Exploited: China Forcing Prisoners to Play Online Games for Cash?

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“I come from the orcs, we eat with spoons and forks, we love to eat our pork!” That’s the sound of a male orc in online roleplaying behemoth World of Warcraft. In China, it may also be the sound of an orc male working on the chain gang, by which I mean an actual Chinese prisoner playing an orc male in Blizzard’s mega-MMO to rack up very serious (and very real) coin for Chinese prison guards.

In broader terms, it’s known as “gold farming”—performing repetitive tasks in online games to make virtual coin swappable for real-world money. But the penalty for falling below “gold farming” quotas in at least one Chinese prison? Physical beatings and other forms of abuse.

The Guardian has the story, a sordid exposé about a 54-year-old former prisoner, dubbed “Liu,” who says he toiled by day at a Heilongjiang province labor camp cracking rocks and digging trenches, but scoured World of Warcraft‘s grinding fantasy milieus by night to make money for exploitive prison guards.

He wasn’t alone. Liu says he was just one of “scores of prisoners” made to play online games like World of Warcraft to accrue virtual points guards would then trade for hard cash.

“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labor,” Liu told the Guardian. “There were 300 prisoners forced to play games.”

Liu says he and others worked 12-hour shifts, and heard that guards were earning up to $900 a day. He says none of the prisoners were paid, and that the computers “were never turned off.”

If players failed to meet guard-established quotas, things turned ugly.

“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,” said Liu, who added that groups would play “until we could barely see things.”

China reportedly banned the “use of virtual currency in the trade of real goods” in 2009 in an attempt to limit its economic impact, but scientific figures about gold farming’s prevalence within the country are hard to come by. The Guardian claims “80% of all gold farmers” are in China, which also has the largest Internet population in the world (China, you’ve no doubt heard, is the most populous country worldwide, with over 1.3 billion people per the latest 2010 census).

Assuming Liu’s tale is true, it’s a sorry commentary on the state of affairs in China’s penal system. It’s one thing to make work a game, but something sinister and alarming to force the reverse.