Venezuela’s economic and political woes are well known, with the oil-rich country also suffering from widespread corruption and an inflated currency, the bolivar. What is perhaps lesser known is one of the ways in which many Venezuelans are trying to make ends meet throughout this economic volatility; through turning virtual gold into real US dollars.

Gamers can, upon experiencing any sort of failure or disappointment, usually take solace in the fact the game isn’t real and their lives will go on largely unaltered. Yet for many Venezuelans, video games – namely Runescape, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game and the resulting real-world trading opportunities they offer, where they take virtual goods and sell them for real money, often on the black market – can provide a route out of the country’s economic malaise.

Gaming for dollars

Playing video games may sound like a pleasant way to make a living, but the harsh reality for the vast majority of these ‘players’ in Venezuela is a 16-hour working day for which they will make somewhere between $2 and $7, often playing a game in which they have no great interest.

So why, if the game holds little interest and the money on offer is so derisory, are Venezuelans flocking to Runescape? Since 2012, wages in Venezuela have been decreasing at a rapid rate and in 2021 plummeted to a minimum of just $4 a month with the average wage sitting at approximately $25.

This makes 16 hours of gameplay for as little as $2 an attractive proposition, and it has caused a number of Venezuelans to leave ‘real-world’ jobs such as in teaching and the oil industry to pursue Runescape ‘careers’.

Ironically, the economy built within Runescape is more stable than Venezuela’s real economy. Inflation of the bolivar has been soaring since 2008, causing many Venezuelans to favour being paid in US dollars or cryptocurrencies.

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Venezuela-born Victor Hugo Rodriguez, CEO of LatAm Alternatives – a financial services company that specialises in capital flows between Latin America and the US – explains: “There is a new incoming breed of social class [in Venezuela] and they have a new way of approaching the economy. Because of the distortions that are happening with the bolivar, you are seeing people find ways to access other currencies as a more stable alternative. It is not just the deterioration of the bolivar that is triggering people to be desperate to find different currency incomes, there is the fear of missing out and a need to have this access in order to live.”

Rodriguez explains that real-world trading through multiplayer online role-playing games provides a possible income in dollars as opposed to the volatile bolivar. This has created an economy within Venezuela that operates exclusively in dollars or cryptocurrency, cutting out the bolivar altogether.

"The Venezuela government is not recognising this phenomenon because it still functions in bolivars, but [it is becoming] widespread that people are transacting and negotiating goods and services in dollars, and that is accepted," says Rodriguez.

Privilege and punishment in Venezuelan gaming

On the surface, this is an unusual story of Venezuelans trying to earn a real-life living through the digital world, but underneath lies a tale of corruption, privilege and resilience.

Games such as Runescape were not designed to act as a de facto employer within a corrupt country. Runescape developer Jagex has taken a number of moves in a bid to herd the Venezuelans clogging gameplay off of the platform, with varying degrees of success.

As real-world trading technically goes against the rules of the game, many Venezuelan accounts are banned if found to be indulging in this practice. For gamers looking to actually play the game for leisure purposes, the Venezuelans stand accused of ruining the fun. This has created a bizarre and almost discriminatory environment within the game, with many players killing others (virtually, of course) if they are found to be speaking Spanish or ‘grinding’ (performing repetitive tasks to create virtual wealth).

This offers a stark example of how privilege can play out within a gaming platform: a gamer in the developed world would not necessarily understand why a Venezuelan would value a $4 pay day, and will often report them for ruining their virtual fun. For the Venezuelan gamer, the ‘fun’ can be the difference between feeding their families that week or not.

Furthermore, real-world trading also suffers from corruption and is often rigged against Venezuelans. Spanish-speaking, virtual gold-buying sites target these players to sell their virtual wares while undercutting them for value – much like a virtual crooked pawn shop.

A future for technology in Venezuela?

It is understandable that Jagex could never have contemplated that its medieval role-playing game would end up providing wages for people living in poverty or under corruption regimes. Games provide an escape from reality, and the consistent presence of Venezuelan gamers not only shatters that illusion within the platform, it also alters the gameplay for those hoping to escape.

However, these Venezuelan gamers are showing resilience, skill and autonomy on a consistent basis. Rodriguez argues that it shows a widespread technical capability; that if the country was in better hands politically and economically it could allow for investment opportunities.

“These people are finding new ways to make money, new ways to utilise digitalisation, a new way to deploy their capabilities to provide for their families," he says. "I applaud the way these people are thinking, and I believe it shows the potential technology could have in changing the landscape of the country over the next ten to 20 years.”

This tale of Venezuela and Runescape shows that there is a workforce within the country that has access to computers and possesses the basic tech skills to exploit virtual wealth. If this talent pool could be harnessed in a way that strayed from corruption and was bolstered by a better education system, perhaps the future of Venezuela would look brighter.