The Guardian reports on Chinese prisoners forced to work in “gold farms”: endlessly grinding through repetitive tasks in online games to accumulate in-game goods and currency which are then sold to players abroad.
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 spells.
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 make 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 ….”
According to figures from the China Internet Centre, nearly £1.2bn 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.
A 2007 New York Times article described the gold farming phenomenon in greater depth, including the campaigns of extermination frequently waged on gold farmers by other players. These can have serious real-world consequences for the farmers: in-game death costs time and treasure, leading to missed quotas and firing or, in the case of prisoners like Liu, physical punishment.
It isn’t that WoW players don’t frequently kill other players for fun and kill points. They do. But there is usually more to it when the kill in question is a gold farmer. In part because gold farmers’ hunting patterns are so repetitive, they are easy to spot, making them ready targets for pent-up anti-R.M.T. hostility, expressed in everything from private sarcastic messages to gratuitous ambushes that can stop a farmer’s harvesting in its tracks. In homemade World of Warcraft video clips that circulate on YouTube or GameTrailers, with titles like “Chinese Gold Farmers Must Die” and “Chinese Farmer Extermination,” players document their farmer-killing expeditions through that same Timbermaw-ridden patch of WoW in which Min does his farming — a place so popular with farmers that Western players sometimes call it China Town. Nick Yee, an M.M.O. scholar based at Stanford, has noted the unsettling parallels (the recurrence of words like “vermin,” “rats” and “extermination”) between contemporary anti-gold-farmer rhetoric and 19th-century U.S. literature on immigrant Chinese laundry workers.
Min’s English is not good enough to grasp in all its richness the hatred aimed his way. But he gets the idea. He feels a little embarrassed around regular players and sometimes says he thinks about how he might explain himself to those who believe he has no place among them, if only he could speak their language. “I have this idea in mind that regular players should understand that people do different things in the game,” he said. “They are playing. And we are making a living.”
Gold farming is frequently conflated with Chinese nationality (PDF), according to Lisa Nakamura of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign:
Constance Steinkuehler’s analysis of Lineage II, a Korean MMO uncovered some the ways in which the condemnation of virtual currency buying is far exceeded by a visceral hatred of gold sellers or farmers. This hatred is strongly articulated to race and ethnicity: since many, but not all, gold farmers are Chinese, and there is a decidedly anti-Asian flavor to many player protests against “Chinese gold farmers.” As Steinkuehler notes, hatred of gold farmers has given rise to polls querying players on North American servers “Is it OK to Hate Chinese Players?” (32% of players responded “yes,” and the majority, 39%, replied “I don’t hate China, just what they stand for in L2,” and 10% checked “I am CN and you should mind yourself, you racist pig”).(Steinkuehler 2006, p 200) Though she notes “calling someone ‘Chinese’ is a general insult that seems aimed more at one’s style of play than one’s real-world ethnicity,” the construction of Chinese identity in MMO’s as abject, undesirable, and socially contaminated racializes the culture of online games, a culture that scholars such as Castronova have claimed are unique (and valuable) because they are exempt from “real world” problems such as racism, classism, “looksism” and other types of social inequality.
Gold farmers face other dangers. Late last year, Global Voices Online covered the sentencing of a pair of gold-farm owners to six and three-year prison terms. The post includes translated comments from blogger Ruan Yifeng, who argued that the disproportionate harshness of the punishment was imposed for the sake of game developers Shanda:
It’s loathsome to see the state judiciary serve to protect the interests of a company in such a way, and to issue a judicial interpretation which benefits Capital and sends those who haven’t committed any crime to prison.
Now, with this judicial precedent, it’ll be far easier for Internet game companies to profit as anyone who dares use a mod can be sent straight to jail! Faced with such roaring profits, who will care about the rights of the little people? Dong Jie and Chen Zhu have had their lives destroyed, but who cares if, this way, we succeed in putting the fear in other thieves? In any event, nobody forced Dong and Chen to lose their heads and go start plucking the hairs off a tiger.