Farming gold for development

(via Wiebke Abel) The BBC has a fascinating story on the astounding growth of virtual economies. Richard Heeks of the University of Manchester’s Institute for Development Policy and Management has produced a report entitled Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on “Gold Farming”. The report makes for a fascinating read, and should validate the importance that many researchers like yours truly give to the regulation of virtual economies. According to the report:

“In basic terms, gold-farming is a sizeable phenomenon. The rather wobbly-legged best guesses for 2008 are that 400,000 gold farmers earning an average US$145 per month produced a global market worth US$500m; but we could easily more than double the latter to over US$1bn. There are probably 5-10m consumers of gold farming services. The main uncertainty of estimation relates to the gold-farming market in East Asia, which appears much larger than that in the US/EU. That uncertainty in part arises because gold farming operates at four levels – local, national, regional and global. We should encompass all four but, to date, the focus has been almost entirely on the global trade.”

Even with the conservative estimates presented by the report, these are astounding figures. The numbers involved seem to suggest that gold farming is a valid and profitable industry, and that “playbourers” earn a decent living from it. Moreover, gold farming validates the importance of in-game economic activity by giving it a tangible value in the outside world.

This economic impact should perhaps strengthen the calls for regulatory oversight and policy examination of the role of virtual worlds in modern society. While they are still considered a form of fringe interest by the geeky classes, it is undeniable that an activity that employs 400,000 people in developing countries is worthy of examination. Isn’t this a valid trade law subject? Where are the papers examining the electronic commerce implications of this phenomenon?

Richard Heeks concludes his report with an interesting plea:

“One final point. Credible analysis of gold farming can only be undertaken by researchers who play the games, and have engaged in real-money trading. With that, back to Azeroth for some more “research time”. “

I concur. Unfortunately I have uninstalled WoW from my Mac laptop. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to migrate to an American server. Does anyone have a good guild I can join?

Update: Interesting blog post on this study here.

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