However, not every gold farmer is Chinese. Nor a hardcore hacker. I spoke with "Paul", a long-time British gamer now in his 40s who had engaged in RMT for many years.
"I've played online games for quite a while now, starting with the text-based MUDs [Multi-User-Dungeons] in the late Eighties, then moving on to Meridian 59, the first graphical MORPG, in 1996. At that time there really wasn't any trade in virtual items or cash, basically because there weren't enough players. However, the situation changed when Ultima Online was launched a year later," he says.
"UO had few of the restrictions that World of Warcraft has. Anyone could use any item. There were no levels or quest rewards. Anyone could kill anyone else and items could be looted off your body or stolen from your pockets. Also, you could build your own housing or buy houses for cash. There was no restriction. You could own lots of houses or buy huge castles, but there was a land shortage. All the good land for housing was taken, so the prices of housing in prime locations rocketed. Location, Location, Location. UO housing was not just for vanity. The bigger your house, the more stuff you could store in it. And you could place your own vendors."
"So, I bought a house off eBay. It was in a prime location, with a nice vendor area, and it cost me GBP 300. I set up my vendors, and filled it up with goodies for the discerning passer-by. I sold out in a day. I needed more stock, so I turned to automation. I automated my miner, and left him bouncing around to the best mining locations. He mined day and night. When I was actually playing, I went out with my tamer, a dozen dragons in tow, and killed monsters like there was no tomorrow. I sold ore and magic items and the money rolled in."
Paul then smiles. "In fact, so much money rolled in that I started selling it on eBay. It wasn't much in real terms. I was making maybe GBP 100 a month, and had two boxes running macros."
After Ultima Online waned and he had a baby, and less time to play, Paul moved to EVE Online, the space simulator from CCP which has a highly-developed economy (CCP even has an official company economist). As he explains: "I wasn't getting very far in EVE, which is a harsh game for newbies, so I spent GBP 50 to buy a few hundred million ISK [the in-game currency], and bought myself some decent ships.
"Now, in EVE, the best ships, Tech 2, were the most desirable and expensive. However they could only be built by people who had the appropriate Tech 2 blueprints. These could then be rented out to other players for serious money. I went into blueprints in a big way. The only way to get Tech 2 blueprints, aside of buying them - and no-one was selling - was to win them in a kind of lottery. This depended on the number of research agents you had, so I bought all the lottery tickets I possibly could by setting up loads of research agents.
"Then I waited. Over the course of a few months I accumulated a number of Tech 2 modules, until finally I got one of the coveted ship blueprints. I was in business. Since I still didn't have much time, I rented my blueprints out to another concern who actually made, and sold, the ships. They gave me a share of the profit, and I sold it on eBay. Life was sweet."
Paul admits that he never made as much from EVE as he did from Ultima Online, probably because the subscriber base was lower, "plus the Chinese 'macroers' had moved in to mine vast quantities of ore and flood the market. This pushed the currency price lower. I reckon I made GBP 50 a month or so for a couple of years, but the advantage was that it took me no time at all."
As he reflects, all this came to an end when eBay stopped selling virtual items of any sort. "Plus my manufacturers decided to go into business on their own. Time to go. I sold my ships and my blueprints and liquidated the profits."
It was the end of Paul's story - and that of many enterprising gamers like him - but the start of a genuinely big business. But what about these 'real' Chinese gold farmers? Who are they? A fellow WOW player told me how his Chinese flatmate got chatting to some other Chinese players on his realm. One of them turned out to be a young man who farmed, professionally, for gold. My friend and his flatmate both chatted to him for many weeks. Mr Li said he had an eye illness and found it very difficult to get a real job. Gold farming was a way that he could contribute money to his family. His account was frequently banned by Blizzard and he had to keep buying new accounts and levelling up a new character to keep farming.
"I met him in-game many times," says our mutual contact. "Even though he had quotas to reach every day, he often took time to help us in a dungeon and never asked anything in return. And he is by far the most skillful player, with several different character classes, that I have ever met."
Eventually he hooked me up with Mr Li, 23, who was living with his parents in an unnamed Chinese city. We spoke via a translator over Skype during two different sessions.
"When I finished high school and wanted to find a job I went with friends to a gold farming workshop," explains Li, the gold farmer. "I found out about it from an advert in a newspaper. After a short interview [where he had to pass some basic computer tests] I was given the job."