Tens of millions of people spend hours and pay big money for virtual gains on the most popular multiplayer online games, including World of Warcraft, Eve Online and EverQuest.
Behind these games are "gold farmers", who spend hours within the games each day, gathering virtual credits and selling them to gamers for real world cash.
The most recent estimates, from 2009, suggest that 400,000 people are employed as gold farmers across the world, with 85% of those in China and Vietnam, according to Professor Richard Heeks of the University of Manchester.
These gold farmers are almost entirely males between 18 and 25, and most are either cash-strapped college students or unemployed rural migrants. They sell in-game advantages – an increased skill level, or a virtual ore – to players eager to boost their online reputation.
The multiplayer online games industry has boomed in recent years thanks to increased internet access and the rise of social networks. World of Warcraft, easily the most popular of its kind, had 12 million subscribers last year.
According to a report published by the World Bank last month, gold farming was worth about $3bn (£1.85bn) in 2009 – most of which was kept by developing countries.
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