When most people think of Chinese labour camps, they’ll typically conjure images of breaking rocks, working in the mines, carving toothpicks and doing dull, physical tasks. That’s only half the story, with new evidence coming to light that prisoners are given very different work to do at night – something many of us do for fun.
Inmates at the Jixi labour camp were forced to play World of Warcraft after dark. Gold and other in-game rewards were handed over to prison guards, who traded the virtual goods for real money. Unsurprisingly, this online operation is rapidly becoming a virtual goldmine, even more lucrative than the physical labour expected of the prisoners.
It’s the other side of the ever-present virtual gold racket. We’ve all heard the stories of the students who work long hours as gold farmers, earning minimum wage to get through school or to support their families. The one thing better than paying minimum wage is not paying anything at all – and when your workers are in prison, that’s already sorted for you.
The deal has been going on for years, but a former inmate has finally spoken out about the practice:
“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour.
“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 ($770-925) a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.”
In order to pay his debt to society, the former inmate – writing under the pseudonym Liu Dali – recalls being told to memorise communist literature, as well as working in the mines, carving toothpicks and chopsticks from planks of wood and assembling car seat covers. It was a tough existence – and he claims that his time spent in Azeroth and other online worlds was equally as punishing.
“If I couldn’t complete my work quota, they would punish me physically. 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.”
The time wasn’t just spent in World of Warcraft, although that was the most popular option. Gold farming earns many people a lot of money – while there are affluent gamers who would prefer to pay for privileges, there are others prepared to work hard to scrape by. The trade in virtual assets has spread across the globe, with China seen as a particular problem – with an estimated 80% of all gold farmers (approximately 100,000 full-time virtual employees) living in the country.
While the trade in virtual currencies and online items is generally against the terms and conditions of the game, it’s not necessarily against the law – but China has started cracking down on the practice, taking out legal action against gold farmers and other gamers breaking the virtual law. In April, a provincial government took a gamer to court, over a case worth nearly $500.
Jin Ge is a researcher at the University of California San Diego, who is looking closely at the gold farming “phenomenon” in China.
“China is the factory of virtual goods.
“You would see some exploitation where employers would make workers play 12 hours a day. They would have no rest through the year. These are not just problems for this industry but they are general social problems. The pay is better than what they would get for working in a factory. It’s very different.”
The Chinese government would prefer its citizens to be working in the factories, however, issuing a directive in 2009, which defined how “fictional” currencies could be traded – among other things, making it illegal for business to trade without a license.
Liu Dali was released from prison before 2009, but doesn’t think this would be enough to stop the practice.
“Many prisons across the north-east of China also forced inmates to play games. It must still be happening.”
(Source: The Guardian, thank you Liz + Brenna)