In Real Life
Graphic Novel by Cory Doctorow (author) and Jen Wang (illustrator)
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: October 14th, 2014
Let me start off by saying that I am definitely not this book's target audience. In Real Life is a story for younger audiences, especially teenagers and the young-adult target demographic. While I think this is a good book, I don't think it's meant to appeal to an older, jaded individual like myself (I received this graphic novel through an online comic gift exchange). That being said, there's a lot to this book, and while I don't think it's for me, I'm glad I had the chance to read it.
In Real Life tells the story of Anda, a teenage girl who takes up the invitation to join a women-only guild in the massively-multiplayer role-playing game called Coarsegold Online. In the game, she makes friends with another player Lucy ("Call me Sarge") who invites her on missions where she gets actual money. That's real-life money, not the gold that's used as currency in-game. The missions are simple: kill certain characters (some bots, some real people) that are farming gold in-game to sell in the real world for real cash. At first, Anda has no issues with this, until she finds out that the "gold farmers" she's been hired to kill are actual people from China that do this for a living, and not independently: they work somewhere in an office, have a boss, etc. Whether it's unethical or illegal doesn't matter to them, because they want a chance to play the game and pay their bills. Anda begins chatting with one of them, who calls himself Raymond, and things get complicated from there.
The book's two strengths are its art and audacity. Art, because Jen Wang's illustrations are outstanding. This is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel, filled with color and expression. There's a lot of contrast between the day-to-day world and the virtual reality of Coarsegold Online. In Real Life is audacious because the book tries to tackle so many issues in its relatively short length. Sexism, both online and offline; "gamer girls" and gamer culture; social advocacy and worker's rights in China; real-life economics and "farming" in MMORPGs; poverty; bullying; geek culture "gatekeepers"; and while there is no explicit mentioning of it, there is a subtext of body image issues as well. The big one here is poverty and worker's rights, as Anda convinces Raymond to attempt to strike or fight back against his employer for health benefits. Unfortunately for her and Raymond, this has serious repercussions that neither of them expected.
Despite these supportive messages, the book suffers from some weaknesses. In Real Life is an ultimately optimistic tale that tells us everything will work out in the end, but life doesn't work that way. I don't fault the book for trying to stay positive and maintain a satisfying and happy conclusion, but it seems irresponsible to take on so many issues and not address how complicated they can be to solve, or that failure and setbacks are consequences of taking a stand.
Some elements of the story can seem very realistic: one girl is trying to start a board gaming group and is rejected by a bunch of judgmental "geek" students, in one of the few accurate representations of real-life gatekeeping (and dare I say, bullying) that occurs in a lot of gaming culture. However, other scenes, like an online guild leader showing up at local school to invite people to join her game (why is an Australian lady in Flagstaff?) are odd and awkward to read.
Despite these complaints, I believe In Real Life is a fine book for its target audience, and sends a positive message, especially for young girls who may feel marginalized. Even if the book has bitten off more than it can chew, it raises awareness for a lot of real-life issues and shows a protagonist willing to do what is right to make it better. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this for older audiences, but for a young gamer on their way to adulthood I'd consider it a good read.