Chinese Guards Use Computer Games to Abuse Prisoners

Don Tennant

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jun 2, 2011 5:59 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

This is just bizzare.

My guess is that Chinese authorities will crack down. 

Remember when our dogs started dropping off because of contaminated dog food?  The Chinese executed the man who was responsible for certifying that.  I suspect that these prison guards are going to be joining the inmates soon.  They look the other way on this type of behavior until it gets into the media.

My father's dog was one of the victims of that dog food scandal.  Not sure what brand it was.  I don't buy anything from China to be eaten by man, child, or pet.

Jun 4, 2011 3:50 PM Drunken Economist Drunken Economist  says:

Gold farming is done in developing countries all over the world, so I don't know why NASSCOM Don is picking on the Chinese for treatment of their prisoners.

I mean seriously, here in the US we have prisoners doing.. what? Sitting around? Hey, at least we don't have them playing Nintendo with Predator drones out of Las Vegas.

This is OLD NEWS for anyone who has been paying attention. And if you want a more balanced read on the topic, Cory Doctorow has written an entire (almost fictional but not quite) book on the worldwide gold farming situation called 'For the Win'.

Google is your friend.

-Drunken Economist



Jun 6, 2011 11:28 AM Su Su  says: in response to R. Lawson


My father's dog was one of the victims of that dog food scandal.  Not sure what brand it was.  I don't buy anything from China to be eaten by man, child, or pet.


This is exactly you should do in every corner of your life and then see how US looks like.

You can't pick and choose.

You can't say I'll use cheap clothes and commodities in my life and anything CHEAPER with same quality is good for my life but I'll blame companies who think GOOD = PROFIT and I'll decide when to open and when to protect/close - US is not that superpower.

When I say YOU - it is not you as a person ... I mean average americans complainging in this forum or elsewhere.

Either you open up or protect as some people here suggests. The problem is people even can't see what will happen when you start protecting and close your economy.

I stopped commenting much here...because if someone/group thinks not allowing Indians in US is best option and as if every Indian out here is cheap and stupid and cheater  - you can't change that mindset (however that mindset also not going to change anything in US and same mindset thinks all Indians think all Americans are racist - no they are not - but some are!) but I liked this comment I quoted so wanted say something to you.

Jun 6, 2011 12:36 PM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to Su

I remember how it was when most of the stuff on the shelves here - almost all of it in fact - was made in America. I vote to protect.

Jun 8, 2011 7:37 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to Su

Unfortunately, we don't have much of a choice Su.  The shelves are quite sparse of goods made in America, however I make an attempt whenever possible.

And just to clarify, I don't oppose Indian or Chinese companies and I don't oppose your ability to engage in the same profession in India.  I simply want  a level playing field when it comes to immigration, trade, currency, and taxes.  I believe that given a level playing field we can compete against any nation.

I'm not against global trade, I am however against unwise trade agreements.  Generally speaking, if we have deficits more often than surpluses that agreement is unwise.  Unfortunately for us, we run deficits as far as the eye can see.

Please, someone nominate me as a trade representative.

Jun 10, 2011 8:22 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to R. Lawson

I can report that I bought a new pair of New Balance shoes yesterday.  The fabric is imported but the shoe is assembled in the United States.  That's the most "American" shoe at least amongst top brands.

Even at high end retailers like Macys the clothes are almost always imported.  You may be able to get suits made in America.

Ironically, because of our trade arrangements with Japan, Japanese cars are the "most American" even when compared to Chevy and Ford - since they moved production to Mexico. 

Oct 18, 2011 12:06 PM micahliam20 micahliam20  says: in response to Dolores


Oct 18, 2011 12:08 PM 2u rackmount computer 2u rackmount computer  says: in response to micahliam20



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