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updated 5/31/2011 4:49:57 PM ET 2011-05-31T20:49:57

Revelations that Chinese prisoners may have been forced to play online games to earn tokens that are sold for real money -- a practice known as “gold farming” -- has focused new attention on the growing number of workers who toil in a virtual economy.

The UK Guardian last week gave a first-hand account of a former Chinese prisoner who spent his days breaking rocks and his nights slaying dragons and wizards in front of a computer. The credits earned by prisoners in their virtual labor were then sold for cash that was kept by prison guards, the paper reported.

Gold farming has been a growing trend among the online game community for the past decade and recent studies show that one in four gamers purchase this “gold” in order to obtain higher levels in multi-player games. Gold farming is worth more than $3 billion, most of which goes directly to developing nations.

A recent report by the World Bank estimated there may be more than 100,000 gold farmers working in China and Vietnam, mostly young, low-skilled males from rural areas who play for credits for wealthier (and perhaps lazier) players.

While the practice sounds exploitative, gold farming may be safer than working in a mine, farm or factory, according to Vili Lehdonvirta, a researcher at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology and main author of the report.

“Based on what we’ve seen, the pay (for gold farming) is comparable to a factory worker,” Lehdonvirta told Discovery News. “Life is not very glamorous, but it’s not a dangerous job either.”

Lehdonvirta says that not all the consumers are in the United States and Europe. Online gamers from China now make up nearly half of the people who purchase these credits. As the scale of gold farming has increased, so have the entrepreneurial skills of the operators.

One Eastern European game operator, a college student, built up a small company that between 2010 and early 2011 employed nine people, according to Richard Heeks, director of the Center for Development Informatics at the University of Manchester in the UK and an expert in virtual economics.

Heeks said that competition from Chinese gold farms -- just like producers of real goods -- recently forced the Eastern European student into virtual bankruptcy. In the coming years, big multi-player game companies are starting to cut these middlemen out of the equation by selling credits to players instead charging subscription fees.

Still, it’s likely that “gold farmers” will continue to reap a decent harvest.

“They are producing jobs, incomes, some skills and new enterprises,” Heeks said via e-mail. “They of course have their downsides, but our argument is that we should take a balanced picture; not just try to paint gold farming as the Devil's spawn, but understand it in the round, and recognize that it can make a contribution to development of poorer countries.”

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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