Venezuela used to be one of the richest countries in South America, but it has spent the last 10 years engulfed in a political and economic crisis. What started as the gradual crumbling of the country’s economy in 2010 snowballed into a devastating avalanche of crime, corruption, and mass starvation, leaving millions of people in the country unable to feed themselves or access basic medical supplies. Ninety percent of Venezuelans are now living in poverty, and one of the most extreme and sustained periods of hyperinflation ever recorded means that people working minimum wage jobs are earning the equivalent of $5 a month.
Against this cataclysmic economic and societal backdrop, millions of people have fled the country in search of better lives, with many more desperately trying to find their own means of escape. In November 2019, the number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants reached 3 million. Those who remain in the country have been forced to find innovative ways to survive. While some craft bags out of worthless bolivars — Venezuelan currency — to sell at markets, others look to a virtual land of opportunity, spending hours in front of computer screens and mobile phones hunting green dragons in the online multiplayer role-playing game RuneScape.
[There are two main versions of the game: RuneScape 3 and Old School RuneScape (OSRS). OSRS is the older and more popular version, which is favored by Venezuelan RuneScape players as it’s easier to run and doesn’t use much data. For the rest of this story, when we refer to RuneScape, we’re referring to OSRS.]
RuneScape was originally released in 2001 by British developer Jagex, but it’s only in the last four years that a growing number of Veneuzelans have started depending on the game as their main source of income. One such player is ex-accountant Martinez, who requested that his last name not be published to protect his RuneScape account. Martinez quit his job after the inflation rate of the bolivar meant he could no longer survive on the money he was earning.
“Over time my salary became less than $4 [a month] and I just couldn’t do anything with it, so I decided to try a game my neighbor was telling me to play for money,” he writes to Polygon on Discord.
RuneScape has been a lifeline for Martinez and his entire family. He tells Polygon he earned $450 by gold farming in RuneScape, and used that money to flee Venezuela and move to Peru. He continued to play the game and saved an additional $1,000, which he used to get his mother and girlfriend out of the country.
“RuneScape is a super mainstream way to earn money in this day and age,” Martinez writes. “Depending on which state in Venezuela you are from, pretty much everyone knows about the game.”
Farming, or “gold farming,” as it’s more commonly known, involves playing a video game with the specific aim of accumulating vast amounts of in-game currency (in this case, RuneScape gold) to sell for profit outside of the game. It’s nothing new, but it has become more pronounced as Venezuela’s infrastructure has been unable to function in recent years. Every Venezuelan player we spoke to for this story told us they sell their gold for either U.S. dollars or cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, which means that their hard work isn’t compromised by the hyperinflation of their own currency, the Venezuelan bolivar.
They don’t struggle to find places to spend the money they earn, either — a recent study estimated that 54% of transactions in Venezuela last October were carried out in U.S. dollars.
“I can’t talk for my pals, but for me without OSRS, my family would have starved,” Martinez explains.
“I personally know a lot of people that left the country thanks to OSRS and still know people trying to do it,” he continues. “I would say that almost all the youth that have had the chance to leave the country have now done so — probably either through OSRS or other means.
“Things are getting steadily worse over time. I still have my sister and nephews over there — you can’t have a normal job; a huge amount of families live off the money their expats send them.”
There’s an abundance of online websites that specialize in the buying and selling of RuneScape commodities. It’s a fiercely competitive marketplace, with several websites taking out Google Ads to appear at the top of search listings. At the time of writing, 1 million RuneScape gold sells for 63 cents.
No gold farming method is the same
Christian Alejandro is a college student studying geological engineering, but he spends his spare time around school commitments, usually 10 hours a day, leveling up RuneScape accounts in the Nightmare Zone, a combat-based minigame. This allows him to quickly level up combat skills for the accounts he’s playing, which, once high enough, are then sold for U.S. dollars to other players. He is paid an hourly rate to do this, and earns $100-150 every month.
Alejandro got the gig by posting a Reddit thread asking for work.
“I was lucky to find someone to give me that job!” he explains over Discord.
“Those who are trying to live off minimum wage have a very bad time and there are many families [in Venezuela] who only eat once a day.
