nettime's avid reader on Fri, 27 May 2011 12:10:44 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> China used prisoners in lucrative internet gaming work

From: nettime's avid reader

Labour camp detainees endure hard labour by day, online 'gold farming' by 

Danny Vincent in Beijing, Wednesday 25 May 2011 19.49 BST

Chinese prisoners were forced into 'gold farming' â building up credits on 
online games such as World of Warcraft.

As a prisoner at the Jixi labour camp, Liu Dali would slog through tough 
days breaking rocks and digging trenches in the open cast coalmines of 
north-east China. By night, he would slay demons, battle goblins and cast 

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.

"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 [Â470-570] a day. We didn't 
see any of the money. The computers were never turned off."

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.

It is known as "gold farming", the practice of building up credits and 
online value through the monotonous repetition of basic tasks in online 
games such as World of Warcraft. The trade in virtual assets is very real, 
and outside the control of the games' makers. Millions of gamers around the 
world are prepared to pay real money for such online credits, which they 
can use to progress in the online games.

The trading of virtual currencies in multiplayer games has become so 
rampant in China that it is increasingly difficult to regulate. In April, 
the Sichuan provincial government in central China launched a court case 
against a gamer who stole credits online worth about 3000rmb.

The lack of regulations has meant that even prisoners can be exploited in 
this virtual world for profit.

According to figures from the China Internet Centre, nearly Â1.2bn of make- 
believe currencies were traded in China in 2008 and the number of gamers 
who play to earn and trade credits are on the rise.

It is estimated that 80% of all gold farmers are in China and with the 
largest internet population in the world there are thought to be 100,000 
full-time gold farmers in the country.

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.

"China is the factory of virtual goods," said Jin Ge, a researcher from the 
University of California San Diego who has been documenting the gold 
farming phenomenon in China. "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," said Jin.

"The buyers of virtual goods have mixed feelings â it saves them time 
buying online credits from China," said Jin.

The emergence of gold farming as a business in China â whether in prisons 
or sweatshops could raise new questions over the exporting of goods real or 
virtual from the country.

"Prison labour is still very widespread â 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.

Liu Dali's name has been changed

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