Nearly 500,000 people in developing nations earn a wage making virtual goods in online games to sell to players, a study has found.
Research by Manchester University shows that the practice, known as gold-farming, is growing rapidly, according to a BBC report.
The industry, about 80% based in China, employs about 400,000 people who earn £77 per month on average. The practice is flourishing despite efforts by games companies to crack down on the trade in virtual goods.
Professor Richard Heeks, head of the development informatics group at Manchester who wrote the report, said gold farming had become a significant economic sector in many developing nations. “I initially assumed it was just a cottage industry,” said Professor Richard Heeks from the University of Manchester who wrote the report.
In many online games virtual cash remains rare and many people turn to suppliers such as gold farmers to get money to outfit avatars with better gear, weapons or a mount. Some gold-farming operations offer other services such as “power levelling” in which they assume control of a player’s character and turn it into a high-powered hero far faster than the original owner could manage themselves.
Prof Heeks said very accurate figures for the size of the gold farming sector were hard to come by but his work suggested that in 2008 it employs 400,000 people who earn an average of £77 per month creating a global market worth about $500m. But, the quasi-criminal nature of gold-farming made it hard to truly gauge its extent, he said.
Already, he said, gold farming was comparable in size to India’s outsourcing industry. You could get rid of it, but you would get rid of one of the most fundamental parts of player-to-player interaction. Prof Heeks suspects gold-farming might be an early example of the “virtual offshoring” likely to become more prevalent as people spend more time working and playing in cyberspace.
In most online games all the activities associated with gold farming-gathering in-game cash and items to sell, buying game gold or sharing accounts-are a violation of the terms governing that title.