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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 April 2007, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
The business end of playing games
By Richard Scott
Personal finance reporter, BBC News

World of Warcraft
Thousands of gamers play Warcraft every day
World of Warcraft is a gaming phenomenon, with more than eight million people playing around the world and tens of millions of pounds being earned in revenue each month. But for some this is more business opportunity than leisure pursuit.

World of Warcraft is what is known as an MMORPG - a massively multiplayer online role playing game.

It is a self-contained world where you create a character by choosing a race and a class - for example, a warrior. Then it's a case of exploring the world and doing quests (kill this, find that, deliver this parcel) in order to advance your character.

People pay around 8 a month and start at level one, with the highest level available at the moment level 70 - and all the time you're trying to find, buy or win better equipment, such as weapons so that your character becomes more powerful.

The more powerful your character is, the better you can kill the computer-controlled monsters or compete with other players (hundreds or even thousands of which are likely to be online with you). And that's where the real world merges with the virtual one.

The game has its own version of eBay in which players can buy or sell weapons and armour to make their characters more powerful. But just like eBay you need money to buy things - in this case the game's currency is gold.

Collecting herbs

That gold can be earned by doing jobs like mining or collecting herbs. These jobs aren't difficult but can take a very long time. And that means the game's players are split - between those who can play a lot and generate their own cash, and those who work and don't have the same time to devote to the game.

People who work full time can feel penalised by the system, since it's harder for them to compete. But there is a solution - they can buy their gold for real money.

Websites have sprung up which will sell gold that might take a 100 hours to collect for as little as 20.

World of Warcraft
Many white collar workers want to improve their character on their own, but they do not have much time
Gold 'farmer. Qin Shen

It's a fascinating example of economics in action.

But where does the gold that people can buy come from? Just as we import cheap clothes and footwear from China, we now get virtual currency from there too.

Companies have been set up where people work up to 12 hours a day to "farm" gold from the game (by doing the boring bits like killing monsters over and over, mining or collecting herbs), and then sell that gold to rich Westerners.

Qin Shen, who works for a company called, says: "Many white collar workers want to improve their character on their own, but they do not have much time.

Hugely controversial

"They need to go to work in the day and they don't have the energy to improve at night, so they need someone else to play for them."

But to say this is hugely controversial among the game's community is putting it mildly. I posted a message on one website asking for people who buy gold to get in touch - and got a number of quite hostile responses.

Eventually, I did find someone who had bought gold.

I have a life outside of the game that's certainly much more important, so the few precious hours I do get to play on my game I don't want to spend doing the same thing over and over again
Warcraft gamer

But even then Ryan didn't want us to use his surname in case he got kicked out of his guild or the game itself.

"I have a life outside of the game that's certainly much more important, so the few precious hours I do get to play on my game I don't want to spend doing the same thing over and over again to get in-game money, when I could just buy that and do the stuff in-game that I actually enjoy," he said.

But is this actually cheating or just saving time? People pay gardeners or decorators to do jobs they don't have the time or inclination to do themselves and they're not accused of cheating when they show off the results.

Nonetheless, many people - including the game's creators - think it's not on.

"It's like in the real world - in the real world there are people that try to cheat and last month alone we banned 100,000 accounts for illegal gold trading or cheating in the game, and it's very important for us to keep a fair gaming environment," said Itzik Ben Bassat, from Blizzard, the company which created the game.

But there's no sign any of this is putting off gamers.

Thousands turned up at midnight in London earlier this year when new features of the game were launched.

That expansion pack has become the fastest selling computer game ever - shifting nearly 2.5m copies worldwide in the first 24 hours.

For gamers who work, it'll always be easier to buy their way into another world, than to find time for two lives.

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