Dollars for gold. No, I'm not talking about those cheesy commercials. Rather, what I'm alluding to is the practice of players paying people real money for in game currency; something that has recently forced Nexon to take one of its most popular games offline for some retooling.
Gold farming isn't really a new phenomenon, it's actually roughly ten years old at the time I'm writing this article. Ever since the first person looked at in game currency and realized "Hey, I can get someone to pay me actual money for this fake money!" there's been no lack of people figuring out the best ways to get the largest amount of in game currency and then selling it for the best price they can.
The companies that make the games in which gold farming is a problem aren't generally pleased that people are doing this for a couple of reasons: first and foremost they would prefer if the only people making a profit off their game were they themselves, which is understandable. Secondly, they know that gold farming and people willing to pay can lead to massive bouts of unbalance in the userbase and result in a net loss as players unwilling or unable to pay for gold farming abandon the game out of increasing frustration at never being able to compete against those who do.
It even extends beyond the virtual world as well. Countries like Korea and China have people that make their living off of gold farming for various games, actually putting in work days just grinding out in game currency to be distributed later. Even the US has expressed concern, stating back in 2009 that "Economic activities in virtual worlds may present an emerging area of tax noncompliance." What this basically means is that players are making money off of the sale of virtual goods that they then keep 100% of, no tax included.
For all the concerns over the legal and ethical ramifications of gold farming or item farming in general, there's not actually a lot that's being done about it. Certainly once in a while you'll see an account get banned, but when there's an entire virtual world to look after and maintain there's just seemingly not enough willingness or manpower to track down every person that's subverting the TOS. So there's an undercurrent of "well, you'll just have to live with it" going on, despite the fact that the developers and the majority of gamers would seem to agree that it's a practice that they don't want happening.
It would seem however, that Nexon has indeed had enough, and is deciding to put their foot down in a massive way. Their popular MMO Mabinogi was taken offline on October 4th over concerns of real-money trading. According to this article on gamepolitics the developers state "We have found lots of RMT rising from ‘the workers and auto players’ during last holidays. So we are working on investigation over it and proceeding broad scale system maintenance to root it out." Doubtless meaning that they are going to try and find the worst offenders on both the buying and selling halves and crackdown with bans.
The question I raise is how Nexon, or really any company in general, is going to take steps to prevent this. Certainly you can hire people to look for suspiciously high amounts of currency being gained and then transferred, but the gold farmers will undoubtedly catch on to this and develop new methods or simply farm less over more accounts and make sure to keep the transactions under a certain levels of currency in order to avoid suspicion. Another possibility is of course to try and simply cut out the middleman by having the system allow players to buy currency directly from the game; this however does little to placate the people who loathe the "pay to win" mentality that gold farming and bulk purchasing encourages, and the gold farmers may still operate, trying to undercut the established system price in any way they know how.
The question of gold farming is a very difficult one to find an answer for. Nexon will certainly try to deliver one, but only time will tell how successful their solution will -- or won't -- ultimately be.