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 ↩