See Inside January 2010

Gaming for Profits: Real Money from Virtual Worlds

Online fantasy games enable developing world entrepreneurs to make a living by trading stashes of make-believe gold for hard cash

Phil Ashley Getty Images

It sounds like a digital alchemist’s question. How do you turn virtual gold into the real item? Hundreds of thousands of “gold farmers” in developing countries have found a lucrative answer. They have become entrepreneurs who make their living by profiting from online games. By assuming fantasy roles in these games, they kill monsters, mine ore or engage in other activities that earn “virtual gold” that they then sell to other players, often in rich nations, for real-world currency. Although it flaunts the rules of the game, buyers and sellers of this make-believe currency use the gold to determine the fate of a character in these fantasy games.

A gold farmer in China who plays games and sells virtual currency can earn the same wage and, sometimes, more than might be paid for assembling toys in a factory for 12 hours a day. As a result, this activity has emerged in the past 10 years as an ingenious, though controversial, way for poorer nations to earn money from information and communications technologies and a way for impoverished workers to build digital skills that might be later transferred to other information technology jobs unrelated to game playing.

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