Cory Doctorow (w), Jen Wang (a)
Released: October, 2014
In Real Life is one of the most underrated graphic novels of 2014. By Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang and published by First Second, In Real Life is a story about how to be your own hero, and make the world a better place. Oh, and video games. Activist Doctorow’s body of work primarily consists of Orwellian science-fiction prose and journalistic work, including his work as the co-editor of Boing Boing. Wang is a cartoonist and illustrator, and her first book, Koko Be Good, which she wrote and illustrated, was also published by First Second; it is an equally touching, genuine and beautifully rendered story about life, love, friendship, and growing up. Doctorow and Wang teamed up to adapt In Real Life as a graphic novel from a short story Doctorow wrote in 2004 entitled Anda’s Game. Both In Real Life and Anda’s Game focus on political activism online and AFK, but the 2014 graphic novel feels considerably more timeless, tender and painfully relatable as a coming of age story.
Doctorow and Wang’s graphic novel introduces readers to Coarsegold, a massive-multiplayer online role playing game akin to World of Warcraft, and two teenage players, an American girl named Anda, and a Chinese boy named Raymond. While Anda plays Coarsegold for fun, Raymond plays to make a living. When the two form an unlikely friendship, Anda must consider her own prejudices, privilege, and power to make a difference.
We meet Anda on her birthday. She and her family have recently relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona, presumably because of her father’s work. Despite being the new girl, Anda is surrounded by friends in her programming class, where Liza the Organiza waltzes in and opens Anda’s eyes to the potential of games. Liza, a professional competitive gamer, asks the girls in the class if they play games. All of them raise their hands. But when she asks those girls if they play games as girls, it’s crickets. Liza sighs, but she wastes no time in issuing a challenge to the wide-eyed girls before her: play as a girl, and join Liza as a member of her girls-only Farenheit guild on Coarsegold; be proud to be a girl, in-game and out.
Jen Wang’s art sets the tone for the book with an accessible style, expressive, sweeping inks and characters that emote beautifully, in-game and out. While Anda’s world is awash in neutral earth tones, almost warm, entirely inviting, if a little dreary, Coarsegold is a splash of jewel tones; deep teals, dreamy purples, and shining emerald greens gleam on the pages, promising players and readers alike of the all the treasures the game holds. When Anda logs in to Coarsegold she becomes Kalidestroyer, a slimmer, taller, sword-wielding version of herself, and joins the guild as a fledgling Fahrenheit. Guild senior Sarge quickly identifies Anda’s prowess for bloodshed and brawling, and recruits her for missions that give her the chance to level up, and earn some real world cash.
These missions introduce Anda to gold farmers, players that harvest valuable items to sell for in-game gold, which is subsequently sold for real world currency. Thanks to gold farmers, noobs and other unskilled players can acquire in-game items and luxuries that take even the most battle-hardened gamers weeks of grinding to earn. As Anda and Sarge survey a gold farming operation, Sarge’s eyes narrow, her face settling into an expression of resolute bitterness. “I’ve spent my whole life proving I’m as good a gamer as any other dude…and I had to do it without the cheats.” Like Liza, and scores of women in games before her, Sarge has faced discrimination as a girl gamer. Now that she’s in a position of power as a member of an illustrious guild, she’s determined to level the playing field by enacting her own brand of in-game justice. As far as Sarge is concerned, every gamer is obligated to prove themselves, just like she did.
Sarge schools Anda on who, and what it is ok to slaughter. Mexican? Bot. Japanese? Not bot. Korean? Not bot. Chinese? SUPER BOT. “If they don’t respond to you or speak English, you should probably kill ‘em” Sarge shrugs from her gilded throne. Sarge’s xenophobia and classicism are rearing their ugly heads as she extolls the virtue of in-game justice (but only for those that speak English, and are an acceptable model minority), but Anda is too young, naive and eager to please to notice. Anda gets swept up in her superior’s vendetta against “cheaters:” the gold farmers and those who benefit from their outlaw trade. She joins Sarge in wiping out hordes of gold farmers, and raking in the real world dough. When her friends ask how she can afford to bring all the good snacks to their D&D games, she explains how she’s been making money playing Coarsegold. When one of her peers describes her as a “virtual soldier,” Anda’s eyes light up. She’s not just doing something she loves playing Coarsegold; she’s doing something productive. She’s making the world a better place. She’s a virtual soldier. Until she meets Raymond.
