[Article first published as Chinese Prisoners Tortured for Gold Farming Operation on Blogcritics.]
Gold farming is a practice that has been going on forever. If you play any MMO you know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s in World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online or any other online game you happen to frequent that requires virtual currency to obtain in-game privileges, there’s always going to be someone shilling virtual currency for real world dollars. To most players that means one of two things: (1) buying gold with little afterthought or regard to end-user license agreements or (2) someone spamming trade chat with gold offers that are easily blocked with a couple of clicks – no more than a slight annoyance to deal with and a minor inconvenience to report. That’s where it ends for most. Not many players really consider the other side of the coin (no pun intended) and see the dark side of what otherwise seems like a harmless practice providing an innocent service. A little while ago I wrote an article about how international gold farming shops could potentially be tied to criminal enterprise to try and shed a little light on the topic. What that article didn’t address was the gross human rights issues that go with it.
Recently, stories about abuse and physical torture for the sake of gold farming were reported in The Guardian. The report revolves around a former prison guard, Liu Dali (whose name has been changed for security), who spent some time in 2004 imprisoned at the Jixi labor camp in northeast China. His crime was “illegally petitioning” the government about corruption that had run rampant in his home town. After spending entire days digging trenches and breaking rocks in coal mines, he would put down the shovel and pickaxe and pick up a keyboard and mouse for his next labor shift: gold farming for hours on end. While to some that may seem like something light compared to manual labor in the mines, it’s actually worse. For this task, already being physically exhausted was accompanied by living in fear of abuse and beatings. "If I couldn't complete my work quota, they would punish me physically," Liu explained. "They would make me stand with my hands raised in the air and after I returned to my dormitory they would beat me with plastic pipes. We kept playing until we could barely see things.” This was after manufacturing seat covers for cars. And after carving chopsticks and toothpicks out of planks of wood until his hands were raw and torn. And barely being afforded the time to sleep before the next shift started.
China put restrictions on gold farming in 2009 because the trading of virtual currencies for real-world money was running out of control, and even made a case against one gamer who stole 3000rmb (about $462) worth of in-game currency. Still, it seems that China is having some trouble curtailing the activity. According to the China Internet Center, almost $2 billion worth of virtual cash was traded in 2008 just in China. This makes sense, as it’s estimated that almost 80% of the world’s gold farmers are located there. Liu’s estimates on money prisons made off of this abuse support this: "Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour," Liu said. "There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [about $770 to $924] a day. We didn't see any of the money. The computers were never turned off."
China doesn’t just supply low-cost labor for goods manufacturing anymore, but also acts as an offshore factory for virtual goods. This in particular should give gamers some idea of where their bought gold comes from. The stereotypical idea of a Chinese sweatshop supplying you with products is bad enough on its own, but knowing that someone could have been imprisoned and tortured just so you could buy fast flying is absolutely unconscionable. Unfortunately, the practice will still go on. American gamers will keep buying the gold and gold farming will continue. The concept in general doesn’t just apply to this topic, but for everything — as long as we can buy things cheaply, no one is really going to want to know or care what made it possible. It is a clear case of “not wanting to see how the sausage is made” combined with the need for instant gratification. As this need has steadily been increasing, so must the horrible conditions increased to match them.
So hopefully players will think twice before they buy their gold with the money in their pockets, and take into consideration the potential consequences. You really need to make some cash quick in World of Warcraft? I’ve sold stacks of heavy savage leather for up to 600g on the auction house. 350g is a guaranteed sale. It won’t take you that long.