When Anda's class has a female gamer come in and speak to them, Anda becomes fascinated with the idea of playing the game about which the guest spoke: Coarsegold Online. It's a massive multiplayer roleplaying game, and it's an opportunity for her to be a hero and it's a place where she gets the opportunity to meet new people and make friends from around the world.
Gold farmers are exceptionally controversial in the game, as they are people who illegally collect valuable objects within the game, then sell them off to players in rich countries who can afford to purchase them. This, of course, gives those who are rich a mega advantage at the game. It's an industry and an occupation, gold farming, but things get challenging when Anda befriends a gold farmer, who happens to be a poor boy from China. Suddenly, what seemed like a black-and-white/right-or-wrong situation with gold farming becomes a lot more complicated, as her friend's life depends upon making money doing this job.
Doctorow's story is complex and complicated, and while I think his introduction does a great job of offering an explanation for why what happens in the story isn't just about the in-game world, I found myself needing to flip back more than once to better understand what was happening and what the gravity of the situation was. Part of this is being a non-gamer -- and perhaps I'd have grasped some of these things better were this a world in which I was familiar -- but part of it was that at times, the message overpowered the story and the development of Anda.
The story, being about how people buy and sell levels and powers in-world and how others want to rid the game world of the people who are in the business of helping others cheat for the right price, parallels the non-gaming world in terms of how people climb the ladder and how they can cheat social systems and structures in place for the right price. But beneath that, and what I think was harder to come across because of the graphic novel format, are the really human reasons and aspects behind why someone would want to work a job that's purpose is to buck the system for others. We're only ever privy to Anda's perspective here, and, as noted, it's one of privilege. That's not a problem of her telling the story, but it's a bigger problem of the overall impact of the story. She almost grew too quickly, and because of the privilege she has in her own life, she was able to pursue solutions that carried the story's message almost too conveniently. There were other things that happened in the story that felt convenient or almost strange and difficult to believe, including small things like a gaming expert coming into a high school classroom and recruiting teens for her game, which includes a monthly fee.
That said, I still liked In Real Life, and a big reason for liking it was how wonderful Jen Wang's art is throughout. This is a lushly illustrated work, and I give Wang major kudos for how Anda was rendered. This is a fat girl, and she was never once ashamed of being so. Her body is depicted realistically, and I can see so many girls seeing themselves in her. While there was one part of the story that made me cringe when it came to the dialog of body shaming, it was easy enough to let go because of how Anda carried herself. In many ways, that slip fit the bigger issues of this book being imperfect about how it depicted and explored social and political issues in the real, rather than virtual, world. This is a full-color graphic novel with an appealing color palate. I'm going to keep an eye on Wang because I hope to see a lot more from her.
In Real Life should appeal to teen graphic novel enthusiasts, and I especially think teen gamers will find a lot to enjoy here -- and I think maybe more importantly, they'll find a lot worth talking about and debating. This could make for a really solid book discussion title. This is a time-relevant title, but it doesn't run the risk of becoming the kind of book that will become time-sensitive. What Doctorow did in Little Brother for the last generation of teens, he does here with In Real Life, serving up a meaty topic in a form that doesn't talk down to its readers but encourages them to think, discuss, and act. This would be a great book to pair with Steve Brezenoff's Guy In Real Life, which also delves into social issues through gaming -- both virtual and real-world.
In addition to talking about the book today, I was able to ask Cory a few questions about the book and some of the bigger issues broached in the story. Rather than talk about these within the review, I thought taking them straight to the source would be more interesting. I highly recommend checking out the other blogs who are taking part in asking Doctorow questions about In Real Life, and you can get the full list of other participants here. These might make discussing this book with teens even more interesting!
What capacity do you believe gaming has for educating people about social/political challenges throughout the world?