In Real Life
Cory Doctorow (writer) and Jen Wang (artist)
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Anda is a shy girl who doesn’t feel she fits in at her new school. But in her programming class one day, a visitor comes and introduces her to an online game with an all-female guild to join. Anda takes the visitor up on her offer and starts to play Coarsegold.
Immediately, Anda finds herself in a world where she can be herself without worrying about how the rest of the world sees her. She has a knack for fighting and is taken under the wing of Sarge, a more experienced player who introduces her to a pay-to-play approach using real money. For $20 in real life, Anda and others will go out and kill people who farm gold and valuable in-game items. Then the unthinkable happens: Anda befriends a gold farmer. Once she starts learning more about him and his life, will she be able to justify her actions?
Wang’s artwork is gorgeous. It kinda makes me wish that Coarsegold was a real game so I could play it. I like the way she translates HP bars and other mechanics of MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) on the page.
The book also raises some difficult questions about ethics. Is it ethical for people to be a gold farmer because it ruins the balance of an in-game economy? Is it ethical to hunt down gold farmers for real money if it means you can then afford to buy in-game items for cash? If gold farming is someone’s actual job, is it ethical to try to abolish the job? Are the leaders/business owners guilty of unethical behavior? In Real Life brings up all of these and more, so it’d be a great book for a class discussion. I know it made me think of gold farming, which actually is a major issue in gaming, in a different light than I’d seen it before.
Anda is a well-developed character who behaves realistically given the personality Doctorow created for her. She genuinely wants to help people, and she absolutely loves gaming. She’s excited to find something she’s good at and help others out. As a girl gamer myself, I can really identify with her. I’ve played with people like Sarge, too–they’re kinda prickly and can get their hackles up when you challenge them, but deep down, they’re not bad people. Raymond could have used more development, however; he has more page time than Sarge, but I feel like I got to know Sarge as a character better than him.
The plot itself was a little shifty. I didn’t get a good sense of time except when the characters expressly stated “Oh, it’s been two weeks since…” or things like that. More work could’ve been done to explain how much time was passing.
The side characters didn’t seem like they were explored or explained well, either. Anda’s parents were mostly cutouts who only served one purpose in the story. I was also confused as to why a teacher would allow a visitor to come into their class to hawk a video game at the kids. I know it’s a programming class, but I work in a school. I’m pretty sure if we had someone come into try to convince our students to buy something not directly related to education we’d get in trouble.
White Savior Complex. Oh, boy. Anda, despite not knowing what Raymond’s life is really like, decides to “help” him by encouraging him to strike for better healthcare. She’s never been to China. She’s only just recently found out what strike is. There is no way this could end well for anyone. For a sixteen-year-old to take the advice of a random twelve-year-old they met on the internet is ridiculous. Not only that, but I feel like it made the message more garbled than it needed to be. Instead of saying, “Everyone has needs and some people do what they have to do,” Doctorow seems to tell the reader, “Act like Americans! We know best!”
Yes, the working conditions for gold farmers are unfair. We’re not debating that. What is being shown, however, is a bunch of lookalike characters (which harkens back to the “we can’t tell you apart, and we’re not going to bother to get to know you at all because you’re not like us” Imperialist attitude) being told that if they just behave like the Almighty Westerners, they can Have Happy Lives, Too™! The problem with this is that they aren’t Americans. They work in an industry where they’re most likely replaceable, since being a gold farmer is a fairly lucrative position. At the end, the gold farmers are all shown going to their boss’s office and demanding better healthcare. It seems too good to be true, even in a work of fiction.
I just feel like the story would’ve been stronger if Raymond had been the main character. Show us what his life is like in China. Show us the backbreaking labor he did when he first got to Beijing. Show him staying up all night to farm gold in the game. Show us him meeting Anda, then taking what she says to heart, if you want to do it that way. Show him standing up for himself and the consequences, the struggles he faces trying to get a new job and justice for his old coworkers. Make it about him being an activist and advocate for himself, rather than some random internet person thinking they know best how to help someone. It’d make a compelling companion novel, if nothing else.
Also, at the end there’s a throwaway line that sort of bugs me. One of the characters says, “You will play honorably, you will play fiercely, and above all, you will show others you have what it takes to be extraordinary. It is not gender, nor age, nor race, but your ability to work hard at what you love” (166-7). The problem? It’s an all-female guild. Yes, girls get ragged on a lot in gaming. One of my fellow female gamers was just complaining a few weeks ago that she gets “unsolicited dick pics” all the time, and I joked back that, by virtue of being a female gamer, they can’t be “unsolicited.” It’s darkly, tragically funny because it’s true. But what it seems like the character (and thus, Doctorow) is saying here is, while girls can be just as good as boys, but boys aren’t allowed in this particular club. It’s still sexist, and if a male character was saying the same thing, everyone would be jumping on him for it because he wasn’t allowing girls in.
Argh! And this book had such potential, too.
This book is good for the complex issues it brings up, and could lead to some lively debates and discussions. At the same time, it has a lot of problems that would need to be addressed either before or during those conversations.
- 8th grade and older students in classes with a strong deconstruction/discussion component
- People who like to argue, because seriously, I want someone else to read it now so we can grump about it
- Death: video game death
- Deceit: characters trick others to do what they want to do
- Lying: characters lie about their actions online and break promises regarding how they will behave
- Murder: players kill other players in the game
- Other Illegal Activity: goldfarming, which is against most MMOs’ terms of service agreements; “bounty hunting” in game paid for using real-life currency
- Prejudice: racism against foreign players; sexism against female players
- Supremacy: “West is best” mentality/approach to problem-solving
- Violence: digital violence in the game
- Weapon Use: use of fantasy weapons
- Change vs. Tradition
- Good vs. Evil
- Right vs. Wrong
|Exploration of Conflict||2|
|Consideration of Themes||2|
|Suspension of Disbelief||1|
|Imagery and Description||2|
|Rhythm and Pace of Book||1|
|Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation)||2|