17. A graphic novel: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
List Progress: 10/30
It can be very uncomfortable to see a writer take on subject matter that’s too heavy, difficult, or complex for them. I am by no means saying that every piece of fiction needs to be heavy, difficult and complex, but when someone chooses to take on an inherently convoluted topic, there is an expectation that they will rise to the challenge. In Real Life, a 2014 graphic novel by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang, tries to tackle the topic of “gold farming” in video games and all of the economics, consumer and producer dynamics, and international labor balances that are tied into it. But in the face of those tricky topics, the story only has fairy tales endings to offer in response, and I would be lying to say it wasn’t a bit of a letdown.
I picked up In Real Life because I had never before seen a piece of video game media address gold farming as a part of gamer culture. In brief, “gold farming” is the practice of video game players using their avatars to, rather than play the game as intended and complete objectives, collect as many in-game materials as possible. These gathered in-game items are then sold in online marketplaces for real world money. Factories have popped up in countries across the world, but largely in Asia, where workers spend hours grinding through the tedious sections of video games in order to sell their products to a largely-American playerbase looking to get the coolest and most powerful in-game items without putting in the time or effort to get them. It is a strange industry born from globalization and international trends, and I was intrigued to see what this novel could do with it.
The book follows Anda, an American teenage gamer girl who gets drawn in by several adult female gamers who run a sort of grrl pwr game guild in their online game of choice, Coarsegold (a World of Warcraft/any fantasy MMORPG analog). Anda joins the guild and Jen Wang’s art does a great job of immersing Anda and the reader in the video game world. But the sense of belonging she gets here soon has her being led towards paid missions, people hiring players with real world money to kill the avatars of gold farmers. During such a mission, she accidentally starts a conversation with Raymond/Ai Duo, a 16 year old Chinese boy who works in a gold farming factory in order to save money for his education. The two develop a friendship and Anda begins to see some of the complexities of life on the internet around the world.
So far so good, even if Anda is a little passive for a protagonist. It’s when Raymond starts talking about medical care that In Real Life goes a bit off the rails. Raymond injured his back at a previous job and his current job does not offer healthcare. Inspired by her father’s labor disputes at work, Anda encourages Raymond to rally his coworkers to go on strike for healthcare coverage from their managers. It does not go well…but not nearly as bad as it really should.
The book does a bit of the work in acknowledging how far out of her depth Anda is, but having as happy of an ending as the book does feels disingenuous for a story about a white girl mucking around in a poor Chinese factory worker’s well being with no real idea what she’s doing. The White Saviour tropes are uncomfortable, as well as just how lucky Anda comes across that she did not cause more harm than she did. Not every story needs a sad or gut-wrenching ending, but this particular story needed to work a lot harder to earn its happy ending. It needed to understand a lot more about its subject matter.
In Real Life is clearly pitched towards a younger audience, so perhaps I am being overly harsh. But this is definitely a case of a book that aimed high, but didn’t put in the effort to reach its goal and fell very flat as a result. There are good moments, and the art is very engaging, but I will not be diving back into more Doctorow anytime soon.
Would I Recommend It: Unfortunately no.