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The Lawbringer: China, forced labor, and why we must stop buying gold

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Running parallel to the games we love and enjoy is a world full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

Gold selling is a multi-billion dollar industry that spans the globe, with a healthy portion of in-game currency sales originating from China. It's a cheap operation to start up -- all you need is cheap labor, some computers, a PayPal account, and a copy of World of Warcraft. The overhead is low and the payoff is big because the demand is present for the supply. People have a perceived need to buy gold, so more people sell gold, which allows the market to grow. It won't stop, either, as tradable virtual currency from all types of games hit the gray market.

What happens when an industry with low overheads becomes too profitable? What happens when a relatively simple setup like gold farming goes from the quaintness of cottage industry to a virtual currency-fueled industrial revolution? People start getting ideas when money is sitting there on the table, ready and waiting to be snatched up by the stalwart businessman. Combine that sentiment with the corruption and profit motives of institutions and a labor force that is for all intents and purposes free, and you get the sad tale of prisoners in China and the people in charge.

Intent

This edition is not meant to be a condemnation. I am definitely not in a position to take that stand. I read the Chinese prison labor story like everyone else and began to think about the horrible endgame that the notions of forced labor in my game could realize. Because a lot of people use bought gold to buy the most expensive items in game, it's unnerving to think that my selling an ilevel 359 BoE on the auction house or Vial of the Sands is part of a growing culture of oppression and forced labor, where people in China are getting beaten with PVC pipes for missing gold quotas.

What I hope to address in this article is the concept of "money on the table," as well as the logical conclusion to the gold selling business and why we as a community have to take a lot of the responsibility ourselves to stop an industry that is too profitable for its own good. The only reason we are seeing stories like this one pop up is because gold farming and selling is too lucrative of a market and too powerful of a practice that human beings in a position of power over others will force them to farm gold for profit. Just writing that sentence makes me look back 10 years, realizing that this is one of those scenarios I just never saw coming.

The story of the week

In case you haven't read the story yet, it has been reported as follows. The Guardian ran a story on Wednesday, May 25, purporting to tell the tale of one "Liu Dali," a prisoner at the Jixi labor camp in northeastern China. These types of labor camps in China have prisoners digging ditches, breaking rocks, and all of the other stuff your parents told you you'd be doing in jail if you screwed up down the road. (My dad used to tell me that if I went to prison, I'd have to break big rocks into little rocks, and every Hanukkah, I'd get a new hammer.)

According to Liu, the prison bosses at the Jixi labor camp forced prisoners to play games after hours to farm currency that their bosses would then sell to gold outfitters. More money could be earned from the gold selling than the labor. Prisoners were physically beaten if they could not meet their overseers' quotas. Prison officials used slave labor to pump gold and other currencies into the virtual currency market.

Gold farming outfits are already oppressive toward their workers. Low pay, long hours, and cramped conditions are no surprise from what we know of many gold farming businesses in China already. Combine that with a prison population that already undergoes incredible amounts of forced labor and reeducation, and you have an inevitable conclusion -- if selling virtual currency is big business, someone somewhere will force someone to do it.

Money on the table

If you are not familiar with the phrase "money on the table," you should be. A driving force in business and culture, money on the table is a concept that one feels regret for leaving said money on the table. It's right there for the taking, as long as someone is willing to reach out and grab it. Gold selling has become one of these businesses, where the market has grown to such an incredible degree that there is still a huge demand for a steady supply of virtual currency. People not in the gold farming business who have the capacity to be are, to many people, leaving money on the table.

You could say that Blizzard is leaving money on the table by not selling its own currency, but it has chosen not to as part of game design and philosophy. You could also say that Blizzard left a whole bunch of money on the table by donating proceeds from the Cenarion Hatchling pet to Japan Relief. I can assure you that many investors thought that and will be vocal about it during the next earnings call. You can even say that Blizzard is leaving money on the table by not releasing a new mount every two months in the pet store instead of once a year since, clearly, there is a demand for such premium content. The point is that Blizzard chooses to leave this money on the table for one reason or another, be it purchase fatigue among by players or gameplay concerns.

The fact that there is money on the table that cannot be ignored in relation to gold selling is what upsets me. Such a large industry and profit sphere has grown around gold selling that you would be crazy not to use your free forced labor for anything but the activities that generate the best profit margins. That's what gold selling has become -- one of the better benefit-cost ratios in China, infamous for horrible working conditions and oppression of workers. Our game and our genre is now part of the seediest of seedy underbellies.

Slave goods

Now that it is common knowledge, especially since mainstream news outlets have picked up on this story, that some farmed gold out there is created using what amounts to slave labor, what do we do? Where is the legitimate gold being sold versus the slave gold? Trick question -- there is no legitimate gold you can purchase. All gold selling is against the terms of service and against the EULA you agreed to.

Many countries release lists of goods that are imported that are made using child or slave labor, and on those lists are everything from electronics and textiles to bricks and food. The world is full of slave labor to make widely used goods. It's a sad realization that some part of your computer or electronic device that you are reading this article on was made by someone who didn't want to but was forced to labor over it.

If you think people haven't thought about a dystopian virtual currency future already, where gold farmers try to create labor unions and the nebulous nature of these new economies are explored, you've got another thing coming. Cory Doctorow wrote a book about such a world.

Time to stop buying gold

Gold farming is an industry that we as a community have the ability to put a dent in because the nature of gold buying is at the heart of the consumer. Is it the consumer's fault that gold selling is so rampant? It's not about blame, but rather about who has the power in the relationship between buyer and seller. The WoW and greater MMO community can work together to lower gold selling margins to the point that it is just not profitable enough to justify the huge business that sprouted up over people's want for virtual currency. We need to stop buying gold.

You'll immediately respond to me with (and for good reason), "We will just see this forced, underpaid, and overworked workforce doing other jobs." Other industries are not something that we have direct control over. But gold selling is something we do have direct control over as MMO gamers, and this particular industry is susceptible to our influence. We can't save everyone, but we can close down an industry that is becoming more and more atrocious as time goes on, as MMOs get larger and the purchase of virtual currency becomes more widespread. We need to stop buying gold.

Right now, gold selling is money on the table, and every shady character will come out of the woodwork to exploit the growing demand for virtual currency sales. This isn't just a story about prisoners forced to labor for untold hours, breaking boulders by day and performing endless, tedious tasks at night. This is the story about a global industry that feeds off of our want for the quick payoff without retribution. Much like factories in the 1800s were nebulous under the law and crawling with corruption, we need to root out the problem by not feeding the demand. We need to stop buying gold.

Eventually, games will be made and virtual worlds will be created that de-emphasize the need for stockpiles of tradable currency, or Blizzard in particular will find a way to cut out the middleman from the gold selling equation. Blizzard could even go back to making random dropped purples from raids bind on pickup like regular loot to remove raid BoEs from the economy. Hopefully that day comes sooner than later, because I hate that stories like the Chinese prisoner labor report are part of the industry and genre of games that I devote my life and free time to. Right now, though, gold selling is too profitable, and we need to actively work to make it less so.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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