There was an article posted in May on Chinese Prisoners being forced to farm Warcraft Gold. It was syndicated on a number of sites, but as far as I can tell, THIS post from The Guardian is the original. The purpose seems to be to expose the evil of Chinese Gold Farming, and discourage gamers from trafficking with such individuals. It's taken me a while to build up my reply, and to do so, I'm pasting in the original post so that I can interject comments.
But first, I wanted to do the kind of exhaustive and meticulous research that I am so famous for. It happens that just across the cubicle wall from me, there is a co-worker who is FROM CHINA. I trapped her in the break-room. Here is the conversation (she doesn't really know me):
"Hi. Ummm... Can I talk to you for a second?"
She eyes me warily. "Uh, yeah. Sure."
"Do you play video games?"
"Oh. Well, see. I play a game called World of Warcraft. Basically a virtual world. And in it, if you want to buy the REALLY COOL items, you need gold. LOTS of gold. And since it takes a lot of time to EARN that gold, an entire industry of Gold Farming has started up in China. Companies there sell the gold to gamers for real money."
She looks at me like I'm explaining that we need oxygen to breathe. "Oh, yeah, I know all about that." she says.
"You know about Gold Farming but you don't play?" I ask.
"Oh yes. My friends back in China have a Gold Farming company. They own one of those websites."
"REALLY?" I ask enthusiastically. "COULD YOU GET ME A DISCOUNT?! Wait... no, I mean, I've heard a lot of bad things about the industry, and am trying to learn more." I sound very earnest.
"Like what kind of bad things?" she asks.
"Oh, like they force kids to play."
"Nobody is forced. Kids like to play games. And they're not kids. They're College Students."
"But I read they play for like 14 hours straight."
"They'd do that anyway. They always play that long. Even when they're not getting paid to do it."
"I heard the working conditions are horrible. Poor lighting. Cigarette smoke so thick you can't breathe."
"Do you play with the lights on?" She asks, already knowing my answer. "And everybody smokes. They smoke the whole time they play. They ALL do. But nobody is making them. They'd smoke if they weren't playing, too."
"So you think it's fine?"
"Yeah. I mean, if they're going to play for 14 hours, it's better if they can make a little money doing it. They can at least have some money that way. Otherwise, they'd just play all day for nothing."
"Thanks!" I say, and let her escape back to her cubicle. Obviously, her friend's company isn't one of the prison companies in the article, but her take on things is much different from other "Don't Buy Chinese Gold" posts I'd read. And dang it, I forgot to get the name of that website!
And with my thorough research concluded, I'll tackle the controversial Prisoner article, line for line.
The URL alone should clue you in that this isn't fair and unbiased journalism. There's a POINT being made, and everything written will be supporting that point. But let's be clear and honest. Buying Chinese Gold is not a SCAM. If you paid for gold but never got it, now THAT would be a scam. Buying Chinese Gold and GETTING Chinese Gold is a business transaction. Maybe unethical. Definitely violating a rule somewhere in that Blizzard Terms of Service contract that you never bothered to read. But a SCAM? No.
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.
Regarding the rocks:
I've always wondered - what do they do with all those broken rocks? And is there a size requirement? Do prison guards pass around a perfect example of a broken rock and say, "THIS is how we want it." Or perhaps they have a little frame in which the busted rocks must fit - kinda like the thing at the airport where if you bag doesn't fit in the space, you have to check it. And is there a penalty if the rocks are TOO small? "Dammit, prisoner! These rocks are TINY and useless! Must I show you the example rock again?!"
Regarding the demons and goblins:
What demons is he slaying? Is he farming in Felwood? I can't imagine much lucrative gold coming from there. The burning steppes? No. And I can't really think of any high-yield demons in instances or raids. A couple here and there. But I can't imagine demon-slaying taking up much of his time. And if he's killing goblins, I guess he's an Ally doing some PVP quest-giver ganking. I can't imaging that being very lucrative. No wonder he gets beaten. Oops, I'm jumping ahead.
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.
They chose this 54-year-old as one of the people to play? If I was a guard, I'd grab the 20-somethings first. Especially the ones that look like hard-core gamers. Not saying old guys (like me) can't play, but come on - business is business. And throwing in the fact that he was imprisoned for something that is considered a God-given right in the West is supposed to make you feel extra-sympathetic (or extra-outraged) about his plight. But let me set you straight. Things work differently in different countries. And you're expected to know how things work in your country. Mrs. Mortigan is from Russia. I've been there a number of times. And despite them not being a communist country any more, you still don't want to go around running your mouth in public about local corruption, your general dislike of the government, or any other negative crap that might get you in trouble. No, you keep your mouth SHUT. Or you only say nice things. I was on a train to Moscow the year we were bombing Yugoslavia for something or another. A crowd was protesting and throwing rocks at our Embassy. And some guy sitting across from me on the train noticed my poor Russian and worse accent, and upon discovering that I was from the US, asked me very seriously: "What do you think about your country dropping bombs on Yugoslavia?" And considering my predicament, I replied, "I think the US should mind it's own business, and leave Yugoslavia to the Russians to handle however it sees fit." He stared at me for a second, then smiled broadly and tossed me a warm Baltika beer from his backpack. I was instantly his friend. He then opened his backpack all the way to show me the $40,000 or so (retail) worth of pirated software he was carrying. He had... EVERYTHING. "Can I get copies of this?!" I asked jokingly but no so jokingly. But I digress. Bottom line - people know the risks they face in their country. While Americans wish every country had all the same "rights" and find it horribly wrong when people are imprisoned, hurt, or killed for expressing their views, this guy ultimately knew what he was potentially getting into when he petitioned about corruption.
Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour," Liu told the Guardian.
Then why not drop the rock-breaking business and go full-time gold farming? That's what I'd do. Screw the rocks - except of Tuesdays, of course, when the servers are down. They can bust rocks on Tuesdays.
There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp.
For any prisoners NOT forced to play games, were they given 12 hours of leisure time? Were they just hanging out, napping, reading books, watching re-runs on TV? I doubt it. I'm no Chinese Labor Camp expert, mind you, but I doubt the forced gamers were saying, "Dammit, I was going to watch Gilligan's Island! What if they're finally rescued and I miss it?!" I'm sure the guards found something really crappy for the non-gamers to do, too.
I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn't see any of the money...
As a prisoner, how much exactly did you expect your cut to be? My guess is that you're getting the EXACT SAME amount of money that they're paying you for the REALLY CRAPPY WORK - busting rocks. I.e. Zero. Zilch. No money for you!
The computers were never turned off.
Of course they're not turned off. Who turns off a computer these days?! Really, they don't use much electricity. Know what does? My SWIMMING POOL. OMG. My realtor mentioned that the chemicals to keep the water nice could get expensive, but NO ONE said that running the pool pumps to keep the water circulated would cost me an extra $150 a month. Friggin expensive. Know what else is expensive? My yard guy. He charges extra to skim the grass clippings out of the pool after he mows. Wish I could hire one of those rock-breaking prisoners to do it. It would sure save me some money.
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.
Yeah, that part would totally suck. Much worse than forced gaming. But the wording here makes it sound like it was the gaming that haunts him, and there rest is just thrown in "as well". I wonder, was he on a PVP server? Since he was a caster as mentioned earlier in the article, maybe he was getting ganked a lot. Yeah, that would haunt me, too. That's why I got the HELL OFF DAGGERSPINE-US. I still have emotional scars from being laughed at by one particular Rogue. Damn him!!!
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.
The writer uses the word "surreal" but it kinda gets lost amid the rest of the sentence (purposefully, in my opinion) to make it sound like this guy would rather be busting rocks or whittling chopsticks than farming gold. Yeah, right. And playing was a "hard slog". Sure. That's exactly how I'd describe it, too. That's why I play. I like a good hard slog. The sloggier the better. - Would anyone else like a slice of Slanted Journalism?
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.
And if you didn't bust enough rocks to meet quota, or carve enough chopsticks, what happened then? Did the guards hand you a tasty cool beverage and tell you go cool off in the shade? Did they give you a foot massage? Heck no. Not enough rocks = plastic pipe encouragement. But the writer doesn't say that. He only mentions the punishment for not earning enough gold. And really, if a prisoner is off who-knows-where killing demons and ganking goblin quest-givers, then the plastic pipe treatment sounds about adequate. Get yourself some good add-ons, and concentrate on farming, fool. And stay the hell out of Felwood. Those demons don't carry squat.
And to save both you and I some time, the next few paragraphs simply bring everyone up to speed on the scope of the Chinese Gold industry, and I was starting to doze off during that part, so I'll skip it. Read the link above for the full text. Let's get back to the real complaints about Chinese Gold.
"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.
At this point, we're no longer talking about prisons... just Gold Farming companies. My Chinese co-worker thought nothing of her friends playing for 14 hours a day. And even here at MY work, there are a lot of 12-hour workdays. Am I being exploited? Given a choice between doing what I do for 12 hours, or playing WoW for 12 hours, I'll take Warcraft FTW!
The buyers of virtual goods have mixed feelings … it saves them time buying online credits from China," said Jin.
Ultimately, EVERYTHING in World of Warcraft boils down to time or money. You want a Time-Lost Proto Drake? No problem. All you need is time. Want to hit the gold cap? Put in the time. Want a full set of the latest Tier set? You just need to be playing more, that's all. Quit your job. Live in your mom's basement. Never go outside. EVERYTHING in WoW can be yours.
Don't have time to earn the money to get what you want? The Chinese can help you with that problem. "But that's cheating!" you say. "It's not fair to just BUY what you want with real money!" Really? What about that new Guardian mount? Is that fair? It's yours for the taking, if you're willing to pay Blizz outright for it. Don't have the money? Well, YOU CAN'T HAVE ONE.
Personally, I think Blizz should just offer to sell Gold themselves in 10K increments, just like they sell mounts and vanity pets. They could price it high enough to not ruin a server's economy, but low enough to discourage buying elsewhere. Personally, I think 10K gold should cost $20. For those players out there who simply can't dedicate hours to the game, it would be a huge windfall. And judging from the still few Guardians I see flying around, I don't think it would hurt things too much - other than the Chinese Gold Buying business. Which of course would mean that with no customers buying Chinese Gold, the prisoners would no longer be playing WoW. They'd just get an EXTRA shift of rock-busting. And we gamers could all sleep better knowing that Chinese prisoners were no longer being forced to play WoW. The world would be a better place.
Mortigan the Shopper