The ability of human beings to take something positive and constructive and twist it into something negative and destructive never ceases to amaze me. Just when I thought I'd seen it all, I learned that guards at prison camps in China are forcing prisoners to spend hours upon hours playing computer games like "World of Warcraft" to earn credits that can be sold for real money.
Let me state right up front that I'm not a gamer myself, but I can appreciate the enjoyment made possible by massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. I can respect the concerns that are raised about violence and addiction and all of that, but there's a positive dimension that I find compelling. My exposure to the phenomenon is almost exclusively through my kids, who are avid gamers and who have made great friends from all over the world playing this stuff. If for no other reason than that, I'm a fan.
So I found it particularly disturbing when I read a recent report by The Guardian in the UK about the case of Liu Dali (not his real name), a 54-year-old former prisoner in China who told a troubling tale about a very dark side of the phenomenon. Here's an excerpt:
"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 [US$775-925] 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. The lack of regulations has meant that even prisoners can be exploited in this virtual world for profit.
To get a reality check on all this, I turned to my son Dan, who has a degree in online multimedia and game development, has written extensively for gaming publications, and has years of experience with MMOs in general, and "World of Warcraft" in particular. I asked him if anything can be done about the problem, and he painted a pretty grim picture:
The game development industry has spent millions trying to defeat things like gold farming; it destroys in-game economies and can adversely affect other players' experiences in a truckload of ways. Companies like Blizzard Entertainment (the guys who develop and operate World of Warcraft) will do things like track account activity for suspicious behavior (i.e., playing 24/7) and shut down those accounts. The problem is, Chinese gold farmers (as they're colloquially known) have gotten pretty wise. They'll use multiple accounts spread over multiple regions and switch between them rapidly, or ferry in-game gold between accounts like money launderers. Gold farming's a multimillion dollar revenue stream; if you want to stop it, you need to stop players from buying gold in the first place, stop the gold resellers, and so forth -- none of which is feasible (or even possible) for a company, even one as well-funded and intentioned as Blizzard. They do their best. They run stings banning hundreds, if not thousands of accounts in a week. They take millions of gold off the market. But they're just one company, and it's a big game. Besides, there are other games too. And not every company has Blizzard's resources to put to task.
It seems clear that gold farming is here - and certainly in China - to stay. So Chinese authorities need to crack down on the prison guards who use the practice to abuse prisoners. Ironically enough, according to the Guardian report, Liu himself was a former prison guard. The three-year sentence he was serving was punishment for "illegally petitioning" the central government about corruption in his hometown. If the Chinese authorities can crack down on citizens who petition the government illegally, they should have it within their means to crack down on prisoner abuse.