fantasy and science fiction book reviewsIn Real Life by Cory Doctorow (author) and Jen Wang (artist)

IN REAL LIFE comic, fantasy, science fiction book reviewsThough Cory Doctorow’s In Real Life is a fictional story about a teenager introduced to the world of online multiplayer role-playing games, it’s also about ethical issues involving the internet and labor. These ethical issues are not the usual ones we expect when discussing ethics and the internet: In Real Life mentions the obvious concerns we all have about online predators, but it focuses on the way the internet has the potential to be a force for good in terms of activism, as Doctorow explains in his insightful introductory essay.

Doctorow talks about how the internet allows people to come together for political reasons in ways that were difficult in the past: Much political activism required excessive time, effort, and organization to achieve minimal communication compared to what is now easily possible via the internet. For example, many of us used to spend much time sending out letters, which involved acquiring addresses, stuffing envelopes, raising funds for stamps, addressing the envelopes, etc. The internet solves many of these basic communication problems that were once so time-consuming; now we can focus on what we say and how we say it and who we say it to.

in real life 3Doctorow, however, is not naive in his optimism. I don’t want to suggest that he is not realistic: “The net doesn’t solve the problem of injustice, but it solves the first hard problem of righting wrongs: getting everyone together and keeping them together.” He brings that complex thinking to what could otherwise be a simplistic novel, and his introduction led me to expect an intelligent story since it emerges out of Doctorow’s interest in “behavioral economics,” particularly in relation to online gaming: “When you put economics and games together, you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a bunch of sticky, tough questions about politics and labor.”

These concerns are important and interesting, but they don’t sound like they would make for a good graphic novel; however, Doctorow and Wang have created a fantastic story that is enjoyable. Yes, it’s a bit didactic, but they’ve created an engaging young adult coming-of-age story with absolutely beautiful art. The story works because they focus on a somewhat shy and insecure girl named Anda who has just moved from San Diego to Arizona. The story is about a person, and Doctorow lets his points about activism emerge naturally out of the story of a teenager to whom we can relate. Anda is trying to make friends, so she joins the Sci-Fi club. Outside of the club, she makes friends online in the gaming world of Coarsegold.

She tries out Coarsegold because of a young woman who is a guest speaker at their school. She invites Anda to be a part of their online group of warriors, but she tells Anda she first has to go through a probationary period. Once online, Anda meets Lucy, another young girl who is a part of this warrior group. Since Lucy is more experienced in the world of Coarsegold, Anda spends time with her. Lucy acts as a mentor who teaches her that they even can make real money by “killing” characters called “gold farmers.” Anda doesn’t seem to know what “gold farmers” are and at first doesn’t even realize they are run by people. She is a natural at the game, and she and Lucy have a lot of fun together. Plus, Anda earns real money that is deposited in her paypal account, a perk that impresses her friends in the Sci-Fi club, who are usually shown playing role-playing games.

Apparently, “gold farming” is not made up. Since I don’t play online games, I’d never heard of it, so I’m a perfect audience for this part of Doctorow’s message: Gold farmers are those people who have more time than money, and they sell online wealth for real-world wealth. As in real life 2Doctorow explains: “It’s not surprising that gamespace has become a workplace for hundreds of thousands of ‘gold farmers’ who undertake dreary, repetitive labor to produce virtual wealth that’s sold to players with more money and less patience than them.” In the case of this graphic novel, the gold farmers that Anda meets turn out to be Chinese men and women who work for a company that pays them to “gold farm.”

At first, Anda doesn’t understand what’s going on. Her new friend Lucy just calls them “greedy assholes.” Eventually, however, Anda meets a young boy and learns of his situation and the long hours he must work to help raise money to go to college. She soon understands that these are real people she’s been fighting, people who are “working” while she’s been “playing.”

I’ve covered the basic background of the story, but it’s much more complex than I’ve explained. Anda finds out that this young teenager both “works” and “plays” in Coarsegold — the two activities are very different for him. He works the night shift for twelve hours at a time, and then spends an additional four hours playing in Coarsegold. Anda finds out he had a difficult job in in real life 1manual labor before gold farming, and he has a back injury that hasn’t been treated since he lacks medical care. Anda gets deeply involved in ways that upset her and cause problems for her in relating with Lucy, as well as both her parents. Other issues are brought up: from sit-ins and worker/management relations to language barriers and cultural differences to virtual-bullying. Even bullying and cliques at school are touched on.

It’s a complex and touching story, and Jen Wang’s art makes this graphic novel another excellent offering from First Second. I think what I loved best was that though there was a clear message to the story, the novel didn’t offer simple answers. Perhaps my favorite line has to do with the importance of online gaming, something I’d never thought of before. As Anda wonders how real Coarseworld is, her new friend from China tells her: “This life is real too. We’re communicating aren’t we?”

I suppose online gaming, like fiction, like music, like comics, like any art, is real because it’s a way of communicating between two or more people. And when we communicate, we have the potential to change the lives of others. Therefore, we have an obligation to make sure those changes are positive ones. Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang have certainly had a real, positive impact on me through In Real Life. I highly recommend it for both adult readers and teenagers.


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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