A former prisoner at a labor camp in China claims he and other prisoners were routinely forced to play online games like World of Warcraft until their eyes crossed, to make money for gold farmers. According to an article in The Guardian:
As a prisoner at the Jixi labour camp, Liu Dali…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 [£470-570] a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.”
…”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 Guardian quotes figures from the China Internet Centre estimating that 80% of the world’s gold farmers are in China — 100,000 of them doing it full-time. These figures place the amount of make-believe currencies traded in China alone at well over £1 billion.
You don’t need to look very far to find the weirdness here. But in case your brain is not completely tweaked by hearing that prisoners in a real prison were really beaten for not generating enough fake online money, consider this: China has one of the most tightly controlled currencies in the world. The Chinese yuan is very different than the US dollar and the British pound. Those two currencies are traded freely internationally, and fluctuate based on world events ranging from wars to trade agreements to unemployment numbers to commodities futures to…whatever. In very basic terms, the dollar and the pound are regulated by the market.
Way back in 2006, NPR explained it as follows in an article about pressure on then-President Bush to insist that China stop undervaluing its currency:
China’s central bank simply declares an exchange rate and forces, by law, all market players to observe that rate. The yuan is allowed to fluctuate a tiny bit, but not much — and certainly not enough to accommodate the constantly changing pressures of the global marketplace. The Chinese have pegged the currency so that one U.S. dollar buys a little bit more than 8 yuan. Put the other way, one yuan is worth a bit more than 12 cents.
…By keeping the yuan artificially low in value, China is effectively giving U.S. consumers a discount on all Chinese exports. Why? Let’s say a Chinese factory can make a profit selling DVD players for 800 yuan. That means they can then sell it to someone in the United States for $100. If the yuan were allowed to appreciate in value, that 800 yuan DVD player might suddenly cost, say, $115. If an American factory makes a similar player for $110, then that change in the value of the yuan can make the difference between business success and failure for the U.S. manufacturer.
So, by keeping its currency undervalued, China is discounting its own exports. That’s good for U.S. consumers, who get to buy cheaper clothes and electronics and other items. But it’s horrible for many U.S. manufacturers who find they can’t compete with low Chinese prices. Some U.S. manufacturers, though, have adapted by buying many component parts at a lower cost from China. The ability of a manufacturer to adapt depends on the company and the product — and even on the level of globalization in that industry.
If you’ve watched the international economic news even a tiny bit, you’ve probably heard about this issue. American manufacturing jobs have migrated overseas for a number of reasons, but one of the most important reasons manufacturing has gone to China is the currency undervaluation. It’s utterly disingenuous to suggest that the differential is “horrible for many U.S. manufacturers.” Who it’s horrible for are U.S. workers, who are expected to adapt to a virtual world where computer jobs, healthcare and service jobs are the core of the economy. It’s also horrible for U.S. manufacturers that actually make things in the U.S..
But many companies that we think of as “U.S. manufacturers” long ago found it most expedient to move their manufacturing endeavors to other countries. China is far from the only country they moved to. When one says “U.S. manufacturers,” one needs to be clear what one is talking about — and the migration of U.S. manufacturing jobs to other countries can’t be blamed on China. That can only be blamed on U.S. companies, and the U.S. government that started favoring offshoring over keeping jobs at home, because it looked (and looks) better for corporate bottom lines.
But as for gold farming, if it’s true, as it’s said, that 80% of gold farmers are in China, it’s not just because of prisoner abuse. Such practices may cast an ever more disturbing pall over the already creepy practice, but back in May, 2010, Rowenna Davis wrote about organized gold farming in China in her Guardian article Welcome to the New Gold Mines. The rhetoric has a rhythm that I find disturbingly similarly to this May’s article:
Li Hua makes a living playing computer games. Working from a cramped office in the heart of Changsha, China, he slays dragons and loots virtual gold in 10-hour shifts. Next to him, rows of other young workers do the same. “It is just like working in a factory, the only difference is that this is the virtual world,” says Li. “The working conditions are hard. We don’t get weekends off and I only have one day free a month. But compared to other jobs it is good. I have no other skills and I enjoy playing sometimes.”
Li is just one of more than 100 workers employed by Wow7gold, an internet-based company that makes more than £1m a year selling in-game advantages to World of Warcraft (WoW) players. Customers may ask for their avatar’s skill level to be increased (“power levelling”), or for a virtual magic sword or precious ore to be obtained. As one player put it: “Where there’s a demand, China will supply it.”
…For thousands of Chinese workers such as Li, “gold farming” is a way of life. Workers can expect to earn between £80-£120 a month which, given the long hours and night shifts, can amount to as little as 30p an hour. After completing his shift, Li is given a basic meal of rice, meat and vegetables and falls into a bunk bed in a room that eight other gold farmers share. His wages may be low, but food and accommodation are included.
These virtual industries sound surreal, but they are fast entering the mainstream. According to a report by Richard Heeks at Manchester University, an estimated 400,000 Asian workers are now employed in gold farming in a trade worth up to £700m a year. With so many gamers now online, these industries are estimated to have a consumer base of five million to 10 million, and numbers are expected to grow with widening internet access.
What bugs me about the earlier article is that its obsession with worker conditions in gold farms in China reflects, as usual, First World public ignorance (or, at least, short memory) about worker conditions in other industries. What’s even more disturbing is that Liu Dali, the 54-year-old imprisoned in the first story and forced to gold farm, was imprisoned for “illegally petitioning” the government about corruption. How much more obvious does a corrupt government need to be before the international community, and the U.S. in particular, says boo to it?