Raymond, the gold farmer that fought back. Raymond, the Chinese boy who plays Coarsegold sixteen hours a day; twelve for his job, and four for himself. Just like Anda, Raymond loves Coarsegold, but other players won’t include him because he speaks little English. With the help of a translator, Anda and Raymond become fast friends. Unlike Anda, Raymond must work to earn a living, but despite working twelve hour days, he cannot afford the medical treatment he so desperately needs. When Anda learns of Raymond’s plight, it lights a fire in her. She makes it her mission to help him, and to empower him and his co-workers at NYCI, a company that profits from the fruits of gold farming employees’ labors, to organize and demand healthcare.
Anda’s affiliation with a gold farmer does not sit well with Sarge. When Sarge confronts Anda, and assaults Raymond in-game, Anda stands up to her superior for the first time in their friendship. Anda protests, not just because Raymond is her friend, but because she now understands that Sarge’s prejudices are wrong and harmful. Gold farmers aren’t just bots; they’re real people, with real issues, and they need to make their living just like anyone else. This fight endangers Anda’s standing in her guild as well as her friendship with Sarge, but that doesn’t even occur to her; after meeting Raymond, she just wants to do what’s right. Raymond has opened Anda’s eyes to one of life’s most brutal truths; on a stage set by globalization, there is no even playing field, only privilege, and the advantages it affords to a select few.
Anda’s playing Coarsegold and involvement with her guild empowers her, not only to be her own champion, but also to advocate for others. Her experiences teach her the position of privilege she occupies as a middle class American, and heightens her sensitivities to the simple truth that there are those less fortunate than her, and all she needs is an internet connection and the will to speak up to help affect change. It is a true joy to watch Anda come into herself as an intelligent, empathetic and capable young woman throughout the course of the book. She may have begun her journey as a virtual soldier, but as far as I’m concerned, she ends it as a real life hero.
Most importantly, In Real Life does not succumb to the white savior narrative. Anda doesn’t know what she’s doing, and it shows. Her involvement doesn’t solve Raymond’s problems, in fact, it arguably makes his situation worse in the short-term. Though Doctorow and Wang ultimately give us a happy ending, it is not without consequences. What I appreciated most was that when it came time for Anda to rally support for Raymond by bringing attention to his plight, and the conditions of every other worker at NYCI, she does it right. She does not co-opt Raymond’s situation and make it about herself. Instead, she amplifies the voices of the oppressed, using her influence in her guild and the game to help make their message heard.
In the foreword, Doctorow stated,
“I hope that readers of this book will be inspired to dig deeper into the subject of behavioral economics and to start asking hard questions about how we end up with the stuff we own, what it costs our human brothers and sisters to make those goods, and why we think we need them…But it’s poor politics that can only be expressed by choosing to buy or not to buy something. Sometimes (often), you need to organize to make a difference.”
In Real Life is book about challenging authority. Whether that authority manifests in the form of your peers, your boss, or the status quo, you have the power to challenge it. Doctorow and Wang present video games not only as an escape from reality, but as a tool that empowers Anda, Raymond and their friends to stand up for themselves, and each other in order to make the world they live in a better place.
Doctorow and Wang have crafted a beautifully written, visually stunning tale that speaks to checking your privilege, the power of friendship and the potential we all possess to make a difference. I am sincerely perplexed that In Real Life did not make more appearances on more Best of 2014 lists. It is a true gem.