World of Warcraft (WoW) players tend to live in their own voluntary Mountain Dew-and-Cheeto-fueled isolation. For them, completing the challenges within the video game’s world is an enjoyable way to kill a few thousand hours and a few close, personal relationships. For numerous Chinese prisons, however, WoW is a punishment, and prisoners are forced to play the game for mind-numbing hours on end; all for the financial gain of the prisons’ guards.
With the rise of MMO (massively multiplayer online) video games came a rise in virtual economies. The way items such as weapons and armor are purchased in games like WoW are through “farming” or mining for gold. While not especially difficult to do, it’s time consuming, and holds gamers back from completing more challenging quests. To fill this need, certain gamers will spend hours upon hours mining for gold in the game, and then selling it for real-world currency. The guards at a prison in Heilongjiang province were making up to ¥6,000 ($924) per day by having inmates, as many as 300 at a time, working 12-hour shifts mining virtual gold.
One of the ex-inmates has come forward to tell about his gold farming experience in Jixi labor camp, claiming that prisoners were beaten if they didn’t meet certain quotas.
“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 inmate said.
While seemingly more humane and harmless than breaking rocks, staring at a screen for hours and hours can be mentally tortuous; and the fact that the guards are profiting from the prisoners’ labor is ethically dubious in its own right. The questionable nature of this forced labor is made even more ambiguous by the fact that governments are still unsure how to treat virtual goods: should they be considered the same as tangible goods?