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Friday, 29 March, 2002, 10:52 GMT
Virtual kingdom richer than Bulgaria
Everquest is a one of the most popular online games
Millions of players attracted to online gaming
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By Ania Lichtarowicz
BBC Science reporter
A virtual country has entered into the world economy.

Norrath, the setting for the online game Everquest, has been found to be the 77th richest country in the world, sandwiched between Russia and Bulgaria.

Online gaming has attracted millions of players and their rise in popularity in recent years is mainly down to improved graphics and more players to interact with.

Research carried out in the United States shows that virtual internal markets, combined with illegal online trading on auction websites, mean that Norrath has a gross national product per capita of $2,266, bigger than China and India.

Many computer games designers predict that as computer processing powers improve virtual economies will play a bigger part in the real world stakes.

Millions of players

Virtual worlds exist in which people play games like Everquest, Ultima Online and Lineage.

It is estimated that about 2.5 million people play Lineage in Korea alone and millions subscribe to other games worldwide.

Everquest traders
Virtual trading paid for in real money
Each player pays a subscription fee, usually about $10-15 per month, to be able to take part in the game.

Online games differ from traditional computer games as life in the virtual world continues all the time, even when a player switches off the computer or console.

And if you want your character to do well players need to invest time and effort into literally improving themselves.

Some people spend so much time online that they end up with too many skills and so can trade them in the real world.

Hundreds of dollars

Professor Edward Castronova from California State University at Fullerton calculated the statistics.

He said that people are putting hundreds of hours a year into these characters and you can tell how valuable that is in terms of money by looking at how much these characters sell on open markets such as auction sites like ebay where they can fetch hundreds of US Dollars.

You go onto one of the websites, basically give credit card details over the internet and then arrange to meet them in game

Robin Dews, Games Workshop
"In terms of the monetary input and the hours input the things that people are creating are very valuable," he said.

"And that's how I got to this figure that the production of value per capita in these economies is somewhere between Bulgaria's and Russia's."

Trading of characters, or avatars is against the rules of the games, and if the games developers see this happening they will delete the character.

But with so many players it is difficult to keep track of smaller transactions.

For instance it is possible to trade swords or helmets and even skills like sewing for real money - all of which can be useful to players in the virtual world.

Robin Dews from Games Workshop, an international fantasy game supplier, is designing a new game called Warhammer Online. He said the whole transaction process is very strange.

"You go onto one of the websites, basically give credit card details over the internet and then arrange to meet them in game," he said.

"You'll log onto the game world and meet them in a tavern or in a town so the virtual you will meet the virtual other player who will hand over the gold to you or they'll hand over the sword to you and the whole transaction actually occurs in virtual space."

The next more advanced set of major online games is coming out soon. It is estimated that Star Wars Galaxies will have at least a million subscribers when it is launched later this year.

Many games designers predict that as games have better graphics and become more exciting they will become an even bigger money-spinner for both players and designers in the future.

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