It may be a shock, but that WoW gold you found online was, in all likelihood, not made by magical elves in matching green suits, gleefully working away at computers powered by the smiles of little boys and girls, deep in the heart of Santa's workshop. In fact, some of that yummy, yummy gold you recently purchased online may have come from a Chinese labor camp. The Guardian quotes Liu Dali (name changed for the article), "a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for 'illegally petitioning' the central government about corruption in his hometown," who claims to have worked in such a camp. According to Dali, prisoners were beaten for not meeting their quotas, and that despite a 2009 government directive aimed at regulating the "virtual currency" industry, requiring licenses for engaging in such endeavors, the problem remains widespread. Recounting his treatment while in prison, Dali said:
Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour. There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. [...] We didn't see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.
Read more after the jump!
This isn't exactly breaking news to those who have followed video game news; one will occasionally happen across a report about "gold farming" sweatshops. Friends of mine who regularly play WoW also note the presence of ninja looters -- for those unfamiliar with the term, it is a player who takes loot to which he or she has no claim -- many of which, despite playing on North American servers, have a rather loose understanding of the English language. Gold farming is also an immensely profitable industry, given that in the case of prison labor, it finds itself with almost zero overhead, save for computers, a small workstation, and of course the bothersome cost of paying a man to beat a disobedient prisoner into bloody submission, as well as providing the implements -- i.e. belts, nightsticks, or gloves with good knuckle guards (we wouldn't want anyone to get hurt) -- to administer said beatings.
However, to play the role of the contrarian, it's worth noting that the sources in these stories are nearly always prisoners-turned-dissidents (insofar as they are willing to dish the dirt to the foreign press) who have an axe to grind, and am thus not as immediately reliable a source as, say, a former prison warden -- one never imprisoned nor in danger of imprisonment -- whose crisis of conscience compelled him to turn against the workings of a cruel and unjust system. It also doesn't help that China is Communist (well, sort of), a fact that gnaws mainly at the psychological well-being of those living in cities in which overalls are considered fashionable, but nonetheless carries all the historical baggage that comes with the territory. They are, however, likable by "Red Menace" standards, in hat they are relatively market-friendly, by which of course I mean that they make all our stuff. Still, they are officially a single-party Communist state, and thus officially scary -- not quite the "nuclear missiles pointed at every major American city" level of scary that the Soviets had, but scary nonetheless. With that in mind, we tend to approach such articles with a certain bias, digesting its contents and feeding into our "background assumptions": The tendency to judge a story less on its factual merits than how well it conforms to our established perceptions of a particular subject. In the case at hand, the assumption is that China is a totalitarian state that has sweatshops and slave-like prison labor; hence, a story about slave-like prison labor seems all the more plausible because it involves China.
Whatever the case, the sad fact is that we are all -- myself included as I write this on my PC -- tremendous hypocrites when it comes to outrage over these kinds of stories. While it's easy to point out how evidently awful something like prison or sweatshop labor is, it's something that we support through what Karl Marx (as long as we're vaguely on the topic of Communism) described as "that callous cash payment." With just a few keystrokes and mouse clicks one can acquire his or her commodity without the rather disturbing experience of seeing how the proverbial sausage is made.