“Runescape, in a few words, is my job. I earn over $100 per month,” Alejandro continues. “That’s a considerable amount — not enough — but at least you survive with that. Without Runescape, I would not have any way to earn that amount of money. The game is popular with many Venezuelans, since it is a good profit per month.”
Alejandro isn’t the only player we’ve spoken to who has been offered work by other players online.
One 23-year-old player would speak only if granted anonymity, as he believes that speaking out against the Venezuelan government could lead to him being attacked. We’ll call him Perez.
“I’ve seen warnings about posting things that may hurt the Government’s image,” he explains over Discord.
“They’ve censored all the media — TV channels as well as the newspapers.”
Three years ago, Perez was a college student living in a household that was struggling to put food on the table. He tells us his parents earn the equivalent of “two loaves of bread” a month. Desperate to improve the lives that he and his family were living, Perez started Googling ways to make money online.
“The first thing I did was to subscribe to r/slavelabour. I did several gigs and I made my first $100 in a month after subscribing. This helped us a lot as my parents were only making like $10/month each but after that lucky month, things didn’t go well,” he writes.
The value of the Venezuelan bolivar was getting lower and lower every day due to hyperinflation, which meant that competition for online work on forums such as Reddit was increasing. Perez got his lucky break when he discovered a thread from a RuneScape player who was looking for people to play the game for money.
“I [private-messaged] him since I met all the requirements, which was to be online at least six hours a day,” Perez writes. “He taught me what to do and how to do it. My first ‘job’ was smelting [runite] bars at the blast furnace. I was making close to 75 cents an hour, over $150 dollars a month.”
Perez now earns $200-300 a month completing “orders” for other players, which involves carrying out specific jobs on their accounts. He works between five and seven days a week, for at least eight hours a day.
“My life has taken an unexpected turn,” Perez writes. “I’m kinda depressed. I miss college a lot and I’m nowhere near where I want to be in life.”
Despite this thriving marketplace, the real-world trading of RuneScape commodities is strictly against the terms and conditions of the game. It’s an issue that Jagex, the creator of RuneScape, has been working to address for a number of years. In 2013, then-CEO Mark Gerhard said that 40-50% of the game’s active player base in any given month was buying gold from gold farmers.
Jagex will ban any players that it suspects are breaking the rules, but that’s a risk that many Venezuelan players are willing to take. Many gold farmers have multiple accounts: their main accounts, where they play legitimately, and farming accounts, essentially ‘burner’ accounts, that they use solely for making money.
With such a high demand for gold farming, many RuneScape players outside of Venezuela believe certain aspects of the game are now governed by it. RuneScape’s economy is just like any other economy — it’s heavily influenced by the economics of scarcity, and the growing number of people farming gold and items in RuneScape is affecting prices for a variety of different items. The extent of this impact became apparent when the crisis in Venezuela escalated to a new level early last year.
How the economic crisis in Venezuela caused an economic crisis in RuneScape
In March 2019, Venezuela’s electricity network collapsed and the entire country was hit by a rapid succession of blackouts, leaving millions without power or water. At their peak in March, these blackouts were occurring almost every hour for a week. Hospitals were some of the worst places affected.
“A hell of a lot of people died because of the power cuts,” Martinez explains. The issues are still affecting people today, and some believe they will continue long into the future, until the situation with the government is resolved.
“[People] can’t get treatment like dialysis and the hospitals’ conditions are insanely bad to the point that it’s a hazard issue,” Martinez adds.
The power cuts have become a major problem for Venezuelan players that rely on RuneScape as their main source of income. For Martinez, the power cuts were the reason he moved away from traditional gold farming methods to train accounts for U.S. dollars, as a sudden disconnection during combat could result in the death of his character and the loss of earnings.
“When the first wave of blackouts started me and the guys that worked with me lost almost all of our business,” Martinez says.
“Disconnections are regular but not as long as it was when they first started,” he continues. They can still affect you for several days depending on which part of Venezuela you live in.”
Perez has also been badly affected by the power cuts.
“Power outages are still a daily thing and it pisses me off every time,” Perez writes. He regularly gets disconnected from our online chats.
