Warning: incoming Caps Lock of Fury.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. In Real Life, this new graphic novel written by Cory Doctorow with art by Jen Wang is full of them. In its heartfelt introduction, Cory Doctorow says that In Real Life is about game and economics, about the – political, economical, social – choices that we make on a daily basis and their consequences. About how social media and the Internet can potentially shape and change the world.
The book portrays how Anda – the shy and lonely main character trying to fit in at her new school – starts playing Coarsegold Online, a MMRPG (for the non-initiated: massively-multiplayer role playing game) and gets involved with the real-life consequences of playing it.
There are, I think, three aspects of the novel worth exploring. First of all, the clear and welcomed feminist message of the book. Anda starts playing it after a school visit by one of the game’s organisers who talks about the rise of female gamers, the problems encountered by them (sexism, misogyny) ending with a call-to-arms in which girls are specifically invited to play with female avatars.1The idea is that Coarsegold Online provides a welcoming and safe environment in which to do so. The story then follows Anda as she becomes more confident and develops relationships with other female gamers as well as other girls at her own school. This part of the book? Wonderful.
Also great: Anda’s journey toward self-awareness and a larger comprehension about the complicated world at large. Whilst gaming, she becomes involved with Gold Farming. In the book, she befriends two other characters: one of them co-opts Anda into killing in-game gold famers (an illegal practice within the game); the other is a gold farmer himself, who turns out to be a poor kid from China, working in extremely poor conditions in a gold farming factory. This prompts Anda into realising the consequences of what she does on her side of the Atlantic, how it impacts other people then eventually spiralling into political activism. Whilst I appreciated very much Anda’s personal journey of self-awareness, I have serious misgivings about how this is actually dealt with in the book, which brings me to the third aspect of the novel I’d like to expand on – the one that made me angry and a little bit horrified.
Now, Gold Farming is a real-life economic phenomenon in which players (often located at third world countries) can collect in-game valuable objects to sell them to other players (often in first world countries) for real money. This has rippling effects within gaming – leading to extreme prejudice against non-English speaking players as well as outside gaming: it has been reported that Gold Farming has become not only a lucrative business but one that usually involves extremely poor working conditions and exploitation of underprivileged workers.
Needless to say, this is an extremely complex topic and I find it that depicting and addressing it with any real depth would have been difficult to start with in any scenario, but within a short graphic novel with less than 200 pages and exclusively from the perspective of a privileged American character? Probably not the best idea ever.
This is how this plays out in In Real Life:
Anda befriends Raymond – a 16-year-old Chinese kid who barely speaks English and works at a gold farming factory. Cue to a clumsy dialogue in which Raymond tells Anda everything about his terrible circumstances: he works the night shift for 12 hours every night because his family doesn’t have money to send him to college (the alternative would be to work at a zipper factory, which is worse). He hurt his back lifting boxes at his previous job and since the gold farming factory doesn’t offer medical insurance, he sometimes have to excuse himself to go to the bathroom so he can lie on the floor a little while and rest – he has a friend who has good hands and offers massages in exchange for cigarettes.
CUE TO ANDA’S ANGST.
Not Raymond’s, Anda’s. It’s her duty to protect him, so she will do everything to save him from his terrible life, to his eternal gratitude. And despite being a young kid herself and knowing nothing of the world or Raymond’s real circumstances, she decides to research. So SHE finds about local doctors he could go to and tell him to go to his coworkers and tell everyone they need to demand health care together or they will go on strike. This leads to Raymond getting fired.
CUE TO ANDA’S ANGST.
Not Raymond’s, Anda’s. Anda lying in her comfortable bed saying how the world is a cruel place. How it was HER FAULT FOR MAKING HIM BELIEVE THINGS WOULD BE OK.
She then decides to get up and do more. She puts together a team of other privileged players, then:
“I don’t know what is like to live in China and I don’t know what’s like to be a gold farmer but I do know what’s like to a kid who loves video games. If you would give me a chance, I will do anything to help you get him back. If you really care about him, you will help me spread this message”.
The message is something she wrote, a call to action to other Chinese workers so they CAN FIGHT FOR THEIR RIGHTS. Which they do. And everything is ok in the world and Anda is HAILED as the hero who stands up for what is right.
In the end, Raymond comes back. With a brand new Avatar, looking like prince charming, speaking almost perfect English, saying how things are better at his old job and how he was offered a new, better job by a random guy at an Internet café. The end. Everything is ok now.
NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.
I understand the author’s intentions and completely sympathise with and admire them. I think there is a lot that is worth of praise here including the beautiful artwork by Jen Wang. However, as explored above, I don’t think those intentions were communicated well into the book. I felt utterly uncomfortable (to put it very mildly) about the depiction of the Chinese characters’ plight and the lack of viewpoint from their perspective – the stress on Anda’s feelings rather than Raymond’s about his own situation is problematic to the extreme and reeks, REEKS of white saviour complex and American superiority (cue me rolling my eyes when Anda was all horrified at the lack of proper health insurance in China when in America things are not exactly rainbows and ponies, are they.) In addition, this extremely complex situation has been simplified to the extreme with the throwaway ending.
Help me convey my feelings, Picard!
- Fucked-up fact about the world we live in: Cory Doctorow can write anything and criticise male gamers all he wants and he will probably get little to no flack for it. Meanwhile, Anita Sarkeesian puts forth the same message and criticisms and is attacked, humiliated and threatened ↩
Paul (@princejvstin)September 11, 2014 at 8:22 am
The road to hell, unfortunately, IS paved with good intentions. It’s clear Cory and Jen have that in spades. But…yeah
Ruckasaurus RexSeptember 11, 2014 at 8:24 am
I just wanted to drop you a quick line to say that I have followed you on Twitter for a while now, and this is your first review that I have actually dropped by to check out. I am impressed, and I thoroughly enjoyed your writing voice. In addition, as a girl gamer, I agree with you on all points…but am kind of stumped on the “getting the message out” about gold/drop mining operations. You mentioned Anita Sarkeesian – is that a recommendation, then?
