Review: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

InRealLifeIn a nutshell, In Real Life is a graphic novel that tackles some of the same themes and concepts as Doctorow’s earlier YA novel For the Win, most notably: gold-farming in online games, from an economic and social perspective; the concept of having a separate online identity, specifically for teenagers who may still be forming a “real life” identity; and feminism and the myriad ways it ties into those first two items.

Anda is a teenager who gets recruited into a girls-only guild in the online game Coarsegold. Before she knows it, a more experienced player co-opts her into hunting down gold farmers, explaining that it’s a good thing to do because gold farming ruins the game. Eventually, Anda learns more about the plight of the gold farmers (in this case, poor kids in China working in sweatshop-like conditions) and, well, basically rides in on a shiny sparkling unicorn, saves everyone, and solves world poverty.

That last bit is obviously an exaggeration, but it’s meant to illustrate the main problem I have with this otherwise charming graphic novel: it starts off with great intentions and brings up important issues, but then resolves them in a way that’s so ham-handed and simplistic that it borders on being offensive.

The contrast between the amount of attention given to Anda’s personal development and that of the Chinese gamers is painful. Anda learns and grows and stands up for herself and dyes her hair to match her avatar’s and, oh yes, pens a manifesto that gets the gold-farmers to rise up and better their own situation. The gold-farmers, meanwhile, remain mostly faceless; they’re also mostly presented throughout as kinda creepy munchkin-like game avatars (later it becomes clear that that’s just this game’s standard newbie avatar, but up to that point it was just weird and creepy) until the very end, when one of them turns into Prince Charming and, yay, happy Disney ending.

Now, I hear you say “But Stefan, this graphic novel is aimed at a younger audience, so obviously it’s going to simplify its approach a bit.” To which I say: “Well, sure, but there is such a thing as over-simplification. And it isn’t as if Doctorow doesn’t have experience writing for young readers.”

So. Positive points – yes, there are some. The artwork, by Jen Wang, is absolutely lovely. It’s colorful and charming, both the real life scenes and the scenes set in-game. As a picture book, this would get five stars and a cherry on top.

Anda is, in many ways, a great role model-type character for young female gamers (especially in this day and age, because my goodness what is going on in the world?). Also bonus points for not making Anda a skinny blonde supermodel-lookalike, and for having her reach out to what’s presented as an even lower tier than female gamers: an honest, friendly boardgame player who tries to recruit the “cool” D&D kids to her cause.

Further bonus points for showing the parents’ perspective. They genuinely wonder what the hell is going on in these online games, they panic when they get an inkling of their daughter’s activities online, and they deal with the situation in a realistic and— all things considered— balanced way.

(And, final bonus points for one specific frame I really loved: Anda, forced to go to a local internet cafe when her parents cut off her online access, sitting at a row of terminals in a perfect mirror image of the Chinese gold-farmers.)

Still, all those bonus points are not enough to save In Real Life. Cory Doctorow has written a great, balanced, diverse book about the socio-economic aspects of gold-farming, but this isn’t it — it’s called For the Win, and I’d much rather recommend that one than this highly simplified and somewhat rushed graphic novel about the same issue.  It’s a sweet and optimistic story, and yes we can use more of those, but in this case the sweetness and optimism felt a bit cloying and, well, reductive. Thank goodness for Jen Wang’s wonderful artwork, which saves In Real Life from being a complete loss.

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