Imprisoned for “illegally petitioning” the government over corruption in his town, the former Chinese inmate known as “Liu Dali” has told the U.K. Guardian that in addition to back-breaking manual labor he and other prisoners were forced to play video games for hours on end. Not as a form of punishment or leisure activity, but because their overseers had assembled a massive “goldfarming” operation, wherein they exploited prison labor to earn money playing online games. From the Guardian:
“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.”
While the idea of prisoners being forced to play video games may seem chuckleworthy, and it certainly is absurd, it is no laughing matter. Again, from the Guardian:
“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.
Goldfarming is now extremely widespread in China, where the Guardian reports nearly $2 billion in online currency was traded accounting for 80% of the world’s goldfarming. While for some of the world’s poor population, goldfarming could mean a better life, the use of prison labor is bizarre and more than a little troublesome. It also complicates international trade, since some countries refuse to accept exported goods made in prisons.
Liu speculates that many other prisoners are likely still forced into goldfarming operations, and assumes that the practice must be widespread. His belief is backed by University of California researcher Jin Ge, who describes China as “the factory of virtual goods.” One wonders how comfortable gamers would be if they knew that the items and credits purhcased for a game came at the cost of forced labor.
Update: The Telegraph reports that Chinese officials have denied the story, saying that gold farming would allow prisoners to communicate with the outside world, which they would never allow:
[A]n official at the central office for labour camps in Heilongjiang denied that inmates were forced to play games online. “I have never heard of this. If you want to see for yourself, come to one of our labour camps,” he said.
The official, who declined to give his name, said: “We do not allow our inmates to do high-risk occupations, such as coal-mining. We do not have large numbers of computers. And we do not allow our prisoners to have any contact with the outside world. If they were playing these online games they could easily communicate with other people. We would never allow that.”
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