In the last two weeks, Nick Ryan's four-part weekly feature series on gold trading - the grey market for in-game currencies, services and items in MMOs - has introduced us to this shady business, and investigated the lives and motivations of the gold farmers and sellers themselves.
Next week's final feature will gather the responses of the biggest and most influential MMO operators - some of whom condemn real-money trading, some of whom are working to build it into their games. But this week, Ryan talks to the people at the business end of the market - for better or worse - the players. Who are the players that use gold sellers? And do as many of us hate the thought of buying gold as we claim?
"When the gold rush comes to town, then you know about it. Like a plague of human locusts suddenly everything is consumed and then when the gold is gone, they vanish..."The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, 1925)
There you are, in the pantomime that is your favourite MMORPG and up pops your best friend. Wait a minute ... he doesn't respond to 'tells', he's switching alts faster than you can type "Hang on" and within minutes the guild bank is cleared out, and Jonnie is sitting chatting in Mandarin to some elven floozie when you could swear he was from Wisconsin.
When he gets his account back (eventually), Jonnie swears he ran all the latest virus checkers and definitely doesn't download dodgy videos from the internet. So just where did the scammer get his details - and is this the typical face of gold sellers in MMOs today?
We could all name stereotypes when it comes to players who've used gold sellers and farmers to boost their characters. But as Professor Richard Heeks of Manchester University, an expert on real money trading (RMT) puts it rather clearly:
"The supply-demand economics of gold farming are very simple. Some people in the world have more money than time. Other people in the world have more time than money. The former demand finds the latter supply via various physical and virtual channels."
Most players, though, still tend to voice the negative when it comes to the gold-selling world. Take just a vox pop of players I've spoken to in World of Warcraft and other MMOs such as EverQuest and EVE Online recently:
"I'm very much against gold-selling and power-levelling services in WOW," claims Tod, a British WOW player in his early 40s. "Quite apart from any potential unbalancing effects on the in-game economy, to me it's cheating for any player to buy gold or get someone else to level up their character.
"I also get irritated at the gold sellers advertising their services by yelling in Orgrimmar, or whispering people and advertising their services if they get a reply. Either way, it's another reduction in the immersiveness of the game experience.
"But I don't really blame the gold farmers or power levellers," he adds. "I blame the people who set up these businesses and probably make most of the money."
Hungarian WOW player Konrád puts it a lot more bluntly: "It's a system of keyloggers. The account goes to a hacker; who then steals your gold or uses your account as a farm character, or both; and then sells your own gold back for real money if you do use this service. Now this is pretty f***ed up as everyone can see, besides it kills the fun in a game designed to interact with other people online and explore fantasy worlds and not to hear from level 1 characters whispering: 'Are you there?'"
Stieg, a 20-something player from Sweden, has tasted the gold selling experience from both ends of the spectrum.
"Except for having my account stolen from me once, and both emptied of gold and used to create one of those annoying gold-seller alts, I have little experience with gold sellers in WOW," he says.