmers & Power Levelers

Any group with millions of members or more will be shadowed by another group trying to figure out how they can make money off of the first group. It's inevitable. In WoW, the in-game currency is gold. A number of enterprising individuals realized that they could use cheap foreign labor and/or automated scriptable characters (called "bots," which is short for "robots") to play WoW constantly and explicitly for the sake of getting gold or collecting items to sell on the auction house for gold. They then sell the in-game gold for real money. Such players are disparagingly called "gold farmers." Many of these accounts originate from China or other Asian countries, so the terms "Chinese gold farmer" or "Asian gold farmer" are synonymous with "gold farmer." Try a Google search for the term World of Warcraft gold and look at the results to see the extent of the problem. When in the game, there are sometimes characters with obviously randomly generated names yelling the name of their gold-selling web site in the general and trade chats of major cities as a way of advertising. These characters are permanently banned quickly, but since they are using trial and start up accounts in the first place, they often come back. The problem is bad enough that Blizzard has made their opinion known on the official WoW site.

The problem with gold farming might not be immediately apparent. When I first started, I knew I personally would never pay real money for in-game gold. If others didn't have the time or knowhow to get their own gold and instead chose to buy it, so what? They didn't hurt me, and I learned to ignore the gold farmers. However, there are problems on two fronts: the first is the way the gold is farmed and the second is the effect it has on the game itself. Let's start with the second. In any economy - even a virtual one - any time the money supply is greater than it should be, inflation starts to occur. Gold farmers generate gold "from thin air" and then sell it to customers who pump it into their local server's economy. Over time, this causes inflation, which in turn causes it hard to get started as a new player with little gold and a poor ability to generate it (unless of course they too buy gold). Inflation caused by gold farmers does affect my (and others) ability to play the game.

By far, the worst aspect of gold farming is how the gold-selling companies get their gold. Typically, they employ underpaid and often underage workers for 10-12 hour shifts. While the working conditions are better than those found in the unnamed-famous-sportswear shoe company, that's only because the dozens of computers crammed into the one room requires decent cooling. To understand the seedier side of gold farming, read this article at the New York Times and this site dedicated to documenting the Chinese gold farming industry. Another method of farming gold is to use scripted or automated characters or "bots," which is short for robots. Often, these bots use hacks or exploits to do their work, which has occasionally caused servers to become unstable and crash or require unscheduled restarts.

Blizzard actively investigates and bans the accounts of those who are running human-controlled or scripted characters for the purposes of farming gold. The number of accounts banned for farming was in the thousands when I was playing. Interestingly, the longer I played the less of a problem it seemed to be. Pursuing the gold farmers continues as does the problem of players buying gold, but Blizzard also attacked the problem from the other end. High-end players that are in guilds actively doing end game content used to find it hard to get enough time to earn gold for items needed for raiding (such as potions) and repairs to their equipment. Gold was easier to buy than farm, so they bought gold. To alleviate this problem, Blizzard added fairly short, daily quests that make it easy to generate a reasonable amount of gold that can be used for such things as repairing equipment and buying supplies for raiding. They also increased the amount of gold awarded from finishing quests. Interestingly, Blizzard has to be cautious on how easy and how much gold can be made this way lest they create their own inflation problem.

Other than gold farming, another "service" players can hire is one where they pay to have someone else play their character to advance it to the highest level (or at least to a fairly high level). This is called "power leveling." It is similar to gold farming in that the actual person doing the leveling is an underpaid person working long hours. This service was very popular among players starting a second, third, etc. character. Some of these players didn't want to repeat the lower-level quests with their new character. There are also part-time services for those just wanting have their character continue to level when they aren't playing it themselves. Early leveling service entrepreneurs realized they could combine their gold farming and characters-leveling services by using the characters they were power leveling to do gold farming. At the time of this writing, the cost of having a character power-leveled from 1 to 90 in WoW cost from $100 for just reaching the level to $500 for reaching the top level with most or all of the best gear and abilities for that class. Recently, WoW has offered their version of power leveling called Level 100 Character Boost for $60 per character, which as the name implies boosts a character to level 90 (and includes a reasonable set of gear for the level). The World of Warcraft: Legion expansion includes one Character Boost for free. The player must still get from level 100 to level 110.

For players that just want to get a character quickly without any effort, it is also possible just to "buy" a character outright. In this case, the characters have been leveled to the highest level and depending on what the buyer is willing to pay, already have part or even all of the top-level armor and weapons in the game. Ebay used to allow individual account holders to sell their WoW and other MMO accounts in their auctions. However, Blizzard and other game makers threatened to pursue legal action causing Ebay to ban the sale of all game accounts and items in early 2007. There are still sites, however, that buy and sell characters for most of the top MMO games including WoW. At the time of this writing, the cost for a level 90 WoW character with a most or all of the highest-level armor set and other top-level items ranged from $800 to $1100.

