We’ve known about gold farming for years. It’s the practice of monotonously earning virtual currency in games like World of Warcraft in order to sell it for real cash to less patient gamers. Building up gold takes hours and hours, and is still only worth the effort if you’re doing it in a country where wages are very low and you’re selling your product to gamers in countries that are relatively affluent. Most of the world’s gold farming takes place in China, where young men live in flophouse apartments and go on 20 hour marathon gaming stretches, methodically whacking goblins on the head to earn livings slightly better than what they’d get working at real-world factories. Here’s a great audio documentary my colleague Geoff Siskind produced on the subject (skip to 12:45).
As grim as that all sounds, a report has emerged of a much more sinister practice: forced gold farming in labour camps. A former inmate of the Jixi labour camp in north-east China tells The Guardian of long days spent digging trenches, followed by long nights of forced video gaming. Hundreds of prisoners were reportedly exploited by corrupt guards into gaming into the night. Those who failed to meet their virtual gold quotas would be beaten with plastic pipes.
Besides being absolutely bonkers crazy, the gold farming phenomenon is instructive in getting us thinking about best practices for a globalized online economy. This isn’t the cheery world-flattening that Thomas Friedman promised us—it’s the realtime exploitation of radical disparities in wealth, divorced from any one nation’s labour laws and depersonalized by anonymizing technology.