When the going gets rough, it might be time to hire a pro to kill the monsters for you, writes Miranda Yeung
Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, the World of Warcraft player basks in the ghostly glow of a monitor, his right hand fidgeting with the mouse as he sends yet another ferocious monster to its death.
The bloody battle at an end, he grabs the stash of weapons and gold, and moves on to the next fight. Once again his life hangs in the balance. Defeat is bitter - his skills downgraded, most of his gold lost - and he has to start again.
The frustrations of gaming take on a new dimension when your living is at stake. The gold and weapons lost to the last monster are this player's salary. He is not alone. An estimated 500,000 players - known as 'game trainers' on the mainland and as 'gold farmers' in the west - make a living playing 'massive multiplayer online role-playing games', or MMORPGs.
Gold farmers hand over their hauls of weapons and gold to middlemen who sell them online to other gamers for real money.
World of Warcraft, or WoW to fans, is the largest MMORPG, with more than 11 million monthly subscriptions - more than the entire population of some countries. On average, players of these games spend 20 hours a week slaying monsters or other players, and robbing them of their hoards.
As in the real world, moving up takes dedication and commitment - and firepower and gold, which means a lot of killing and completed quests.
A gold farmer can do that for you - at a price.
It is a lucrative market. With rich players willing to pay as much as US$20 for 1,000 WoW gold, the global market is thought to be worth as much as US$500 million.
Besides selling their hoards, some gold farmers also provide 'levelling' services, in which they take customers' characters through the repetitive, boring bits of the game. They also offer 'levelling workshops', helping their clients' characters reach higher levels, or acting as escorts to help customers complete missions.
Not all gamers, however, are happy about this phenomenon. Many argue it destroys the spirit of game. If it's possible to simply use money to reach higher levels, without investing time and effort, the game is no longer a level playing field, they say. In other words, using farmers is no different to cheating.
Moreover, some argue, it disrupts the game's economy. It boosts the prices of highly-sought items. When real money is involved, virtual crimes take place, such as organised looting, killing and stealing, that target weak or lonely players.
But gaming shoppers see it differently. They say gaming is about enjoyment, and purchasing gold so as to avoid tedious and repetitive tasks makes the game more fun. The maintain it is no different from getting an advantage by buying a more powerful and up-to-date computer, or installing a faster internet connection. After all, a player in, say, Bangladesh, would be seriously disadvantaged against one in Hong Kong.
Reactions to the phenomenon on Young Post's Facebook group were mixed. Clarissa Lim, 15, says: 'Once money is introduced into an MMORPG, everything changes. The rich players use their money to get trainers ... [and] those who are poor have to give up the game.'
But Vijaishri Vijayakumar says gold farming could be a 'cool way to make money'.
Meanwhile, Kitty Lai, 16, said the real fun of the game was in co-operating with friends, not in buying escorts.
'I never buy escorts,' she wrote.
'If I need help, I ... try to form teams with other players to defeat monsters together. The real fun of playing the game is to defeat strong monsters with friends, not with someone you bought.'