Anyone who’s ever played an online game with a trade system… especially World of Warcraft… knows there are plenty of people willing to sell you in-game currency in return for real world currency. Which is usually against the game’s terms of service for any number of reasons beneficial to the game company and the player, but people do it anyway. (It’s gotten to the point that I’ve actually wondered if some of my City of Heroes characters get more currency-spam email based on the first letters of their names.) Most, if not all, of these gold sellers are reputed to come from China… if you’re one of the many (if not most) people who have had your World of Warcraft account stolen due to Blizzard’s utterly laughable security, it’s almost certain it was stolen by someone in China (if it wasn’t done by someone you know personally).
Well, turns out that the formerly-communist government is not one to let a lucrative moneymaking opportunity pass them by, and hey, if they can abuse some human rights in the process, all the better!
Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for “illegally petitioning” the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do.
If you couldn’t tell, “illegally petitioning” means that he told on someone’s corruption who was paid up and in good standing.
“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour,” Liu told the Guardian. “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 [£470-570] a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.”
It amazes me that gold-selling continues to be profitable enough to make it such an attractive and neverending business. Lord knows that many MMOs, WoW especially, can be a soul-killing grind, especially if you’re a casual player trying to fit playing time in around having a job and a life. But buying gold means essentially throwing your money to someone who’s already proven willing to flagrantly violate the rules and then trusting them to actually show up and do the trade… and if you get caught, hey, you’re going down same as the seller. … Hunh, put like that maybe it is easier to understand. They call it “World of Warcrack” for a reason, I guess.
But lest you think that this guy had it easy because all he had to do was kill some Murlocks, let me shatter that. First off, Murlocks are torture enough. But second off, and more seriously:
Memories from his detention at Jixi re-education-through-labour camp in Heilongjiang province from 2004 still haunt Liu. As well as backbreaking mining toil, he carved chopsticks and toothpicks out of planks of wood until his hands were raw and assembled car seat covers that the prison exported to South Korea and Japan. He was also made to memorise communist literature to pay off his debt to society.
But it was the forced online gaming that was the most surreal part of his imprisonment. The hard slog may have been virtual, but the punishment for falling behind was real.
“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,” he said.
Yup. They’d beat the dude for not doing enough of his killing and skinning and running back to the vendor to foist off virtual raptor leather for copper pieces.
In 2009 the central government issued a directive defining how fictional currencies could be traded, making it illegal for businesses without licences to trade. But Liu, who was released from prison before 2009 believes that the practice of prisoners being forced to earn online currency in multiplayer games is still widespread.
“Many prisons across the north-east of China also forced inmates to play games. It must still be happening,” he said.
As Lee documented in his China blogs, China makes laws against practically everything, but enforcement of the more inconvenient-to-police stuff is rare to nonexistent, especially as long as you’re paid up. If the government itself isn’t actually directly calling for and profiting from what these guards are doing, you can bet a good portion of that money gets passed back up the line and some of it gets there eventually.
And while the place that I first saw this story is eager to sneer about “lazy Americans” driving this industry (if you’re wondering why no hat tip, it’s because I consider them so dishonest, lacking in integrity, and to be frank porn-filled that nothing would be gained, if you really want credit it’s called Sankaku Complex), let me wrap up with this little reminder of just how slippery some high ground can be (emphasis mine):
“Prison labour is still very widespread – it’s just that goods travel a much more complex route to come to the US these days. And it is not illegal to export prison goods to Europe, said Nicole Kempton from the Laogai foundation, a Washington-based group which opposes the forced labour camp system in China.