Study: Gold Farming $500M Industry, Ties to Criminal Underworld

Gold farming in games like World of Warcraft is now an industry worth an annual $500 million, according to a study from Manchester University reported by BBC News.

Gold farming, which allows users to use real money to purchase in-game currency in massively multiplayer games, has become a controversial issue in the genre.

Professor Richard Heeks, himself a gamer, turned his academic eye to gold farming and found that the industry currently employs an estimated 400,000 people --80% of which are in China-- making an average of $145 per month.

"I initially became aware of gold farming through my own games-playing but assumed it was just a cottage industry," said Heeks. "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."

Steven Davis, the chief of online game security firm Secure Play, claims that the criminal underworld has gotten involved. "These [gangs] pay for their accounts with stolen credit cards, take money from players and do not hand over gold or goods in return and fill chat channels with adverts for websites hawking game gold."

Prof. Heeks also compared gold farming to India's tech outsourcing industry, which has roughly double the workers of the gold farming industry but is "still comparable in employment size, yet not at all in terms of profile."

Interestingly, the Chinese gold farming industry has outsourcing of its own. Vietnamese labor, which is cheaper than Chinese labor, means "they now do for Chinese gamers what many in China do for those in the West."