You Get a “You Tried” Sticker: a review of In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

In Real Life is a graphic novel that sincerely tries. In the introduction before the book properly starts, Cory Doctorow talks at length about his intentions: how he wanted to write something that would appeal to gamers and educate them on the basics of in game economies and how they affect the offline world. He advocates for the global social connection the internet and gaming can bring, and how it can be a force for good against injustices, both social and economical. These are clearly issues he cares deeply about and has researched thoroughly. Unfortunately, the format and length of the novel undermines all the good intentions put into the book, resulting in a lackluster final product at best and a book that reenforces problematic tropes at worst.

Our heroine is Anda, an overweight and somewhat shy girl who starts playing Coarsegold Online, an MMO RPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game). In it, she starts gaining self-esteem and some online friends through a girls-only guild in the game. This brings us to the first issue Doctorow and Wang wish to address: the place of women and girls in the video game industry. In Real Life came out in an…. interesting time in gaming history, to say the least. The book was published in the middle of October of last year and smack dab in the middle of an online debate about women in video games of massive proportions, the fallout of which made several major news networks. The discussion about potential sexism in video games had turned violent, with several game developers and critics being forced to leave their homes.

I bring this up not to fan the flames on a still ongoing conflict, but to give some insight into what the climate was for gamers when In Real Life came out. Because compared to what was happening in real real life, In Real Life seems to operate in this weird gaming utopia where problems exist but aren’t that big a deal and are easily solved. While at school, a speaker comes to talk to Anda’s class about joining this world’s equivalent of WoW.

“I’m a gamer and I kick arse. No, seriously. I organize a guild and I’m looking for a few of you chickens to join me. This is Corasegold Online, the fastest growing massive multiplayer role playing game with over 10 million subscribers world-wide–you might have heard of it.
….How many of you girls game?”
[a raising of hands]
“And how many of your girls play girls?”
[hands go down and the schoolgirls looked confused.]
“See, that’s a tragedy. Practically makes me weep. When I started gaming online there were no women gamers—I was one of the best gamers in the world and I couldn’t even be proud of who I was. It’s different now, but it’s still not perfect. We’re going to change that, chickens, you lot and me. Here’s my offer to the ladies: if you will play as a girl in Coarsegold Online, you will be given probationary status in [my clan]. If you measure up, in 3 months you’ll be full-fledged members. Who’s in ladies? Who wants to be a girl in-game and out?”

Now there are legitimate reasons why women and girls would decide to pick avatars that don’t match their gender. But most of those reasons have to do with studies that show female avatars receive exponentially more hateful messages online than their male counterparts. But in the world of In Real Life, the problem seems to be that girls didn’t think to play as a female avatar and if you just talk to girls and let them know that the option exists, suddenly there will be more women in games! I see what Doctorow and Wang were trying to do, but I felt the overly optimistic and simple message cheapened the reality that female gamers often face.

But women in gaming is not the hill Doctorow wishes to die upon. Instead, the focus is on that of the complex economics of gold farming. For the non-gamer readers, gold farming is where players in a game with a built in economy (normally MMOs) will complete fights or quests over and over again to try to collect as much gold and/or in game items as they can. They then sell said items for actual real life currency to people who don’t want to work in game to get them. This effectively hurts the in game economy and throws everything out of whack. Sounds bad, right? Well, there’s another layer to it. Gold farmers are usually people from third world countries or countries with a large wealth gap like China. Gold farming is literally their job and often times the working conditions are abysmal. This leads to a general distrust of non-english speaking gamers. Again, it’s a very complex issue worthy of exploration.

Back in the book, Anda teams up with fellow guild member Lucy and they start killing gold farmers for out of game money. After a couple slaughters, she starts talking with one of the gold farmers, who happens to be a 16 year old boy named Raymond from China. Through the magic of Google translate they are able to talk and she starts to learn more about his horrible working conditions and is appalled. And unfortunately this is where things start to get problematic. The book is less than 200 pages long and is a graphic novel, meaning that many of those pages are devoted to visually showing what is happening. We do not have time to adequately explore this complex issue and the book suffers for it.

The book, for all its good intentions, starts to wandering into “white savior” territory, with Anda trying to help Raymond by giving him advice about unions in the U.S. This comes across as very condescending to me. “Oh, you silly non-white people. Let me, an educated white person, teach you the ways to be civilized.” It’s not that extreme but it’s coming right up to the line. It plays back into the tone of the women in gaming issues earlier. The issue no longer is this complex problem spanning across multiple real life economies and countries labor laws, it is just that the poor people trapped by the evil gold farming owners didn’t’ think to start a union! It’s uncomfortable.

I respect what Doctorow and Wang were trying to do. They created a work that gamers will be drawn towards (or at least gamers that don’t mind the pro-women aspects of the book). The art style is light-hearted and reminds me of the work Studio Ghibli produces. I’ll definitely be looking for more art from her in the future. The authors both clearly care about this issue and want the general gaming public to be educated on its complexity. But the entirely too short length resulted in a rushed ending which when combined with the overly optimistic world leads to a problematic end message.