World of Warcraft, Human Rights Edition

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Human rights activists have another reason to be mad at China. According to a new report, prisoners are “only” subjected to hard labor such as mining, manufacturing car parts, and carving chopsticks and toothpicks from wood, all for hours on end.

Turns out, when they finish their “day jobs,” prisoners at the Jixi labour camp in northeast China have been forced to play massively multiplayer online (MMO) games such as World of Warcraft, building credits that prison guards would trade for real money.[more]

According to a story in The Guardian, 54-year-old Liu Dali (not his real name) was one of the prisoners forced to mine for virtual gold. 

“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour,” he commented. “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.”

Prisoners had a daily quota, and if they didn’t meet it, were subjected to physical punishment: “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,” the article continues.

Prison guards made as much as $900 on a daily basis trading virtual goods for money.

MMO’s are passionately played by a global gaming community of millions, and according to The Guardian, “It is estimated that 80% of all gold farmers are in China and with the largest internet population in the world there are thought to be 100,000 full-time gold farmers in the country.”

In 2009 the central government issued a directive defining the trade of fictional currencies, but Liu, released before then, believes the practice is still widespread in Chinese prisons. “Although game developers and publishers try to stop gold farming from happening by regularly banning accounts, for the most part its difficult to stop when it’s a real person playing the game.”

With the virtual game goods industry estimated to have generated revenues of approximately $7.3 billion in 2010, according to In-Stat, it’s an industry that’s bound to attract greed and corruption — although it’s a cruel irony that animated demons and goblins should be used against real people, already imprisoned.

It’s also, perhaps, a reminder that “human rights” in the real and virtual world needs branding, more than ever.

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