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Review: In Real Life by Cory Doctrow & Jen Wang

October 11, 2014


This is going to be pretty much spoiler-filled because it’s difficult to talk about a graphic novel without getting into the plot. So, if you want the quick version:
IRL is a graphic novel about a young girl who gets involved with an MMORPG and discovers that life is much more complicated than she expected. The book has some nice feminist themes, and a message about thinking about the consequences of your actions.

The art is lovely. I really want to check out Jen Wang’s other book, Koko Be Good.

More complicated, spoilery version:

In Real Life is a graphic novel by Cory Doctrow and Jen Wang. It’s about several different things.
On the surface, it’s about a girl named Anda who starts playing an MMO. The guild Anda joins is women only, which is interesting. The guild leader comes to her school and gives a rousing speech about showing that girls can be kick-ass and awesome gamers. Anda sells her mom on the game by comparing it to a team sport. It’s supposed to help build her self-confidence.
Once in the game, Anda teams up with another player named Lucy to take down gold farmers, players who gather resources and then sell them to other players for cash. However, when Anda actually talks to one of the gold farmers she discovers that the situation is much more complicated.
Most of the gold farmers she’s attacking are Chinese workers who support themselves and their families by gold farming. They aren’t exploiting the system to get rich, they’re just trying to make a living.
Ronald, the gold farmer Anda befriends, has an injury from a previous factory job. Anda encourages him to try to organize a protest in order to get medical care for all the workers. Ronald gets fired and Anda feels terrible. Some of the other gold farmers tell her to leave them alone, she’s already done enough damage.
Anda manages to talk to one of Raymond’s coworkers and things end up working out in a fairy tale ending.

jen_wang_irl_page-600x817I enjoyed the book and I’ll be taking it to the library for my kids to read as well. If you’re interested,  i09 has a beautiful book trailer up: here.

Now, the disection. It’s not a perfect book. Some of the things that go wrong are, I think, meant to point out problems both with Anda’s mindset and with our culture. And some of that works better than the rest.

Anda dives in and tries to help Raymond, but ends up getting him fired. So, there’s also an element of are you actually helping? There is a naive assumption that just because we have good intentions that we are actually improving things we stick our noses into. There have been articles for years on the dangers of  volunteer holidays; taking jobs away from local workers, wasting already scarce resources, and undermining local development. Encouraging workers to organize in a communist country is also dangerous. The road to hell is often paved with good intentions, but when you’re on the other end of an internet connection you’re probably not the one who is going to face that hell.
Things work out in the end for Raymond, but that’s not always going to be the case.
This set up also reeks of the “white savior” coming in to help the oppressed Chinese boy. The Book Smugglers has a great review that talks about all of this, so I’m not going to retread the same ground.

The feminist message is present, but not really much of a feature. Anda’s guild is all women and the founder of the guild says she was one of the first women in gaming. And it’s pretty much left there. Anda doesn’t take any flack from anyone either in real life or in the game for being a female gamer. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be proof that things are better now, or if there just wasn’t room in the story to tackle that sort of bullying.

There’s a strong anti-bullying message, which I liked. Anda thinks she’s standing up for people, but she accidentally finds herself in the position of a bully both in the game and IRL. She makes an effort to change and that’s really great.

Cory Doctrow’s introduction is worth reading even without the attached graphic novel. It’s about economics and social organizing. The internet has created a wealth of opportunities to connect with people and organize for social change. It’s thoughtful and interesting.

He also had a quote that struck me:

Most of the people you see going to work today are LARPing (live-action role playing) an incredibly boring RPG (role-playing game) called “professionalism” that requires them to alter their vocabulary, posture, eating habits, facial expressions – every detail all the way down to what they allow themselves to find funny.

Maybe it’s because I’m a gamer or maybe it’s because I find real life hard to cope with, but the notion that it’s a really boring RPG is actually comforting to me. So, I’ve written a blog entry today. How many experience points is that worth?

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