by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
“Don’t just think because its video games people can’t get hurt.”
Anda is a geek girl, studying programing in high school, and playing tabletop games in the Science Fiction Club after school. When a pioneering female gamer makes a presentation to the class, and offers the girls a chance to join a top clan in a popular MMO game on the condition that they also play female characters, Anda jumps at the chance. Anda’s mother has reservations about online gaming, but Anda promises that is for school, and that she will only talk to other girls her age. Playing as a warrior, Anda finds she has a talent, and quickly levels up doing missions and raids with her clan. But when Sarge, a fellow gamer girl, invites Anda to join her for a paid mission, Anda finds herself over her head in the murky world of killing gold farmers for pay. It seems fair enough to eliminate cheaters from the game, but after talking to Raymond, a Chinese gold farmer who supports himself by working twelve hour days as gold farmer, things suddenly don’t seem quite so clear cut.
In the introduction, Cory Doctorow describes In Real Life as a book about how games are more than “mere amusements.” The graphic novel is an apt and interesting choice for telling that story, since it is a form which is also often regarded as being insufficiently serious, but In Real Life makes good use of the medium. It is difficult to render video game play interesting in writing, but Wang’s watercolours bring Coarsegold Online vibrantly to life. In the real life sections, Wang utilizes a muted, muddy colour palette to convey the dreariness and mundanity of Anda’s day to day existence. Brighter, richer colours suffuse the panels depicting the game world, and we get a nod to body image issues when Anda transforms into a thin, red-headed warrior in distinct contrast to her pudgier, plainer reality. However, while In Real Life encourages young female gamers, it doesn’t really examine the reason why women might be reluctant to play online in female avatars, or otherwise reveal themselves to be female in real life. Liza, the Coarsegold Online recruiter, references the problems female gamers face obliquely in the opening pages of the book, but the subject is never returned to.
In Real Life has an ambitious mission, as laid out in Cory Doctorow’s six page introduction, dealing with the unexpected connection of virtual economies to the real world, and labour practices in the developing world. At less than two hundred pages, the book has to move extremely quickly to cover all that ground. Continuity suffers somewhat, but more importantly, the complex issues the story grapples with are reduced and over-simplified. Telling the story from Anda’s perspective is probably a narrative choice intended to make the story more relatable for young Western readers, but it a decision that comes with problematic baggage when Anda tries to ride to Raymond’s rescue. Her actions do have consequences, but Doctorow’s desire to write an ending that speaks positively to the power of activism and organizing ends up undermining the message that people in the developed world may not fully understand the economic implications of their choices on people in developing countries. Many other readers have suggested Doctorow’s For the Win, a novel told from the perspective of gold farmers, as a more in-depth examination of the issues that are barely touched upon in In Real Life, leaving it feeling half-finished.
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