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Report: 500,000 gold farmers worldwide

And market is worth half a billion dollars.

MMO gold farming employs nearly half a million people, and the market in in-game items and currency could be worth as much as USD 500 million. That's according to research carried out by the University of Manchester, as reported by GamesIndustry.biz.

The report, written Professor Richard Heeks, head of the development informatics group, suggested that gold farming employs 400,000 people who earn an average of USD 145 (GBP 77) per month - with 80 per cent of them located in China.

"I initially became aware of gold farming through my own games playing but assumed it was just a cottage industry," Heeks told the BBC. "In a way that is still true. It's just that instead of a few dozen cottages, there turn out to be tens of thousands."

Gold farming is the practice whereby MMO players generate in-game currencies which they sell for real currency, often going against developers' and publishers' terms of service.

Heeks said that trying to eliminate gold farming completely would be difficult, and possibly futile in games where trading forms an important part of gameplay. "You could get rid of it," he said, "But you would get rid of one of the most fundamental parts of player-to-player interaction."