Would you pay real-life dollars for play money? What about $100 for a sword that you could only see or use inside a video game, or more than $400 for a shirt that you could see on a screen, but never hold or wear?

Around the Internet, people do it every day. Hundreds of thousands of virtual items from dozens of video games – items that can be seen and used only while playing the game – change hands every year.

It’s a market created by companies and individual entrepreneurs who produce and collect make-believe goodies or play money for games like "EverQuest," "Lineage" and "World of Warcraft," and then sell them for actual dollars. And those dollars add up: Industry analysts say people worldwide are spending as much as $800 million each year on virtual add-ins for their video games.

It’s becoming such big business, in fact, that one game company that once frowned on the practice now wants a piece of the action. In April, Sony Computer Entertainment America became the first major publisher to allow players to exchange real money for virtual goods.

A Sony site called Station Exchange allows players to buy and sell virtual coins, gear and characters to one another, with Sony taking a percentage off the top.

"For us, watching the market grow into this huge, thriving gray market, it’s obvious that our subscriber base wants to take part in these activities," spokesman Chris Kramer said. "We needed to offer them an outlet that was secure and official."

In online world games – also known as massively multiplayer online games – every player is represented by a character on screen. The character interacts with other characters controlled by other players and fights against those characters or computer-controlled monsters. From those fights, players collect items that improve their characters’ skills and abilities.

Players can sell those items to other players for the game’s virtual currency, which is used to buy supplies. They can also make their own items for sale or to wear.

Until now, buying "EverQuest" goodies from someone else was like scalping tickets to an NBA playoff game – you might be able to do it, but you’d better not get caught.

People buy the items on Web sites run by the companies or in auctions run by individuals. They pay real money, using a credit card or online payment service, and in exchange, they’re supposed to receive an item from the video game of their choice, sent by another player.

It might seem ironic that people pay to buy items inside games that they already pay a monthly fee to play. After all, isn’t part of the challenge of a game finding terrific stuff and conquering tough opponents?

But those who use the services are often trying to help their characters become strong enough to face higher and better monsters and quests in the game – skipping the often-tedious process of gradually improving their character in favor of buffing their strength, stamina, intelligence or regeneration with the click of a mouse.

The sellers are often called farmers, because they typically make a specialty of settling in one area of the game and killing the bad guys in that area over and over again until they raise a huge hoard of play money or other rewards.

Complaints about farmers have been rampant. People have paid up to $1,000 for a fully equipped character in a game like "EverQuest," only to have the seller change the password on the account so that the buyer can no longer play; the seller then re-sells the account to someone else.

Most game publishers – including Sony – have sought to keep players from spending all day mowing down bad guys in their games just to sell their stuff on eBay. The contract players must accept before joining almost every online world game forbids them from selling anything from the game for real-life cash.

But that hasn’t stopped people from doing just that. Despite widespread account bans and other harsh penalties, sites such as www.ige.com and www.mysupersales.com peddle piles of gold coins and tens of thousands of in-game items to people who snap them up for as much as several hundred dollars.

Sony says that it will still enforce the provisions in its user agreement that prevent people from being rude to one another while they’re looking for good items in the game. No automated characters called bots, run by computer scripts, are allowed, for instance. And you can’t move into the places in the game’s landscape where good things appear and repeatedly kill them before other players can get to them.

Sony says the auction fees will help pay for more people to watch for those infractions. Other game companies aren’t so sure, saying they’d rather draw the line more cleanly by not allowing any sales.

Sony and NCSoft, makers of the worldwide best-selling "Lineage" series and "City of Heroes," have banned thousands of accounts believed to be owned by farmers and farming companies.

"It really diminishes the enjoyment of the game for other players," NCSoft spokesman Mike Crouch said. Farmers "are these uber characters. They’re terminators. They don’t distinguish between mobs to be killed and other players. It’s a question of game balance at that point. We don’t want to encourage bad behavior by our players."

That said, NCSoft is among those monitoring Sony’s experiment to see how it pans out, Crouch said, adding: "We’ll watch this to see how it impacts the game."

© 2005, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.