This one's a little disturbing, so if you're in a good mood then proceed with caution. The Guardian has spoken to a Chinese man by the pseudonym of Liu Dali who claims that during his spell in a prison in North-East China, among the traditional back-breaking labour of breaking rocks and "whittling chopsticks and toothpicks from planks of wood", the guards also made him and the other convicts play massively multiplayer games in twelve hour shifts, in the interest of selling the gold online. I've never bought MMORPG currency online, but I imagine if I had I'd currently be feeling quite ill.
Dali, an ex-prison guard who was imprisoned for "illegally petitioning" the Chinese government regarding corruption in his hometown, alleges that between 300 prisoners working in tandem the guards boasted that they could earn some 5,000-6,000 RMB (around £500) each day. Reading Dali's description of anyone who failed to make their quota is sobering, to say the least.
"If I couldn't complete my work quota, they would punish me physically. 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. We kept playing until we could barely see things."
The Chinese government actually banned the practice of gold farming in 2009, the article explains, and Dali's imprisonment took place before then. But Dali is doubtful that the process has stopped- "Many prisons across the north-east of China also forced inmates to play games. It must still be happening," he said.
Two things spring to mind regarding this. First of all, it's a premise that belongs in a science-fiction novel, and a dreary one at that. Prisoners being used as slave labour in an artificial reality? And the wealthy consumers of the world buying the resulting good, ignorant of its origins? It's absurd.
Second of all, I have an all-new respect for Eve Online's PLEX system. PLEX, which stands for Pilot License Extension, is a roundabout means of buying in-game currency for your character that bypasses gold farmers and other third parties entirely. CCP know there will always be players with more disposable income than time, so they offer these players an official, safe means of converting that money into Eve's Interstellar Kredits.
A PLEX is a tradeable good in Eve that can be used to add 30 days of in-game time to your subscription. So, if you want currency in EVE, you can just buy an Eve timecode, convert it into two in-game PLEXes through official channels and then sell it on the in-game open market. Most importantly, this keeps EVE's economy stable because you're not just letting players pay to inject extra cash into their character's wallet and, by extension, the economy. You're giving them an object that other players will be happy to pay for.
Ultimately, the game's veteran playerbase get to use their inordinate in-game wealth to buy PLEXes and thereby keep playing with paying CCP a penny, and the players that want to get rich quick can just sell PLEXes to do so safely and without encouraging gold farmers into the universe. Everybody wins. Except the gold farmers. They can, of course, sell ISK at a rate which undercuts PLEXes, but why bother? There are easier games to earn money in.
Which is really the problem. Until other online games start offering similar services, there will always be gold farmers, which means there will always be an exploitative and unregulated industry which answers to no-one. There will be more prisoners and there will be more plastic pipes. Without wanting to be too pessimistic, I'd like to see some figures on precisely how big a dent China's banning of gold farming made on the country's estimated 100,000 gold farmers, I really would.