A new study at Manchester University says the gold farming "industry" is likely worth about $500 million per year, and is growing rapidly despite efforts to curtail the activity.
Roughly 400,000 people are estimated to be employed as gold farmers, according to report author Professor Richard Heeks, and while 80 percent are based in China, gold farming has also become a "significant economic sector" in some developing nations. "I initially became aware of gold farming through my own games-playing but assumed it was just a cottage industry," he said. "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."
Heeks said accurate numbers were difficult to determine because of the pseudo-criminal nature of gold farming, and that while his estimate was reasonable based on the information available, the value of the gold farming business could actually be twice as large. He added that gold farming had already grown to a size comparable to India's outsourcing industry, saying, "The Indian software employment figure probably crossed the 400,000 mark in 2004 and is now closer to 900,000. Nonetheless, the two are still comparable in employment size, yet not at all in terms of profile."
Despite the booming business, gold farmers themselves aren't getting rich, earning an average of only $145 per month, according to Heeks' numbers. Even so, Secure Play boss Steven Davis says the variations in pay between nations is resulting in a wage-based hierarchy among gold farmers, citing as an example Vietnamese farmers who will provide their services to Chinese gamers at a lower wage than Chinese farmers charge Western players. "It's moving down the chain," he said.
Davis added that gold farming has been around in one form or another since the earliest days of online gaming, and is both inevitable and extremely difficult to stop because it meets a real demand in the player community. "When you get people with more money than time and time than money, the two will find a way to meet," he said. "You could get rid of it, but you would get rid of one of the most fundamental parts of player-to-player interaction."
Professor Heeks' study, entitled Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on "Gold Farming": Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games, is available in full here.