AnaSeptember 11, 2014 at 8:41 am
Yes, I highly recommend Sarkeesian’s series of videos (“Tropes vs Women”)about gaming – it’s not about gold farming but also female gamers and the depiction of female characters in games. They are amazing.
MarjorieSeptember 11, 2014 at 9:37 am
Amen to this post. (The art does look great, though!)
I’m reminded of Mike Daisey’s performance piece about the Apple factory in China. Even before it was discovered that he’d fabricated characters, conversations and scenarios, the piece was problematic because it presented him as the white truth-telling rescuer-savior crusading for truth and justice.
TreySeptember 11, 2014 at 9:46 am
Wait. This is a graphic novel adaptation of Anda’s Game?
Where the Hell is the stuff about labor rights and organizing? The importance of teamwork?
Who the okayed this? Hell, has anyone told Cory Doctorow?
SusanSeptember 11, 2014 at 10:50 am
In Real Life is a companion to Doctorow’s prose novel For the Win (2010) which focuses on a group of young people trying to unionize gold farmers across Asia.
TreySeptember 11, 2014 at 11:06 am
Really? Go read FTW and read “Anda’s Game.” Tell me which one it’s closer to.
And as to asking if the creator was aware, I was curious because of his CC’ing all his work. Though this seems to go against a lot of the plot.
hapaxSeptember 11, 2014 at 11:25 am
Umm, Trey, Doctorow’s name is right there on the cover of the book. I suspect he’s heard about it.
It’s a pity, really. I love Doctorow’s stories for their set-up, awareness of Real World Issues, and amazingly smart geekiness, but he has an unfortunate tendency to impose incredibly simplistic (and privileged) solutions to very complex problems.
AnaSeptember 11, 2014 at 11:44 am
Trey, as far as I know, Doctorow wrote this? His name is right there, he wrote an introduction as well. The jacket copy says “from acclaimed teen author and Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow and Koko Be Good creator Jen Wang”.
Labor rights, organizing and the importance of teamwork are all here but all from the perspective of the main character, Anda. She is the agent of the story.
HeidiSeptember 11, 2014 at 5:25 pm
I actually just sat down and read this myself a couple of hours ago (so kudos to you on timeliness), and I’m still trying to process it. I like some of what he’s going for here–the idea that because of the internet you can make an impact of the world regardless of age or gender, but I certainly see the issue as well. I feel like it brought up the very complex issue of labor rights through gold farming without really letting us see it, exactly as you said. I thought the artwork was gorgeous (love that Anda was a REAL teen and not just a real life reflection of one’s perfect avatar), but feel like maybe there was just too much they were grasping for here? Huh…need to think about it more. Very happy to read your thoughts though.
Estara SwanbergSeptember 11, 2014 at 7:25 pm
I read that description and was fairly sure that’s how it would play out, am sad to hear – with your excellent examples – that it played out exactly like I feared.
Was heartened to hear the first part of the storyline worked.
I’ve just stopped subscribing to a highly respected German print magazine for Computer Technology, which has editors that seem to find it necessary to explain why Anita Sarkeesian really has no cause for complaining about sexism in games: because while he enjoys GTA, he wouldn’t murder people in real life, so it’s quite all right to rape women or depict them as fridged in games. She’s overreacting.
This from a computer TECHNOLOGY magazine, the most respected one in Germany, at that.
It can not be said enough, the fight hasn’t been won, in some cases it hasn’t even started in all kinds of areas of awareness.
SarahSeptember 23, 2014 at 4:36 pm
Thank you for putting into words what I didn’t like about this book. I liked the story in general and liked what it was trying to say, but it just didn’t get there and I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. You’re right that it’s just too short and not enough info about the gold farming to make much of an impact.
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang - The Leading LibrarianMarch 29, 2015 at 10:20 pm
[…] There are some things holding this book back, though. While I’m not averse to novels about gaming or gold farming, I don’t think it was explained to fleshed out well in this one. Gold farming is a real thing. Perhaps Doctorow was trying to shed some light on that side of gaming and some of the things happening behind the scenes. I think it comes of almost unbelievable for the non-gamer though. It just isn’t explained in an accessible way. The only reason I understood it is because my boyfriend is a gamer. The big thing is the way race is dealt with. Raymond (the Chinese gold farmer) is a peripheral character. We learn about him and what he’s dealing with, but most of it seems filtered through Anda. We never really know him. Not to mention the epic white savior moment in the end made me say WTF? The whole phrase… out loud. I’m not going to write any more about that because Ana at The Book Smugglers sums it up pretty well. […]
Ten Disappointing Books - That Librarian LadyJuly 16, 2017 at 5:35 pm
[…] This graphic novel started off strong, but there are some things holding it back. While I’m not averse to novels about gaming or gold farming, I don’t think it was fleshed out well in this one. Gold farming is a real thing. Perhaps Doctorow was trying to shed some light on that side of gaming and some of the things happening behind the scenes. It just isn’t explained in an accessible way for non-gamers. The big thing is the way race is portrayed. Raymond (the Chinese gold farmer) is a peripheral character. We learn about him and what he’s dealing with, but most of it is filtered through Anda. We never really know him. Not to mention the epic white savior moment in the end. Ana at The Book Smugglers sums it up pretty well. […]