Other than the questionable conditions under which these characters are obtained, the main problem with players who purchase their characters is that they play them very badly. "You bought your character, didn't you?" was a popular jeer used on any player that played their class poorly when in a group. I occasionally found myself in an instance in a pick-up group ("PUG") where that was the only reasonable explanation for how poorly some players played. It was either that or the player's password was found and used by their eight-year-old sibling. That or a poorly-trained monkee. Any player that started and leveled a character from level one to the top level on their own would have had to learn how to play it better than what I saw just to reach the top level.



Another unfortunate truth is that because in-game gold and some items have actual worth outside the game, stealing account passwords and hijacking accounts is a real concern. A number of recent keyloggers (Trojan horse programs that monitor and record keystrokes looking for account numbers/names and passwords) have been aimed specifically at WoW. A number of players have logged on to find all their gold missing and their items sold to a vendor and the gold from that gone as well - having been mailed to another account, which they have no way to track. It is the WoW equivalent of a mugging. One popular way to get such a Trojan horse/virus delivered to a WoW player is to embed it in a modified version of one or more of the popular game add-ons. As with anything downloaded from the Internet, players need to download add-on files only from well-known sites. Blizzard has stated that account hacking has become more popular than gold farming as the way to obtain gold for selling.

One good way to combat account hijacking is to buy and use a Blizzard Authenticator, which is a little device that displays a random six-digit code that must be entered after the password in order to log into the account. The code changes about every 30 seconds, so it would be useless for a key logger to record it. The Blizzard Authenticator is available for the cost of $6.50 from the Blizzard store. Blizzard doesn't charge shipping for the authenticators, and I would guess they sell them at a loss. However, these are a very effective way to safeguard an account, and at that price, there's no excuse not to buy one. Additionally, it gives parents another way to control access to the WoW account. Even if your child figures out your password (because it's the same one you used to lock them out of adult content on your cable channels) they still have to physically have the authenticator in front of them.

Blizzard Authenticator image 1 0f 1 thumb

If you or your child has a cell phone or iPod, Blizzard also has several versions of the Blizzard Mobile Authenticator (for iOS and Android devices). It's an application that functions like the Keychain Authenticator. It's a free download in the Apple or Google app store for your device. That gives you even less reason to not secure your account.

Addiction (or Time Sink, Take Two)

There have been a number of stories in the news about video game addiction. Since WoW has the largest number of players, it's natural that stories of addiction to playing WoW are big news. That's not to say such attention is entirely unwarranted. There have been apparently true stories of an infant in Korea that died of suffocation because it was left alone while both parents went to an Internet café to play a few hours of World of Warcraft. In another story, a girl in China died due to exhaustion after playing the game for several days straight. Another story tells of one player stabbing another player to death because the other player "stole" an in-game item. These stories can still be found online, but the dates of most of them are in 2005 - not long after the game was released. I chalk much of this up to media sensationalism at the time. The game's been out for many years now, and it's lost the media's interest. We don't see stories about the guy that lost his job because of getting caught spending a couple hours a day updating his fantasy football stats on company time, but just Google the term "fantasy football addiction" and you'll see both satirical and real stories. Such stories are just not new and noteworthy.

It is true that for the players doing end-game raid instances, World of Warcraft can take large chunks of time. Organizing a 25-person group, making sure everyone is there on time, has the items they need, and knows their tasks and so forth can be a bit of a logistical nightmare. Once inside the instance, failing at one boss can mean a lot of having to redo earlier work. Learning the strategy of the fights that works for a particular guild may take many attempts stretching over days or weeks. The time required to do end-game instances is one of the major complaints made by end-game players. Blizzard doesn't have a complete answer to this problem yet.

Blizzard has made a number of changes to the game to reduce the time commitment for these players specifically and players inside instances in general. (Time commitment isn't a problem for other parts of the game.) The end-game raid instances used to require 40-person groups - period. That's been dropped to 25 and 10-person groups, which results in less cat herding and allows for smaller guild sizes in general. A more recent change is that players anywhere in the virtual world can be "summoned" directly into instances to the spot where the party is. This aids in substituting a player that has to logout or is having computer or Internet problems. The design of the newer end-game instances allows them to be done in smaller chunks of time with breaks between major fights where the instance can be paused for the day (or night). Even with these changes, end-game raiding still takes a larger time commitment than many parents would like. You and your child will need to address this issue if and when they get to the point of running end-game content.

I don't want to belabor this topic longer than necessary. Any activity can become an addiction to those so inclined. Eating, smoking and even exercise can become addictive, so why would video games be exempt? As a parent, the trick will be allowing your child to play enough WoW so that they don't feel they are unjustly restricted while limiting play time so that it doesn't preclude other activities such as family time, school work or sleep. That's not unlike what parents are expected to do for any of the activities that their children really enjoy. As mentioned, WoW provides some tools to help enforce limiting play time, but ultimately, parents really just have to do their job.