According to new research released by PlaySpan, nearly a third (31 percent) of gamers have purchased virtual content using real-world money, and over half of those buyers (57 percent) report doing so at least once a month.

The study was conducted by research firm VGMarket and commissioned by PlaySpan, a wholly-own subsidiary of Visa.

Breaking down the numbers for virtual goods, console games that include online play account for half (51 percent) of all actual cash purchases. Social networking games came next, with 30 percent, and the remainder spending their money in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs). Asked if they expected to spend at least the same amount this year as they did in 2010, 72 percent said yes.

And what do these gamers purchase? Nearly half (48 percent) said they bought in-game currency, almost as many (47 percent) said additional maps and levels, while 29 percent said armor and equipment.

Karl Mehta, founder and CEO of PlaySpan, said the choice of items was a big differentiator between men and women, however. “It was also quite interesting to learn that women (37 percent) are nearly twice as likely as men (19 percent) to buy virtual items to decorate a page, persona or avatar,” he said. Another intriguing difference is that people interested in real-world sports are more likely than others to buy virtual goods.

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PlaySpan’s report –

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