Converting the Vir...

Converting the Virtual Economy into Development Potential

According to a new infoDev study, the Virtual Economy is worth some $3 billion and provides new types of jobs in developing countries.

A new study by the World Bank Group’s infoDev program shows that virtual online currencies and digital work now provide real income opportunities to poor and unskilled workers in developing countries.

infoDev is a global technology and innovation-led development finance program of the World Bank and IFC.  The new study, Knowledge Map of the Virtual Economy, finds that more than 100,000 people in countries such as China and India earn a living through online games and websites disseminating micro-tasks. 

Jobs in the virtual economy include micro-tasks like categorizing products in online shops, moderating content posted to social media sites, or even playing online games on behalf of wealthier players who are too busy to tend to their characters themselves.  The study estimates that the market for such gaming-for-hire services was worth $3 billion in 2009, and it suggests that with suitable mobile technologies even the least-developed countries could benefit from this emerging virtual economy.

“Developing countries’ roles in the digital world have been mostly limited to users and consumers, not producers.  But today, a growing mesh of digital services is giving rise to a new layer of entrepreneurial opportunities with very low entry barriers,” said Valerie D'Costa, Program Manager of infoDev.

Tim Kelly, infoDev’s Lead ICT Policy Specialist, said, “Some of the poorest people in the world are already connected to digital networks through their mobile phones.  The study shows that there are real earning opportunities in the virtual economy that will become accessible as mobile technology develops. This could significantly boost local economies and support further development of digital infrastructure in regions such as Africa and southeast Asia.”

While the virtual economy unlocks a plethora of business opportunities, it should be noted that not all these activities are viewed positively. According to the infoDev study, certain business ventures and services offered may actually detract from the experience of other Internet users. For example, harvesting and selling online gaming currencies or mass clicking "Like" on corporate Facebook pages can create an unfair environment where legitimate game play and user opinion loses value and is represented inaccurately.

“Entrepreneurs should focus on digital micro-work that benefits society.  Examples include transcribing books, translating documents, and improving search-engine results,” said Dr. Vili Lehdonvirta, a researcher at Helsinki Institute for Information Technology and the main author of the study.

The study, funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, is available below: 

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