Prison Labor, version Warcraft

China Used Prisoners in Lucrative Gaming Work

No pun intended, but…WoW.  Just wow.

The Guardian reports that Chinese prisoners were forced into World of Warcraft gold farming at labor camps in place of physically intensive labor.  For those of you not in the know, gold farming is the process of earning online credit inWorld of Warcraft.  The credit may then be sold to gamers for real-world cash.

China’s labor camp ideology is “re-education through labor,” remembered by one inmate as “backbreaking mining toil,” hand-ruining carving, and forced memorization of Communist literature to “pay off his debt to society” (Vincent).  These chores were performed during the day; World of Warcraft occurred at night, after which the gold was exchanged for real money by the prison guards.

Compared to the repetitive tasks required in gold farming, the labor involved is little to nothing, but the punishment meted out for failing to meet work quotas remained the same.  Former prisoner Liu Dali describes being forced to stand with raised arms and beaten with pipes if he failed to earn enough online currency.

China is notorious for its trade in virtual currencies in massively multiplayer online role-playing games, and because so many individuals are gold farming for real-world profit, the Chinese government is increasingly unable to regulate this trade.  The Guardian notes that 80% of all gold farmers are in China, with as many as (or more than) 100,000 Chinese citizens who farm as a full-time job.

Because of the lack of regulation, it is easy to exploit prisoners and sweatshop workers, for as much as 12 hours a day without rest.  Gamers buy online currency because it saves them time and allows them to advance faster.

While the immediate questions concern exportation policies surrounding real and virtual goods in China, I think another salient issue is the overlap between virtual production and real-world profit, and how the popular misconception about video games—namely, that they are fun, not rigorous or exhausting—could culminate in this practice being overlooked.  That is, gold farming as labor may be viewed more favorably than physically intensive mining labor, which—at a casual glance—may seem more punitive than playing a video game.

Gamers, on the other hand, know that farming is a bitch.  The monotonous, repetitive tasks are mind-numbing and exhausting in and of themselves.  Staring at a screen for 12+ hours without rest results in literally blinding headaches, pain that should resonate with anyone familiar with long-term computer work.  There’s also hand and wrist pain, neckache and backache, and other repetitive stress injuries that quickly result in long-term chronic pain.  So yes, it is comparatively less strenuous, but not exactly free of detrimental effects.

Comments on the article attest to this, as commenters state that such labor seems “more desirable” and a way to free prisoners from boredom, or even express jealousy at not being in the business themselves.  Only a few of the comments express horror at the flippancy of the other commenters.  It’s certainly significant that the majority treat it like a joke.  Those dismissing the strain of playing games until you can’t see are also dismissing the fact that prisoners have no investment in the game, whereas gamers are actively seeking advancement for characters that are their own.

Ultimately, what’s getting lost here is that this is still labor executed for others’ profit at cost to the prisoners.  I’m left wondering how World of Warcraft as virtual labor impacts the conceptualization of prison labor.  Because it is comparatively less physically exhausting, will it lead to longer labor hours for the prisoners?  Could this system spread beyond China?  What would it look like elsewhere?  What are the ramifications of exportation of virtual goods earned through prison labor, as opposed to real-world tangible items?

The full article is linked to the post title, if you’re interested in reading more.  This is a phenomenon worth watching, if only to see how it alters the conceptualization of real-world practices and whether or not it leads to the reconceptualization of gaming itself.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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3 thoughts on “Prison Labor, version Warcraft

  1. Kristen Strater says:

    Are you familiar with the short story Anda’s Game? Originally published on in 2004, describes gold farming as labor:

    • Thanks for the link! I am not familiar with “Anda’s Game,” though Doctorow’s novel FOR THE WIN has been recommended to me more than a few times. One of the comments on the article, I think, even notes that this labor system is FOR THE WIN come to life.

  2. […] to me via comment on my previous post on WoW as a form of prison labor in China, here is Cory Doctorow’s short story “Anda’s Game,” from his collection […]

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