Apr 092011
World of Warcraft

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DAVID, a 34-year-old living on the east coast of the United States, is a big fan of World of Warcraft but is anxious that his heavy workload is not leaving him enough time to play, and therefore make progress, in the online game.

Rather than see his friends race ahead of him, he contacts a Chinese “gaming-services retail company” which sells him some WoW gold, the game’s electronic currency, which he uses to buy magic potions and other stuff that boosts his power as a player. The gold was bought, in turn, from a cybercafé in a Chinese town which employs young professional gamers to play WoW for up to 60 hours a week to earn the online currency.

Sitting in a café playing computer games sounds a lot more fun, and certainly less risky, than working down a Chinese coal mine. This is but one of the estimated 100,000 online jobs that now provide a living for people in places like China and India, according to a new study by infoDev, an initiative of the World Bank and its private-sector financing offshoot, the IFC. Other examples of paid work becoming available for anyone with a computer, an internet connection and plenty of spare time include: classifying the products in an online store’s catalogue; transcribing handwritten documents; and signing up as a bogus fan of a consumer brand on Facebook or some other social-networking site, to boost the brand’s visibility in search results.

According to the World Bank’s research, gaming-for-hire services alone—such as earning WoW gold to sell on to rich, busy foreigners—was a market worth $3 billion in 2009. As a comparison, the study notes that all the coffee growers in the developing world combined earned just $5.5 billion for their labours. Another growing source of cyberwork is crowdsourcing: for instance, Amazon farmed out the job of eliminating duplicate pages on its e-commerce site to large numbers of casual workers, who got paid a few cents each time they spotted one.

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