By Neville Gruhler
Juan Carlos, 22, a Deep Sea Diver from Anzoategui, works on the online role-playing game Runescape full-time. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos.
In Venezuela, impoverished citizens affected by the devaluation of the bolivar, Venezuela’s national currency, have turned to online video games as a source of income. The country is facing an economic crisis as its citizens scramble for extra sources of income with which to feed their families. “Gold farming” has been around for a long time, and is the occupation of accumulating virtual wealth within an online game and selling that virtual “gold” for real-life money. Gold farmers generally make very little compared to even a minimum-wage job in the first-world.
In an online voice call, Venezuelan gold farmer Leo Rodriguez, 28, offered insight as to why many Venezuelans have turned to video games for income. Rodriguez plays Runescape for money, a popular game among Venezuelan gold farmers for its accessibility and popularity in wealthier countries such as the U.S. and the U.K.
“For the Venezuelan, to work is something of nature. I am a professional in the area of systems and information. I can say that, about 10 years ago, I could support my needs with my profession. But the economy, based on the devaluation of the national currency, made us look for other income options as gold farmers, freelancers and others, allowing us to earn a little more than the base salary to meet the basic needs, since the monthly minimum wage established nationally does not meet the basic needs for balanced food,” said Rodriguez.
As of April, the minimum wage in Venezuela amounts to less than $7 a month. “A normal person, to eat well, needs $10 to feed two or three people, and playing Runescape—you can barely win $3 to $5 a day. So food is a daily struggle. You cannot get food in the supermarkets normally. Meat, chicken, fish…there is none. There are few places that sell them and everything is worth the dollar.” In a country where earning a living wage is nearly impossible, it’s easy to see the benefits of earning a few more dollars a day. Gold farmers have found a way to barely keep their heads above water, while others in the country look for different means of survival. “We are gold farmers by necessity, looking for an economic exit where we can have some monetary stability. It is not common, but there are many currently playing for the same reason,” says Rodriguez.
Most of the gold farmers in Venezuela are young people who are already familiar with video games. However, the economic collapse has drastically affected the lives of all Venezuelan citizens.
“People not interested in video games do Bitcoin mining—trading crypto, webcam shows, selling nudes, prostitution, sell drugs, steal things, kidnap people, extortion, scams. That would happen in any country. If you don’t have enough to feed your family, what are you gonna do if you don’t find work? Bad things—steal, kidnap, drug trafficking, etc.,” said Juan Carlos, 22. Carlos has been a gold farmer on Runescape full time since 2017. He works on the game for up to 12 hours a day. And on a good day, he can earn up to three times the national monthly salary in one sitting—a whopping $18. Still, this source of income is what keeps him and many others off of the streets. “A young man without much money can start to change his life with a shitty computer and Runescape,” said Carlos.
For Carlos and Rodriguez, working at a normal job in Venezuela to make a living is hardly a practical option. The problems posed by hyperinflation make living a “regular life” incredibly difficult.
“Five years ago you could take a bus at every hour, really fast, five minutes or less. Now, to take a bus, you have to wait like one or two hours. Someone can rob you in that time. For having the cash for pay that bus, you have to make a big queue at the bank. Five years ago, it was normal to use paper money for everything. Now it’s weird—everything is with debit cards. The whole country does not have enough paper money,” says Carlos.
While the ultimate cause of Venezuela’s economic implosion is a complicated political issue, even citizens who support Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, believe the economic problems stem from mismanagement of their country’s resources. They feel the Venezuelan government doesn’t value its citizens, who are the lifeblood of the country. This sentiment is likely caused by corruption within the higher levels of government.
“There is no national administration that protects the interests of the Venezuelan people. We are a rich country that impoverishes its people. Just as there are good Venezuelans, there are also Venezuelans who do not cooperate with improving this situation. They only take advantage. In the middle of the crisis there are opportunities. But these opportunities affect others,” said Rodriguez, who believes the turmoil is as much a social issue as it is political.
“All government must be respected. But to respect, you need to be respected, and that is not happening. [Maduro] lost the respect of the people for failing to respect the people.” The lack of respect held by Maduro’s administration for the common Venezuelan people is reflected by the president’s approval rating, which was around 15 percent in January according to the Los Angeles Times.
Despite the crisis at hand, and being forced into gold farming by a crumbling economic system, Rodriguez is optimistic for the future of his country.
“No Venezuelan wants to flee from this beautiful country. But I have friends who, of necessity, have to go to find a better quality of life for their family. For my Venezuela, it is the best country in the world. It has a united people that reflects love, kindness and charisma everywhere. I would not change it for anything.”