In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang


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.

Anda overlooking scenery from the MMORPG, Coasegold. Screenshot from the graphic novel ‘In Real Life’, pg 16.

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.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: In Real Life
Author: Cory Doctorow
Illustrator: Jen Wang
Publisher: First Second
Format: eBook

In Real Life in:
Goodreads | Book Depository | FoylesMy review on Goodreads

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.


20 thoughts on “In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

  1. Thank you so much for this review, CW! After your third paragraph I legit went to my library website to see if they have it and THEY DO. I’ve reserved it now and I am giddy with anticipation. 💖

    I love MMORPGs and spent literal hours a day playing them when I was a teen (and probably still would if I don’t have more pressing responsibilities) and just looking at that screenshot you included gave me so much nostalgia. Too bad that the issues were over-simplified and there were flaws, but I think I’d really enjoy this one. It’ll be my first graphic novel (ever? I think?). :P

    And great graphic as always. 😍

    • Hi Reg!

      AHH YAY!! I hope you enjoy it! Let me know your thoughts, please?! I’d love to discuss this book a bit more, especially with someone who understands my love for games. ❤

      Ahh gosh, I know the feeling. T_T If there were more hours in the day or if I had more free time, I’d definitely still be gaming! What games did you play? (I played embarrassing ones…)

      Hehe thank you! ❤

      • I will! I’ve got the book now and it’s sooo pretty. I haven’t had the chance to really read it but flicking through the pages really gave me a sense of the art style and I love it. ❤

        RE: Games – Ragnarok Online was my big one, along with Seal Online (I think these were popular in Asia). I’m also crazy about The Sims, Harvest Moon and Pokemon. What about you? I’m sure they’re not embarrassing at all. 😂

  2. I’ve almost picked up this book so many times, but have avoided it for some reason. I’m pretty new to the graphic novel scene, so that may be it. Anyways, I loved your review! I can totally relate to both you and the book for being an avid MMORPG as a kid (and still a bit to this day, but lack of time sucks!). I’ll definitely have to pick it up now.

    • Hi McKenzie!
      I completely understand your hesitation! In Real Life is a great graphic novel to read especially if you aren’t familiar with it! The art is beautiful too, so it helps a ton.

      Ah, thank you so much! Oh gosh, I know right?! If I had more time in the world, I think I’d still be a gamer… *but*, other things call. I miss those days!

      Ah yes, please do! And let me know what you think, okay? ❤

  3. Ooh yes I read this a while back. I’m not as much of a gamer these days (a bit more in the past, but not with MMORPGs), so I love reading your thoughts on that aspect. Yeah, I agree with the missed opportunity regarding Raymond – really wish we could’ve seen it from his perspective as well, and the oversimplification was edging too much towards a ‘saves the day’ narrative. The artwork was amazing!

    A graphic novel I loved recently was The Nameless City (Book 1 of series) by Faith Erin Hicks. It’s a fantasy set in a city inspired by the Silk Road with ancient Chinese influences, and is a heartwarming story of friendship which also looks at political aspects that echo imperialism/race relations. Really recommend!

    • Hi Wendy!

      I’m not a gamer anymore either. I used to be such an avid one, like GAMING IS MY LIFE AND AIR, but now I’m like ehhh I’d rather read… just a shift in hobby I suppose!

      I completely agree that the narrative edged too much about ‘save the day’, because Raymond’s journey wouldn’t have ended there – it would’ve only just begun and I have no doubts that there will be plenty of obstacles from there. Ah, I don’t know.

      Thanks so much! As you well know, I marked it as tbr on Goodreads and tagged you as well! <3

  4. Wonderful review! I used to play these kind of games as well when I was younger, and to be honest it felt great to get lost in a complete other world thanks to this. I guess now I do that more with books only, ahah. I’d be very interested in reading this book though, thank you so much for sharing!

  5. I love graphic novels, but sadly, this year I haven’t read as many. A love for games can be hard to get across on paper. I remember a guy from one of my writing groups who tried to write a novel about characters playing D&D. The audience was certainly limited.

    • Hi Melanie!
      As do I! I’ve been delving into diverse fiction lately instead. I can imagine that would be a small audience! Funnily enough, this book mentions D&D. More so, I found that although this book is about gaming, I found it very accessible to people who haven’t gamed before. I think graphic novels is a medium that can portray it well too! :)

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