"Gold farming"--selling virtual credits amassed in online multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft to gamers for cash--is part of a $3 billion market of virtual gaming goods, according to a recent World Bank estimate, and nowhere is the practice more widespread than China. As industry analyst Tom Chatfield told The Sunday Times back in 2009, there are Chinese gold-farming "sweatshops" where 20 to 40 people play "in shifts on banks of computers. They do it because they can earn more money doing that than producing garments in factories." Today, The Guardian introduces a new and alarming dimension of gold farming into the mix: forced prison labor. 

A former prisoner at China's Jixi labor camp, who was jailed for "illegally petitioning" the government about corruption, tells the British paper that he and hundreds of other prisoners were forced to play online games like World of Warcraft for 12-hour shifts. The "prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labor," he explains, adding that the prisoners themselves didn't see any of the money and the "computers were never turned off." If he didn't hit his work quota, he'd be physically punished. "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," he recounts. "We kept playing until we could barely see things." He believes many prisons across northeast China have similar practices, despite the government's efforts to crack down on the illegal trading of virtual assets like fictional currencies or increased skill levels.

Ciara Byrne at VentureBeat reflects on what today's revelation means for gamers themselves. "From the suicides and explosion at the Foxconn factory producing Apple devices to sweatshops and prison labour for gold farming, maybe it's time that tech lovers became more responsible about the cost of their digital fun," she writes. "Games should be fun for everyone, not played at someone else's expense."