Sunday, May 29, 2011

obama enlists night elf mohawk as special envoy to china

Apparently hard time in China no longer just includes applying lead paint to children's toys and poisoning toothpaste. Now you can be sentenced to 12 hours a day farming gold in Azeroth in addition to physical labor and political indoctrination at some Chinese re-education camps according to a former prisoner at the Jixi re-education through labor camp in Heilongjiang province. As reported to the Guardian:
"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. 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."
For those of you who have no idea what this means, let me explain briefly. In a game like World of Warcraft, a player purchases items or abilities for use in the game through currency generated and collected while playing the game. Defeating monsters, completing tasks and quests, and other activities earn your character gold.[1] Gold can be exchanged directly from one character in the game to another. You might do this to help a beginning player or to pay for goods or services rendered to your character by another character. Gold farmers earn this in-game money through hours and hours of boring, repetitive play (grinding) and then trade it to another character in exchange for real money, dollars and pounds, deposited into real bank accounts. In other words, virtual money becomes real money for the gold farmer.[2]

Some crazy facts & statistics about gold farming in China:
  • approximately £1.2 billion (over $2 billion USD) worth of virtual currencies were traded through China in 2008
  • 80% of all gold farmers are in China
  • there are roughly 100,000 full time gold farmers in China
  • a 2009 law in China makes it illegal to trade in virtual currencies without a license from the central government
It's long been "sound" economic policy to export low-skill, labor intensive jobs overseas while retaining the bulk of the surplus value for the home country, or, as the nature of businesses change, the transnational entity. But now we're exporting our supposed entertainments as well. This is more than tourism to underdeveloped nations like Thailand, Brazil, or the Philippines to take advantage of inexpensive accommodations in beautiful, exotic locales, five star food and drinks at fast food prices, and, increasingly, cheap sex with economically exploited women (and children). We're literally paying people to play the game for us, doing all the grinding while we enjoy the benefits of the work through shiny gear, flashy spells, and such.

This problem of so called gold farming has led some companies hosting MMOs like Blizzard and NC Soft to block Chinese game accounts in attempts to thwart the trade. Non-tradeable currencies like prestige, honor, and valor points which must be earned by the character are alternative methods to eliminate the secondary, and for the game companies, undesired, market in gold. The problem with these alternate currencies, however, is that their usefulness primarily manifests at the upper experience levels of play. High level characters can often generate money rather quickly but value these other forms of currency more as the sole way to purchase much of the best equipment in the upper echelons and later stages of the game. Low and mid tier characters, on the other hand, still rely primarily on tradeable currencies for advancement, meaning the demand for cheap gold, even when collected in conditions virtually amounting to slavery, is unlikely to diminish anytime soon.

Beyond the annoyance of gold spamming adverts in the open chat channels, gold farming has another more immediately detrimental effect on the in-game economy. The availability of so much cash without the corresponding investment in labor by the players actually logged-in to play means prices are heavily inflated in the marketplaces of games like World of Warcraft. It's like the Federal Reserve just continuing to print money, except the printing presses represent thousands of hours of forced labor by political prisoners who get no pleasure out of the game. Prisoners are expected to keep playing until they can barely see things. And I doubt very much Doritos and Mountain Dew are on tap.

Prisoners aren't even allowed the small pleasures of leveling up.

The nerd in me wonders if the owners of the prison camps have calculated the strategies to maximize their profits. Do the prisoners group up to complete lucrative dungeon runs? Are certain classes and professions prized more than others? Do they cooperate to collect rare materials and craft them into extremely valuable gear to be sold at in-game auction houses to fetch gold? Or do they just kill monsters, collect the drops, and repeat? It seems to me somebody could make a fortune consulting for Chinese prison camps to answer these questions and determine what gameplay generates the most wealth. Not that I'm advocating any "light treason" and violations of fundamental human rights. But it does beg the question how invested the prison officials are in getting rich off inmate labor through virtual currency trading.

Do you think when officials from the United States and Europe meet with their Chinese counterparts, they discuss World of Warcraft? Does the issue of gold farming in prison camps enter talks about human rights and trade? Or does the perception that video games are for kids, are just for fun, and what is being bought is virtual obscure the underlying issue of prison labor products being widely and openly traded on the international market, even in the US where there is a ban on importing such items when they are physical, durable goods? How should US laws handle the exchange of virtual goods for real dollars? Or should the law not get involved at all?

Now that the real and the virtual worlds so freely mix, it's hard to keep track of what is valuable since all value is relative. It's a strange new world where an accounting could in all seriousness be required to determine if my game character is worth more money than my car. As an attraction at Disney World proclaims, welcome to the world of tomorrow.

[1] A player is a real person. A character is the proxy of that person in the game, also called an avatar or a toon.
[2] I'll avoid a lengthy and technical commentary on the exchange of the real for the virtual a la Marx or Baudrillard. But it is interesting to think how effort measured by time is now fungible between serious pursuits (work) and entertainment (the game).

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