“We all know the power system and all the other state controlled systems are a mess,” Perez continues. “An example of lack of maintenance is the state owned ISP. We’ve been chatting for a few minutes and my internet has stopped working three times now. Hydro/water system too: if you don’t have water pumps you don’t have water. I could go on and on, honestly.”
When these power outages first occurred last March, they caused an economic crisis in RuneScape that dramatically impacted the prices of heavily farmed items such as dragon bones, Zulrah’s scales, and black chinchompas. As scarcity came into play, RuneScape players quickly discovered what happens to their game’s economy when you suddenly remove a large proportion of players from the game.
James Austen is the owner of GE Tracker, a website that analyzes RuneScape’s virtual economy. He has been surprised by the amount of traffic coming from Venezuela.
“We receive a steady amount of traffic on ge-tracker.com originating from Venezuela. They are our 8th highest country, which honestly is far higher than I thought they would be on this list,” Austen says, explaining that the website received traffic from about 17,200 unique Venezuelan users during a six-month period in 2019.
Austen says that RuneScape’s economy is usually stable, but it can be knocked by such a large population of players disappearing.
“The recent waves of Venezuelan power outages have had a direct impact on the state of raw materials and other highly botted resources in the game,” he says.
The impact that Venezuelan players are having on the game has become a divisive issue in the RuneScape community. The prices of heavily farmed items now fluctuate dramatically with the ongoing power cuts in Venezuela.
The community response
On Reddit, discussions about RuneScape’s Venezuelan community have reached a boiling point. One post — since removed by a moderator — was a guide explaining how to identify and kill Venezuelan players in an area of the game commonly used to farm green dragons. In another, a broken-hearted player recounted his experience with a Venezuelan player who was trying to flee the country.
A lot of the animosity that’s directed toward Venezuelan players is coming from RuneScape players who spend their time in the Revenant Caves located in the Wilderness, an area where players can attack other players. The Revenant Caves are pretty popular with Venezuelan gold farmers, who usually play in large groups or clans to hunt green dragons or fight other players. This, some RuneScape players argue, has made the Revenant Caves “unplayable.”
“Rev caves are the only thing that stops me from being compassionate towards them,” reads one response on Reddit in a RuneScape thread about Venezuelan players. “Nothing frustrates me more than walking in every world and being attacked by an army of rune crossbows and snake bandanas.”
“Jagex needs to do something about these Venezuelans,” another player wrote, adding: “I don’t care about their real-life situation. They play the game solely for monetary gain and it’s ruining the economy. They offer nothing to the game, they do not interact within the community.”
While some RuneScape players share stories about their negative interactions with Venezuelans, other players, like Pip Johnson, aren’t as critical about them. In fact, Johnson sympathises with the situation that Venezuelan players have found themselves in, and describes his encounter with one Venezuelan player as “the first genuine experience” he has had with another player online in over 15 years, after he was gifted items and given advice on the best methods to level up.
“I do think the fact that the Venezuelan economy is in shambles is terrible, and I do not blame anyone there for making money in any way they can, regardless of any effect it may have on the game,” Johnson says.
“Any one of us would do the same.”
There’s an influx of memes on websites such as Reddit parodying the situation that Venezuelan players have found themselves in. Johnson believes that they’ve become an easy target in the RuneScape community for people looking to make cheap jokes at somebody else’s expense.
“Anonymity brings out the worst in people,” Johnson writes.
“Some players think Venezuelan players are taking advantage of the game for personal gain and [that] they should not be,” he continues. “There is also a lot of racism in the online gaming community. Venezuelans are an easy target since they are so prevalent. Their population in the game has become somewhat of a meme in the community and this draws even more attention to them specifically.”
The creator of the controversial Reddit post detailing how to kill Venezuelan players in RuneScape, who wishes to be known only as Sam, tells Polygon that his post was misinterpreted by readers, and was just meant to be a “dark joke” comparing Venezuelan RuneScape players to bots. He says he was surprised at how quickly the thread escalated into racist comments.
Asked if he felt guilty seeing the responses to the thread, and the impact that encouraging RuneScape players to target players from Venezuela could have on that group, he says: “I mean, if there was a situation where someone lost four hours of farming, I would absolutely feel guilty. Let me be clear: I do believe [that] if me or anyone doing this was actually having an impact on peoples’ lives doing this, we would feel guilty. I think what scares people is the potential of this affecting people, though that is unrealistic.”
