If you thought gaming was just for personal enjoyment, well, think again.
Up to 100,000 people in China and Vietnam are playing online games to accrue virtual goods with the intent to sell them to Western players looking for a fast way to level up.
The World Bank estimates the global market for virtual game goods is around $3 billion, making it an attractive option for gamers in less developed countries.
About 75% of the market comes from "gold farmers" who play and stockpile game currencies to sell at a later time. Indeed, according to a recent report, in-game services could become a major source of income and actually help poorer countries develop.
Game devs are building more features into games like Lineage and World of Warcraft that require players to gather outfits and weapons for their characters, which can be purchased from other players.
The report also says Western players who have limited time are actually buying high level characters and game cash from people in China and Vietnam who play all day long as their job.
Around a quarter of all multiplayer gamers spend hard cold cash on virtual items, with one player spending as much as 5,700 euros ($8,224) on a single account.
As more Western players purchase goods and characters from players in lesser developed countries, the market continues to grow and is fast becoming a viable way to make some cash.
For example, the largest firm in China supplying gold generates around $10 million, with approximately 50-60 firms bringing in revenues of around $1 million per year - making the market worth a total of $3 billion in 2009.
The study revealed around 30% of the virtual currency traded is "hand made" by human players, whereas about 50% comes from "bot farms" that play the game relentlessly, with the remaining 20% originating from hacked accounts.
The report’s authors - Dr. Vili Lehdonvirta of the University of Tokyo and Dr. Mirko Ernkvist from the Unversity of Gothenburg - attested to the mature development of the supply chain between gamers selling virtual goods and the players themselves.
For example, if $100 dollars worth of virtual goods passes hands, the cash (after processing fees) is split between a large retailer ($30), a smaller farmer ($45) and the individual ($23).
"This suggests that the virtual economy can have a significant impact on local economies despite its modest size," Ernkvist and Lehdonvirta concluded.