Anda loves Coarsegold Online, the massively-multiplayer role-playing game where she spends most of her free time. It’s a place where she can be a leader, a fighter, a hero. It’s a place where she can meet people from all over the world, and make friends.
But things become a lot more complicated when Anda befriends a gold farmer–a poor Chinese kid whose avatar in the game illegally collects valuable objects and then sells them to players from developed countries with money to burn. This behavior is strictly against the rules in Coarsegold, but Anda soon comes to realize that questions of right and wrong are a lot less straightforward when a real person’s real livelihood is at stake.
Video gaming and MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games) have a special place in my heart. I was the kid who stayed at home playing video games with my friends in the summer instead of being outside — and I don’t regret those days at all; in fact, I would say they were integral to my growth as a person. In a way, In Real Life touched on themes and ideas that you knew about when you played MMORPGs, but you didn’t give its real life social and economic implications any thought.
So, here is why you should read In Real Life.
In Real Life explores the illegal practice of gold farming, and how this is exploited to make real life profits. It is also about how one girl gamer develops an unexpected friendship with Raymond, a gold farmer who, behind the screen, is a poor young man from China working in terrible conditions. For the uninitiated, gold farming is when players accumulate large amounts of virtual wealth (valuable in-game items or currency), which are then sold to players for real money. Gold farming sweatshops as portrayed in In Real Life do exist, and can be a lucrative business, especially when there are people who don’t want to invest time collecting things themselves and would rather pay real money for the valuable items, currency, or even high-leveled characters in-game. (If that flies over your head, people pay real money for sought after things in the game.) For those who are not familiar with online gaming, In Real Life is an accessible and well-executed introduction to the issue.
But, In Real Life isn’t just about gold farming. It’s also about a teenage girl, Anda, who is a little insecure with her identity. She is utterly adorable and has curves, and she isn’t quite sure what she wants to do. When she discovers Coarsegold, the MMORPG, she begins to find herself and her confidence. There is something incredibly liberating and empowering to be who you want to be in a game, and to be able to express that. Sometimes it’s as small as having your character dye their hair pink or going on quests with your friends and accomplishing so much together. I loved Anda’s personal journey; it was heartwarming and almost nostalgic to witness.
Sidenote: Earlier, I mentioned how playing MMORPG’s were integral to my growth. There’s a part in the graphic novel where Anda dyes her hair red, echoing Anda’s avatar in Coasegold that has red hair. Though a small scene, this tiny thing exemplified her growth as an individual – finding the confidence to be herself and finding herself. This really hit home with me. Back when I played MMORPG’s, I was ridiculously shy and was afraid to go beyond my comfort zone. The customization that MMORPG’s offered was an opportunity to also experiment with what I liked and who I wanted to be. Similarly to Anda, I dyed my hair red years ago because my online avatar had pink hair (red was the next best thing)! It was just such a sweet scene and so meaningful to me as a (former) avid gamer.
Unfortunately, the issues explored in this novel were over-simplified. Raymond’s perspective and plight are marginally explored, with the story only delving briefly on his personal tribulations. I wanted more of Raymond; wanted to know more about him and his responses to the events of In Real Life. Instead, the focus remains on Anda’s responses to his problems. Indeed, this story may be about empowerment and about helping others – which are fantastic intentions – but the lack of development of Raymond’s character was a missed opportunity. It could have been a means to engage the reader in the issues that In Real Life tries to explore, namely how race, socio-economic status and cultural differences intertwine with gold-mining.
The art, though, was flawless. Wang’s illustrations were gorgeous. They perfectly conveyed the wonder and excitement of exploring a massive virtual world. Everything was satisfying and lovely to look at, and the art may be a big reason why I enjoyed this graphic novel.
If approached as a light-hearted, simplistic read, In Real Life conveys a hopeful message about the importance of people power. Though it has its flaws, it shows that empowerment is possible, that empowerment of a collective is possible, and that meaningful action can start small but can become great things that can make a difference. In all, a simple and gorgeous book — even for those who don’t usually read graphic novels.
Book Name: In Real Life
Author: Cory Doctorow
Illustrator: Jen Wang
Publisher: First Second
This book gave me so many feels, especially the gaming aspect! Come to think of it, maybe I should get into reading books based on video games…
- Have you read In Real Life? Did you like it? Would you like to read it?
- What is a graphic novel you’ve read and liked recently?
Credit, where it’s due: Anda in my graphic above is a trace from the graphic novel.