Earlier this week, the Guardian newspaper based in London told the story of a former prisoner at northeast China's Jixi labor camp who spent his days breaking rocks and digging trenches in the open cast coalmines and his weary nights forcibly playing World of Warcraft (WoW) for hours on end to build up virtual currency that his jailers could sell for actual money.

The ex-con claims that 300 inmates were forced to play video games in 12-hour shifts. Meanwhile, Jixi prison bosses were reportedly sometimes pulling in more than $900 daily from these efforts. The prisoner also claims that beatings were used to enforce the near-24-hour work schedule of physical labor and WoW play.

As Scientific American reported in a January 2010 article, "Gaming for Profits: Real Money from Virtual Worlds," the practice of playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) endlessly (often repeatedly performing monotonous tasks) to earn online credits that someone else can cash in on is known as gold farming, a practice more than a decade old. Often working from developing nations, gold-farm laborers feed a market consisting of gamers in more affluent countries willing to pay hundreds of dollars for these credits so they can better enjoy their own online gaming experiences.

Game makers and many gamers themselves typically oppose gold farming but find firms that run gold farming operations can circumvent efforts to shut them down. Such efforts include blocking certain Chinese Internet (IP) addresses from accessing North American or European servers where the games are played or requiring players to agree not to engage in real-money trading in order to participate in a game. However, IP addresses can be rerouted so as not to appear to originate from a particular location (such as China), and legal issues regarding "ownership" of virtual goods has yet to be fully resolved.

In his Scientific American article Richard Heeks, chair of development informatics at the University of Manchester in England, estimated that the average monthly salary of a gold farmer in China is $150. Of course, this drops to zero if the farmer happens to be playing from prison.

Image courtesy of Andrew Bardwell, via Wikimedia Commons