World Bank: gold farming (etc) paid poor countries $3B in 2009

A research arm of the World Bank has produced a comprehensive report on the size of the grey-market virtual world economy in developing countries -- gold farming, power-levelling, object making and so on -- and arrived at a staggering $3 billion turnover in 2009. They go on to recommend that poor countries be provided with network access and computers so this economy can be built up -- a slightly weird idea, given how hostile most game companies are to this sort of thing.

Add in a global union drive among the gold farmers, and you've got the plot of my last young adult novel. Funny old world.

Jobs in the virtual economy include micro-tasks like categorizing products in online shops, moderating content posted to social media sites, or even playing online games on behalf of wealthier players who are too busy to tend to their characters themselves. The study estimates that the market for such gaming-for-hire services was worth $3 billion in 2009, and it suggests that with suitable mobile technologies even the least-developed countries could benefit from this emerging virtual economy.

"Developing countries' roles in the digital world have been mostly limited to users and consumers, not producers. But today, a growing mesh of digital services is giving rise to a new layer of entrepreneurial opportunities with very low entry barriers," said Valerie D'Costa, Program Manager of info Dev.

Tim Kelly, info Dev's Lead ICT Policy Specialist, said, "Some of the poorest people in the world are already connected to digital networks through their mobile phones. The study shows that there are real earning opportunities in the virtual economy that will become accessible as mobile technology develops. This could significantly boost local economies and support further development of digital infrastructure in regions such as Africa and southeast Asia."

While the virtual economy unlocks a plethora of business opportunities, it should be noted that not all these activities are viewed positively. According to the info Dev study, certain business ventures and services offered may actually detract from the experience of other Internet users. For example, harvesting and selling online gaming currencies or mass clicking "Like" on corporate Facebook pages can create an unfair environment where legitimate game play and user opinion loses value and is represented inaccurately.

Converting the Virtual Economy into Development Potential (Thanks, Tim!)


  1. I wonder how they came up with this figure? Regardless that is all money the game companies could make if they sold it themselves.

    Online games have never had an even playing field. Just the fact that some people play constantly means a casual player will always be limited even though they pay the exact same monthly fee.

  2. How about pay them to fold proteins all day for the same amount of money, a small stipend from the gamers to keep them OFF the games. everyone wins.

  3. Report seems to glaze over the fact that these gold farmers are effectively working in a sweatshop.

    It’s really not any better an opportunity than assembling running shoes, other than the fact you do it on a computer instead of a sewing machine. Calling it “play” would extremely generous, these people have recipes for maximizing the return on time investment and are expected to do it for a full work day.

    It’s the same old story of 1st world brushing the boring work off to the 3rd world, acting like they’re being done a favor.

    1. that’s a narrow and short-sighted view of the situation. although one can’t justify sweatshop conditions, implying that low-paying (in western terms) work in developing nations is inherently exploitive is historically incorrect. china’s economic expansion can be linked to their development era when these low-paying jobs were located there. now, as the labor costs in that country have risen, much of that work has moved to southeast asian countries like vietnam. but even now, those wages have moved up (as is vietnam’s economy) and low-cost labor is being found elsewhere.

      this isn’t a perfect system and increase in wage rate doesn’t directly lead to increase in quality of life or local economy. but there’s certainly proof that starting small can lead to bigger things.

    2. There is, in fact, a very significant difference between gold farming and making running shoes: Safety. A fatigued gold farmer that misclicks the mouse doesn’t lose a finger.

  4. I wonder why the game companies don’t just cut out the middleman and start charging for instant gold, items, and upgrades themselves and pocket the 3 billion every year.

    1. Well, lots of games do that. Even a few things can be purchased for WoW (like the Celestial Steed). But the game has to be balanced for that dynamic.

      For a lot of players simply purchasing stuff cuts out the skill and dedication that are valued. Too much purchasing of in-game goods ruins the fantasy world dynamic for many kinds of games.

      I’d like to see some kind of network environment where the time and skills of these workers could be applied to some kinds of non-game tasks (or game tasks with non-game applications).

      1. The vast majority of the benefits in games doesn’t come from skill (pushing button X fast enough is skill?) but from playing constantly at the expense of your personal life. You also have to have the chance to play regularly with other addicts (aka “dedication”) to get the biggest gains. Not so much skill as how far are you willing to sell yourself out?

        I’d rather just have shortcuts to things so I can see game content without having to risk sleep, my job, hygiene, family, school, etc.

  5. This is why I like Cory’s work — aliens and time machines and what have you are great Sci-Fi, but Cory’s stories are more likely to actually happen, often in our lifetimes.

  6. Poppy, coca, and cannabis farms make much more for the third world than gold farming does… Why not fund that too eh World Bank?

  7. I don’t know who I should feel sorry for:
    The poor gold farmers,
    the players paying them to improve virtual characters,
    or the game designers who made a game so tedious, repetitive and time consuming that gamers have to pay someone to play for them.

  8. “…even playing online games on behalf of wealthier players who are too busy to tend to their characters themselves.”

    It continues to boggle my mind that I live in a world in which this sort of transaction actually takes place.

  9. I’m in SE Asia. Added the first WiFi to the village. Started a blog. I hope to generate an ethical income via social participation and esoteric contributions.

    At first I was uplifted by the article. That segued to ambivalence; and ultimately sadness when I arrived at, “While the virtual economy unlocks a plethora of business opportunities, it should be noted that not all these activities are viewed positively.”

  10. My BS detector has just gone crazy. Sounds like a few research analysts in the world bank have nothing to do or have also been playing too much WoW.

    Seriously. How many PAID MMO players are there on earth ? say 100 Million people. The average power-leveller request is about $50, so let’s say 20% of players use this service. that’s 20m*50 that would be a billion. Assuming population and cost are accurate, you would need 60million players to participate (annually) to make that sort of cash.. hardly feasible.

  11. What’s with this “virtual” weirdness? We’ve been virtual for centuries.
    An author is merely arranging characters into a sequence for the pleasure and entertainment of others.
    A musician does the same with notes.
    A software developer spends their time causing pixels on a screen to arrange themselves in appropriate ways.

    In what way are these activities “real”, “physical” or in any way new?

    So someone seeks to re-arrange some game parameters to provide entertainment for others. Is that really so different?

  12. As someone that actually plays online games I cannot state enough how much players hate goldfarmers.

    This isn’t a ‘harmless’ activity for third world workers… this is the equivalent of third world sweatshops in which workers complete captcha so companies can spam people over and over again.

    The whole point of a online gaming world is that everyone is equal and people succeed or fail due to their skill and commitment. Allowing people to buy advantages due to outside wealth kills this type of game.

    The reason game companies don’t sell gold themselves is because it ruins the game for the vast majority of players. Who wants to play a game in which your opponent can buy a unfair advantage over you? It ruins the gaming experience.

    More importantly it is absolutely not a sustainable activity. Goldfarmers can make games unplayable due to the way they harass legitimate players. When a game becomes unplayable it will lose it’s player base and close down… forcing the farmers onto a new game to destroy.

    Why not encourage thirdworld countries to actually make something worthwhile that people can buy? They could make their own games or make modded content to make other games more interesting and fun.

    Cory only thinks goldfarming is such a cool concept because he reads about MMO’s instead of playing them.

  13. @Anon:

    Your calculations appear to assume only one transaction per participating player per year. There are plenty of people doing many transactions a MONTH that I’m aware of, so the numbers are within reason.

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