By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- First it was trends, but now money is making the leap from virtual worlds into the real world. With the sale of three virtual shopping malls for nearly $200,000 earlier this year in one online game, it seems that the virtual streets are paved with gold. You can even get a bank card that will let you pay for dinner with your virtual dollars.
But will online game universes become places where players can transform themselves into real-life millionaires, or will they just become a false economy?
One game, Entropia Universe, has grabbed the headlines with the sale of its virtual property for thousands of dollars.
Buying the game's virtual currency costs real money, but as recently as last month three of the virtual world's shopping malls were auctioned for a combined price of $179,688. In 2005 a space station was sold for nearly $100,000.
These aren't vanity purchases made by die-hard players who think it's cool to own a space station or open an online shop, but astute investments.
"Discussion on the Web indicated that one of the buyers made his money back two weeks later, by renting out shops in his mall," Jan Welter Timkrans, managing director of MindArk, the game's developer, told CNN.
MindArk have added another link between virtual and real money. Last year they launched a real cash card that can be used in cash machines across the world to convert their virtual Project Entropia Dollars into real currency.
Players can apply for the card within the game and subject to checks from the bank that issues the card, it can be used as a normal debit card.
Virtually a millionaire
The best known virtual world property tycoon is Anshe Chung from Second Life who was hailed as the first millionaire of the virtual world earlier this year.
In real life Anshe Chung is German citizen Ailin Graef, who together with her husband has a company employing 25 people who rent and resell property in the online world. Recently they sold 10 per cent of their business to a venture capital firm.
It's a step up from the pocket money made by players selling their characters or bundles of virtual world currency on eBay, although a Level 70 warlock for World of Warcraft can still fetch hundreds of dollars.
In 2005 $160 million passed through Entropia Universe and Welter Timkrans expects that double this year.
"There are probably hundreds or thousands of people that would call this their full time job actually. The SL economy, at this point is about $9 million a month user to user, goods and services," Philip Rosedale, mastermind of Second Life told CNN.
"Most still play for fun and entertainment, but some are in it just to make money, and the possibilities for investment is getting bigger and bigger," said Welter Timkrans.
Others aren't so sure that online games are the cash cow that the games' developers and marketing executives would like us to believe.
"In reality there are no more than 100 people out of the millions that play these games that really make a living from it," Dr. Richard Bartle of Essex University told CNN.
As the developer of one of the first multi-user games in the 1970s, MUD1, Bartle sees the crossover between the real world and virtual environments as an increasing trend, but remains skeptical of a boom of virtual entrepreneurs making their fortunes there.
"There are a number of dangers with those wanting to make their fortunes online. It's just like real life, if lots of people start trying to become property developers say in Second Life then the price will drop for them. If the supply outstrips the demand the virtual economy and the real money making potential will collapse," he told CNN.
"Also if Linden Lab who runs Second Life closed down tomorrow, people like Anshe Chung would be left with nothing.
"MindArk does do something that no-one else does -- linking virtual currency directly to the real money -- but there are still worries that one bug could mistakenly give someone else millions of dollars," said Bartle.
Online games don't allow the transaction of real money in their games, so companies have been set up that allows players to sell the avatars or items they have built up or created. IGE is the largest of these and predicts that the industry could be worth $7 billion by 2009.
"It is these intermediary companies that sell on the virtual currencies to gamers that can make more money than the people who have made the games," said Bartle
Bartle doesn't think we should be surprised by the commoditization of online games. While they offer fantasy and escapism they increasingly provide the chance for real world replication, such as making money, albeit with added teleportation powers, the chance to buy a space station or slay orcs.
However in keeping with the ethos of sharing and creativity behind these virtual universes, it could well be creative types rather than ruthless capitalists who will end up making a living from them.
Second Life has more creative aspects than other games, where almost anything can be made by a player or customized, limited only by their imagination. It is then down to the players if they want their creations to be part of the world's creative commons, or rights protected.
Programmer Nathan Keir created a game played by avatars inside Second Life that became so popular he was able to license it to a video games publisher. It has now been released for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance.
"Creatives will ultimately be the main winners from these worlds, not venture capitalists or those looking to make their own pot of gold. Certainly in the future individuals will be able to make money from their creations. Maybe not millions but an amount I'd still like to have," said Bartle.
"The night after the Oscars, the best frocks appeared as downloads for The Sims. It's that kind of thing that makes these environments the cutting edge of creative talent."