Accoridng to a BBC report, nearly half a million people derive their main income from making virtual goods in online games.
The BBC report is based on an paper by Richard Heeks at Manchester Unviersity.
The paper has a good historical survey of the spread of MMORPGs from the devloped world to Asia, and the rise of gold-farming. They make money in 3 ways:
1. buying and selling in-game currency for real money. "In mid-2008, you could buy 5m Runescape gold for around US$20."
2. Playing for mony using someone elses idnetity in order to build up the skills level of the character. "in mid-2008, it would cost around US$50 to have your World of Warcraft level-40 character power-levelled to level-60." (Or alternatively the farmer builds up a new character and sells it to you: "a level-75 Final Fantasy XI account would cost around US$400"
3. Selling in-game items: "a Star Wars Galaxies AT-RT in mid-2008 cost US$10"
Other activities include mugging (ie taking someone else's money) and escorting players (for a price) through dangerous areas.
The report finds that "gold farming is a US$500m per year sub-sector. It seems unlikely to be less than US$200m per year, and it could well be more than US$1bn per year." It estimates there are about 500,000 gold-farmng workers, 85% of them in China. Wages are low and hours long. Competition sems to be fierce and prices are falling.
Obviously this is a lot of hard work for very little return.
Also isn't it fascinating, leaving aside moral issues, how a whole new sizeable industry has grown up, unexpected and unplanned, in a few years?