World of Warcraft has a new character class, with Night Elf Warriors, Dwarf Paladins and Orc Warlocks being joined by... the Chinese Merchant.

A new study has suggested that online games, such as the popular World of Warcraft game, may help economic development in countries such as China and Vietnam.

According to a study from the World Bank's infoDev programme, as many as 100,000 Chinese and Vietnamese players of online games do so as "gold diggers" who collect gold in online games which can be used to buy expensive equipment for player's characters.

Rather than using the gold to develop their own online character they use it to buy expensive ingame goods, for example monsters and magic weapons, which they then sell to Western players using real-world money.

The global market for virtual game goods is at least $3 billion dollars, according to the World Bank, around three quarters of which comes from the "gold diggers".

The study found that as many as a quarter of online gamers use real money to pay for virtual items, with one reportedly spending around £5,000 on one online game account. Such spending can be highly lucrative, with some Chinese "gold diggers" reaching an annual turnover of more than six million pounds.

However not all of the online gold is made through hard online labours such as dragon slaying, maiden rescuing or kobold killing. About of half of the virtual gold that is traded is produced by "bot farms" that play online games by themselves and around 20 per cent comes from hacked accounts. The remaining thirty per cent comes from players "earning" the gold in game.

Because a large proportion of the real money used to buy online gold reaches the "gold diggers" the report suggested that such methods could actually help the development of poorer communities in east Asia.

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."