In Real Life - Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

Anda enjoys computer games. When a young woman shows up at her school to encourage enrolment in Coarsegold Online, Anda can't wait to sign up. Early on in the game, she becomes attached to her guild leader and together they team up to destroy gold farmers.* But things change when Anda runs into a gold farmer that she starts to befriend, and in the process she discovers that the livelihood of many young people overseas relies on the illegal gold farming operations within the game. This graphic novel grapples with female empowerment, racial difference, friendship and loneliness, economics, strikes and labor unions, online gaming, and social injustice. 

In terms of the story, Doctorow's somewhat typical blend of social and technological critique shines through, but with an attempt to address issues of race and gender as well. Unfortunately, I felt that this much material failed to become fully developed within such a brief format as this particular graphic novel. There is an introduction by Doctorow, which explains much of what he is trying to accomplish within the text, but part of me wanted to simply see all of that show up within the story instead of being explained up front to prepare me for what what ahead. I'm not sure why this was done instead of fleshing out more characters and situations throughout the book.

Anda was also not entirely complete, as a character. I wanted to get to know more about her and less about the issues of gold farming, or at least as much about her as the other ideas at play. I was also concerned about the ideology of a middle-class North American girl being the "saviour" to underpaid and overworked Chinese workers after a few quick days of research on strikes and labor unions and such. As well (I know, this is sounding very condemning), I wasn't entirely happy with the fact that Anda is a weightier girl in real life, who becomes super skinny in her online life, and the reader is just supposed to accept this as normal and good. Unfortunately, it seems to bypass important questions regarding body image and being (un)comfortable in one's own skin. All in all, I appreciated much of what was happening and am very glad that the book is out there, but I feel that it was just too fast and there was not enough time for me to fully connect with the characters, especially Anda, who was so multi-faceted, but without being given the space to develop.

On another note, the artwork is beautiful. The colors are exceptionally vibrant and jump off the page, bringing to life much of what is not mentioned or detailed in the text (which makes sense, considering this is a graphic novel.) Jen Wang's style is an great blend of life-like characteristics and manga-like styling that really brings out the idea of the characters existing between real life and online life.

While many of my earlier comments may lead someone to believe that I didn't enjoy this book, I hope that is actually NOT how it comes across. I still enjoyed this graphic novel and found myself being pulled into the world for the most part. As I said before, my biggest qualm is that it felt as though so many topics and ideas just needed more time and space to become fully fleshed out, especially those around race and gender, both of which were simply mixed into other issues of work safety and labor disputes.

An intriguing and hopefully inspiring piece of fiction (with a healthy dose of reality) for gamers and non-gamers alike.

*Gold farmer: Usually a young person in an overseas workshop, whose avatar in a game illegally collects valuable objects and sells them to players from developed countries, who have money to spend on such things.

Recommended with reservations

(Note: This review is from an Advanced Copy - Out October 14, 2014)


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