Best of the Twin Cities

Tired of neutering centaurs with your two-hand battle-axe?

Too busy at work to sack another farmstead in the Elwynn Forest? Why not pay someone in China to do it for you?

Having outsourced everything from the reading of mammograms to the drafting of wills, Americans have now begun to hire foreign workers to slay our virtual dragons. According to a December 2005 story in the New York Times, up to 100,000 Chinese workers now toil in the dungeons of World of Warcraft and EverQuest. Reaching the most advanced levels of these massively multiplayer online role-playing games can consume 600 hours. That's 25 sleepless days at the keyboard. But for a reasonable rate, a "gold farmer" sitting at a gaming terminal in a basement warehouse in Fuzhou can provide you with all the amulets, potions, and spells an ambitious Night Elf needs. Of course, you pay not in gold pieces, but in U.S. dollars.

At first, this labor system sounds ridiculous. But peel away the image of a 50-year-old orthodontist who will bend the rules to become a fiercer she-troll, and you're left with an uncomfortable truth: Millions of us work in a virtual economy, trading products we never touch to places we never go for money we never see. There's the mortgage processor whose client is buying a ski chalet she knows only through photographs. Or the hedge-fund manager who programs a machine to recognize a certain ratio between long-term Polish bonds and pig iron prices and buy, buy, buy!

You can shop for anything online. In seconds, you can track down the ignition lock cylinder for a 1977 Pacer. You can locate the cutest Kazakh orphan in Pavlodar, buy baby clothes by the bushel on eBay, and then feed her with black-market breast milk.

It may not be as much fun, but you can also try to make a baby the old-fashioned way. And it's this proposition—that surprising things can happen when you power down your iBook and get out of the house—that guides our Best of the Twin Cities issue. In this year's edition, we've made a game out of exploring the Cities—finding a neighborhood bar that caters to more than one tax bracket and locating a bike trail that isn't littered with the wrappers of energy gels. We can point you to a club where the stage is so small the band may borrow the beer on your table. (We've also listed the places you like to go—besides your home-office ergo-chair—in our annual readers' poll.)

You can thank us for guiding you to these spots, but you can't pay us to play the game you call your life. For that, you'll have to hire someone in Chengdu.

The most fun you can have without hitting control-alt-delete