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Understanding the rise of the 'playbourer' is vital if retailers want to bridge the digital divide

Did you know that nearly 500,000 people are employed in the developing world to ‘earn’ virtual goods from playing online games that are then sold on to more time-pressured players in wealthier parts of the world? By Mark Chirnside


Understanding the rise of the 'playbourer' is vital if retailers want to bridge the digital divide

This industry, which is centred on China, employs a workforce termed 'playbourers' who toil away at games such as the popular World of Warcraft in order to earn virtual gold and various tools that are then sold on for real cash.

This particular game (called an MMO - massively multi-player online game) has an impressive 10 million subscribers around the globe who help its parent company Blizzard En

tertainment generate annual revenues of $1.1 billion and employ 2,700 people.

Most retailers will have little idea that any of this is happening. To most multi-channel merchants cutting-edge activities involve user-generated content, blogs, search engine optimisation and pay-per-click advertising. This little list, however, is just picking at the edges. It is a long way from bleeding edge, that's for sure.

But although the techno-literate Chinese playbourers, who can earn 80 per month playing World of Warcraft, are a long way from these shores it is still wholly relevant because the buyers of their services include 'digital natives' in the UK for whom distances mean nothing in today's virtual world.

This grouping has typically grown up with broadband, always-on internet connections, mobile phones rather than fixed line telephony and live their lives through YouTube and Google, Facebook and Twitter.

To these digital natives the traditional retailer and high street bank are irrelevant. They are part of the old way of doing things. As a result of the constraints inherent in their established methods of selling retailers are running the risk of being left behind in the global/virtual economy. In this world you don't need a store. In fact you don't even need to be in the same hemisphere as your customer in order to do business with them.

Retailers should also think about the fact that being online is now more than just having a broadband connected PC at home. Consider that there are an amazing 12 million paying subscribers to Microsoft's Xbox Live service that enables gamers to use their games console to play each other online wherever they may be. And it is highly likely that mobile phone access to the internet will soon become ubiquitous.

Being online for digital natives is a way of life and this has inevitably had serious ramifications on money. It is certainly a lot easier to move cash around the globe (including from mobile phone to mobile phone) outside the old constraints of established money transfer methods MoneyGram and Western Union.

Not surprisingly digital natives' view of payments is also not limited to just Visa and MasterCard. They instead consider lots of other methods of paying for goods such as PayPal, digital wallets including Neteller and WebMoney with their various forms of top-up, and online cash.

If there is one thing that is clear amongst all this change, it is that retailers have a lot more to think about than they've probably even considered. As people become increasingly less constrained by traditional barriers merchants have to ensure how they retain their relevance. A key part of this should involve them looking at the world outside their window.

Mark Chirnside, chief executive officer, Ukash

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