Last July, I wrote about the phenomenon of "Chinese farmers" -- people (almost always in China) employed to play online games such as World of Warcraft, collecting virtual money and valuable items for resale in real-world exchanges. This practice is said to be a multi-million dollar industry, despite being against the rules of most online games. Now the New York Times has caught wind of the story, and takes us behind the scenes of one of these "virtual sweatshops."
The article provides some interesting depth to the story, such as the observation that there may be more than 100,000 people now employed as "farmers" in China, and some example prices for goods and services (although it should be noted that the "100 grams of gold" claim is factually incorrect, as the game in question tallies gold in coins, not by weight). The accompanying multimedia presentation is worth a listen, as well.
This could well be the globalized industry to watch as a metric for the degree of development of a nation. Online role-playing games are extraordinarily popular. World of Warcraft is said to have over 4 million players, while the Lineage series may have far more than that, almost entirely in Korea, Japan and China. The buyers of these virtual goods and gold are people who have more money than time; right now, the buyers are largely in the US, Europe, Japan and increasingly in Korea. But as Internet access continues to spread, and places like China continue to grow economically, we will almost certainly see the locations of buyers and sellers change.
The proliferation of Chinese virtual farmers is clear demonstration that language is not an issue. Therefore, there's no reason why the next generation of online farmers couldn't be in India, Kazakhstan, or Kenya. At the same time, a growing number of Chinese gamers may well see the value of outsourcing their gold & magic sword accumulations to places with cheaper labor. Developing nations could follow the path of Internet access leading to virtual world service provision leading to virtual world service demand.
This is a model for what globalization in the fabrication scenario could look like. Overseas labor is cheap, but not free, and rising fuel prices will inevitably make imported goods more expensive. There will come a point, probably sooner than most pundits expect, that running shoes and CD players can be more cheaply printed (at home or at the mall) than imported. At some point in the next decade or so, the bulk of globalized labor will be in online services. Such services won't all be connected to online games, but the model will be the same: money exchanged for time performing tasks that require little more than a bit of training and a broadband connection.