Gold farming and character leveling services for games such as the World of Warcraft (WOW) have evolved into massive businesses employing thousands and rivaling even the electronics and software outsourcing industries.  (Source: Blizzard/BBC)
Virtual gold farming business comparable in size to outsourcing

Some deride the trials and travails of pro gaming as "childish" and a "non-sport".  However, impoverished citizens worldwide are finding a way to raise their families out of poverty thanks to a very different kind of professional gaming -- gold mining and character leveling services.

In the strange and constantly shifting global economy one topic that's always brought up is outsourcing.  With many companies shipping jobs overseas, the issue is a hot topic.  Companies love it, and look for better ways to do it; many workers hate it.  Professor Richard Heeks, head of the development informatics group at Manchester states, "The Indian software employment figure probably crossed the 400,000 mark in 2004 and is now closer to 900,000."

However, a major silent industry has been creeping up, particularly in China -- online gaming services.  According to Professor Heeks' studies, 400,000-800,000 people are employed in gold-farming business alone, with 80 percent approximately in China.  While Professor Heeks says the business has a much lower profile than outsourced jobs, he says, "Nonetheless, the two are still comparable in employment size, yet not at all in terms of profile."

He describes, "I initially became aware of gold farming through my own games-playing but assumed it was just a cottage industry.  In a way that is still true. It's just that instead of a few dozen cottages, there turn out to be tens of thousands."

Professor Heeks discovered that on average gold farmers made about $145 (£77) per month in 2008, creating a $500M USD industry.  In countries like China, where the average income is $150, such employment can provide poor with a lucrative second job and means of rising up out of poverty.  The industry is buoyed by tight demand in games such as World of Warcraft (WoW) in which online game currency is scarce.

One interesting part of the booming market is that it is quasi-illegal (and perhaps by extension, quasi-evil).  Most massively multiplayer online (MMO) games have strict user contracts which prohibit such activities.  Users are regularly deleted when they're caught engaging in such activities.  However, the gold miners continue to find a never-ending stream of customers.

Another major emerging market is for character leveling services.  Many Chinese businesses are offering to level players' WoW characters and get powerful items for them, which busy users would never have time for.

The phenomenon of a booming black market is described by Professor Meeks who states, "I was drawn to write about gold farming due to my perception that it's a significant phenomenon that academics and development organisations are unaware of.  It is also a glimpse into the digital underworld. Or at least the edges of a digital underworld populated by scammers and hackers and pornographers and which has spread to the "Third World" far more than we typically realise."

Steven Davis, chief of game security firm Secure Play said gold farming is nothing new, but is just now coming into its own.  It meets a basic need of online gamers, he believes.  He states, "When you get people with more money than time and time than money the two will find a way to meet."

Some gold farming businesses have risen to employ hundreds.  Sales are generally managed through secret underground sites associated with the game of choice.  MMO providers make halfhearted attempts to crack down on these sites and their users, but there's little that can be done to stop the trend.  Some MMO's like EVE Online have deployed complex economic systems, which have helped limit gold farmers, but typically the most popular games like WoW have simpler systems, which incidentally make it easier to farm gold.

Just like outsourcing, gold farming is moving down the chain to more impoverished nations.  Some wealthier players in China are now paying people in Vietnam to farm gold at cheaper rates.  One undesirable side effect is some crime gangs in China have taken to stealing people's credit cards to finance accounts.  Some of the more tech-savvy gangs also hack into people's accounts stealing their gold, which they then sell online. 

Prosecution of such crimes is difficult.  Often its near impossible to locate gold farmers in the real world.  And many MMO users support the gold farmers.  Says Mr. Davis, "You could get rid of it, but you would get rid of one of the most fundamental parts of player-to-player interaction."

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