Sam notes that many Venezuelans play for enjoyment rather than gold — and a lot of the Venezuelan players we’ve spoken to say the same, that they play for enjoyment or profit from the game by playing it legitimately rather than by carrying out intensive gold farming methods. However, those players are keen to voice their concerns about the animosity they regularly face, and say that while they’re aware gold farming is against RuneScape’s terms and conditions, they’re only playing this way because they have no other choice.
“On Reddit, and in other forums, they say so many things [...] about Venezuelans playing RuneScape that I’ve just stopped paying attention to them,” Alejandro says. “Many people don’t know why we farm gold in the game; they think we do it as a hobby and don’t imagine the real reason behind why we do it.”
“There are also a lot of people giving support,” Alejandro continues. “I really appreciate that, and these people usually understand the reasons why Venezuelans sell gold in the game.”
“I’ve seen a real mix [of comments],” says Perez. “Some horrible shit from people who are racist or ‘trolling’ but at the other end people who seem really keen to support you. So far the good has outweighed the bad. Last month another kind stranger donated $1k to my [bitcoin] account because he wanted to buy food for my community.” This stranger has since been in touch with Perez to make this a recurring monthly donation.
Acts of kindness toward Venezuelan players aren’t rare. One RuneScape player from the Netherlands noticed an influx of Spanish-speaking users, and reached out to help.
“I basically try to help [Venezulan players] because they deserve better in their real life,” he says. “I offer them help and do giveaways because I have enough money. It helps them so much. They all barely speak English, so it’s hard for them to learn by themselves too.”
He doesn’t believe that the increase in RuneScape players is having a negative impact on the game, but that it’s actually helping the in-game economy. He tells us he’s met a diverse range of players from Venezuela, running the gamut from people who play the game to help feed their entire families to those who mainly play for enjoyment but will turn to gold farming when they need extra money.
“Venezuelans don’t hurt the game integrity at all; in fact they only make it more bearable for the high-end players, as they keep prices of certain items low,” he says.
As word of the crisis in Venezuela continues to spread, there has been a positive response from parts of the RuneScape community who are only now becoming aware of what’s happening in the country. Most recently, one popular RuneScape YouTuber posted a video in which he encouraged his 117,000 followers to help Venezuela by donating to the International Rescue Committee.
For Alejandro, more compassion and a greater understanding of the situation that Venezuelan RuneScape players find themselves in would be greatly appreciated.
“People [who] say that it damages the game and damages the economy of the game are only thinking of themselves,” Alejandro says. “For those people, a game is more important than the welfare of another human being.”
Martinez shares similar thoughts.
“I personally get unnecessary vitriol from other players but they don’t [recognize] that I don’t choose to live my life like this,” he writes.
“I had to leave my job as an accountant and start doing this otherwise me and my family would be eating from the ground. Many more Venezuelans are in the same situation. As I’ve said before, even though I know it’s hurting the game that I grew to love, I can’t put the health of the game over the wellbeing of my family.
“Hopefully, one day soon, we can all move on from this and enjoy the game as it’s meant to be.”
Asked for comment, Jagex did not respond to recent Polygon inquiries, but a Jagex spokesperson sent over the following statement when we began reporting this story in May 2019:
“We’re very sympathetic to the plight of the Venezuelan people, and we hope a political solution can be swiftly found to end the incredibly difficult situation in which they find themselves. We are aware of reports that there are RuneScape players based in Venezuela who gold farm, an activity that is not exclusive to that country.
“However, gold farming and real-world trading are against the strict terms and conditions that all RuneScape and Old School RuneScape players must adhere to; such activities fuel black markets associated with organised cheating, the illegal sale of virtual items, organized phishing attempts, and damage the health and economy of games loved and played by millions of people around the world.
“With that in mind, we are — and always have been — consistent in our action against gold farmers and real-world traders. We do not target Venezuelan players for gold farming; we place significant effort into detecting and removing gold farmers for gold farming in line with our Terms of Service, regardless of where they are in the world.”