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As It Happens, Your WoW Gold May Be Made By Prison Labor

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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.

4 Comments

Mittens said:

You are far more charitable than I am on this issue. China has mobile execution chambers and a policy of non-transparent, non-review on criminal convictions involving crimes against the state. Condoleezza Rice called them the "World's worst violator of human rights" during a time when her state reports were also covering genocides in Africa. The people are, of course, not to blame. Look up the Nangpa La Shooting of 2006 for a particular grizzly and filmed incident of border patrol shooting down children and nun trying to escape China or the Wo Weihan case for examples of judicial abuse. The UN and our government have been trying to stop Chinese humanitarian crimes for decades. However, despite China having some of the "safest cities in the world", China executed over four times as many convicts as the rest of the world combined in 2005.

Maybe you feel like this little injustice (forced e-gold mining) is not really worth dredging up how bad it is in that system, but I think it's just being made clear how difficult it is to get any journalism out of China's borders (especially since most journalism is banned without permit).

Garrick said:

Cory Doctorow actually wrote a novel, For The Win, about exactly this issue: gold farmers in China and India trying to find a way to not get assaulted or murdered by their "employers". They dealt with the whole "do we really have a right to criticize?" issue too.

Dns said:

Well, to defend capitalism (and be the contrarian to your contrarian), WoW gold-for-cash is always produced in such nefarious ways because it's an illegal good. You're not supposed to buy it!

I'm not saying every legitimate industry is morally perfect, but if you're producing an illegal good in the first place, what's bending human rights laws in the process? You're already running an inherently illegal operation.

Super Swede said:

I'll have to be fairly brief with my replies, as it's getting into the wee hours (for me, with my grandpa-like bedtime) and i need to get a'crackin on finishing the daily article.

@Garrick: Thank you for the recommendation, i'll be sure to check it out :)

@Mittens: Enjoyable to read as always, hombre. I didn't get too deep into China's workings, as i was trying not to stray too far from the main focus of the article -- in retrospect, that utterly failed -- though the points you make are certainly worthwhile ones. The truly sad part of it all is that, despite governmental concerns on the more "liberal democracy" end of the political spectrum, China has an important business relationship with those who find its system abhorrent. It doesn't help that China has that ever-attractive cheap labor market -- to be overtly cynical, having a working class that can make few demands at one's disposal is fantastic news for any profit-minded entrepreneurial type. Granted, China is what one might consider an emerging market -- perhaps one day there will be hope on the horizon -- but any kind of real, systemic change seems secondary to the bottom line, unless the two are linked. Maybe they'll get there one day, but in the meantime, especially given China's international clout, i'm not tremendously that such a monolithic power structure can get the righteous shafting it deserves anytime soon.

@Dns: Don't take it as an attack on capitalism, per se. Despite being a raging liberal -- back during my younger days, i was stridently left-wing, bordering on socialist -- capitalism certainly does have its place. Mainly it's that for all its ills, i prefer the decentrilization (however small it may seem, here in the age of vast, international corporations), and the fact that, aside from being partially destructible in a way that doesn't bring the entire machine down on itself (such as with the Soviet Union), the diffusion of power through independent, private power structures does, on most occasions, prevent something as ghastly and totalitarian as a political system like China, North Korea, East Germany, and the like. So i'm perfectly happy to settle on liberalism, preferably with a tendency toward social democracy. As for the fact that it's an illegal good, i'd say more attention should be paid to the context. Yes, the fact that it's illegal lends itself to seedy business practices (i.e. for all practical purposes, slavery), but with China not exactly having enviable labor standards, it's not surprising that common decency -- at least the way most people would view it -- goes out the window. There are plenty of legitimate products being produced in sweatshops, and while it's nothing on the order of forced prison labor, it's nonetheless rather ghastly. Incidentally, it also makes the bosses -- i believe the economic term is "sh*t tons of money," compared with countries in which proper regulations are in place.


Sweet Jesus, it's late. Hopefully at least some of that was coherent.

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Super Swede on As It Happens, Your WoW Gold May Be Made By Prison Labor: I'll have to be fairly brief with my replies, as it's getting into the wee hours (for me, with my...

Dns on As It Happens, Your WoW Gold May Be Made By Prison Labor: Well, to defend capitalism (and be the contrarian to your contrarian), WoW gold-for-cash is always produced in such nefarious ways...

Garrick on As It Happens, Your WoW Gold May Be Made By Prison Labor: Cory Doctorow actually wrote a novel, For The Win, about exactly this issue: gold farmers in China and India trying...

Mittens on As It Happens, Your WoW Gold May Be Made By Prison Labor: You are far more charitable than I am on this issue. China has mobile execution chambers and a policy of...

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