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The massive growth of gold farming – the exchange of real money for virtual goods – might result in an increase in gaming Trojans and other malware aimed at gamers in the future.

A well-respected researcher has described the incredible growth of “gold farming,” an significant industry and source of employment in China and other parts of Asia. He estimates there are 400,000 people, working for gold farming companies. They spend as much as 12 hours per day playing online games in order to accumulate virtual goods which can be sold to some of the 50 million on-line game players world wide for real cash.

Richard Heeks, the chairman of development informatics at the University of Manchester in England has been studying the effects of digital technology on international development for 30 years. Scientific American magazine (the paper edition) carried an article by Heeks in its January 2010 edition “Real Money from Virtual Worlds.” It appears to be an updated version of a 2008 paper available on the university’s web site.

The gold farmers – mostly young men – can earn as much as a factory worker in their native China. Although they live in Spartan dormitories and work long hours, they appear to like the work, Heeks said.

The 60,000 to 100,000 gold farming companies worldwide are making $200 million to $3 billion annually, he estimates in the Scientific American article. This is a great source of income and employment in developing countries (one of Heeks’ points).

Perhaps it’s time to start thinking a lot more seriously about the value of virtual goods in online games. Gaming Trojans and other related spyware are going to be a more and more serious malware threat as the dark side realizes the value of the stuff gamers stay up all night to accumulate.

Heeks’ 2008 paper on the university web site:

Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on “Gold Farming”: Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games

Tom Kelchner