Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In Real Life, review and interview with Cory Doctorow

When Anda, a teenage gamer, gets invited to play Coursegold, a massively-multiplayer online role playing game she discovers a place where she can be many things she isn't in real life: a hero, a fighter, a leader, a part of a unified team. Along the way she learns about gold farmers who mine valuable objects within the game to later be sold to players. At first this seems unfair to Anda who recognizes that it gives players with money a chance to buy themselves into a game where others are trying to earn their place, which makes killing off these characters easy. Then she learns the darker truth behind these gold farmers.

Raymond, a gold farmer Anda befriends, turns out to be a teen in China who is hired as a miner. The money he earns for his employer is needed but the exhaustion from long hours is making him sick. Without a union or health care Anda tried to persuade him to get other gamers to collectively bargain but then Raymond's avatar disappears from the game, and Anda's parents cut her off from gaming and she worries about what has happened.

Doctorow's story is somewhat simplistic in that Anda's transition from bully to activist crusader is pretty quick. This isn't really a problem because the story really is about the economics of the online gaming world and how there are real-world international implications. It would be interesting to give this book to a group of gamers -- or just a class full of teens -- and ask them to debate the issues.

Jen Wang's luminous illustrations glow as if backlit on the page, with two distinct color palates for Anda's real and online worlds. I felt a little disoriented during in-game segments because I had no frame of reference for the game being played itself. Again, the illustrations are in support of the story, and Coarsegold isn't the star here, but I would have enjoyed a little more cohesion between the game, images, and story.

For teen readers there's more discussion of the economic realities of gaming and the internet in In Real Life than might be expected from a graphic novel. And that's a good thing.


As part of the blog tour for In Real Life I got a chance to submit some questions to Cory Doctorow about the book.

In your introduction to IRL you say this is “a golden age of organizing” while membership in labor unions is at an all-time low and government seems more inclined in the US to take the side of business over workers. Do you view the new digital economy as a possible “clean slate” for righting these wrongs?
Well, the total number of US workers in unions is about the same as it’s been since the 70s; though the percentage of unionized workers is a lot lower.

I think that capital went global, and as Piketty documents in Capital in the 21st Century, the post-war golden age of egalitarian access to capital has been under threat since the 1980s when the old dynastic fortunes of the 19th century regrouped and started to use tools like Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney to dismantle the minimum wage, banking regulation, trade barriers, etc. Trade unions were totally outflanked.

The Internet isn’t going to solve labor’s woes, but labor -- and economic justice more widely -- can’t do anything without the Internet.

There's a subtle message of poverty-versus-privilege built into the story, and Anda takes a first step toward sharing her knowledge and support to help a fellow player out. What do imagine Anda's next step would be, and what would you hope the reader of IRL to do in response?

In the novel I wrote, FOR THE WIN, the kids all over the world form a trade union called the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, or Webblies, and become a vanguard for organizing unions in traditional factories in free trade zones in the pacific rim.

The structure of Coursegold appears to have evolved into a somewhat imperial landscape in that there are farmers harvesting what raiders seek at the expense of their own communities and, in real life, their own health. Aside from being structurally necessary for the narrative, do you think that MMO universes are prone to defaulting toward this sort of economic model?

I think that games are inherently authoritarian in the way that jokes are -- the gamemaster (or joketeller) decides on the timing and delivery of the “punchline”. You don’t get to vote on whether you can hear the punchline before the shaggy dog story is done -- your only options are to stay and listen at the comedian’s pace (or play the way the gamemaster lays out the game) or to leave/not play.

This sets up an interesting tension when an arrangement based on play and leisure shades over into an economy or political system. What is harmless and even laudable when you’re playing a game -- surrendering some of your autonomy to a “leader” who is trusted to act as a benevolent dictator -- takes on an altogether different character when you’re depending on your play to earn you a living and when the benevolent dictator is a multinational corporation, not a pal who likes to DM.

It’s the difference between going to Disneyland for a weekend’s entertainment and moving to Singapore, where the sidewalks are clean enough to eat off of, and dissidents are jailed and executed for criticizing the state.

It seems important that you chose a girl as the main character, and briefly address the issue of girls playing as male characters. How do you feel this fits in with the questions you raise about depressed economies within gaming given that in real life women are still struggling to earn as much as men for doing the same work?

The creation of in-groups and out-groups in society, whether based on gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other criteria, always allows the rich to play workers off against one another. Once, the Michigan copper bosses would bring in Irish workers to undermine striking German immigrants. Now, men and women are played off against each other, just as workers in the developed world are played off against workers in the global south. A justice that gets a fair deal for workers in China without getting a fair deal for women in America (or vice-versa) is no justice at all. There’s only one human race, and without a fair deal for everyone, there’s still work to be done.


I want to thank Cory Doctorow for answering my questions, made possible with the generous assistance of Gina Gagliano at First Second Books who also provided the review copy. For more of this interview check out the links of other participating in the blog tour.

Wednesday, October 8th – Bunbury in the Stacks http://bunburyinthestacks.com/
Thursday, October 9th – Stacked http://www.stackedbooks.org/
Friday, October 10th – Forever YA http://foreveryoungadult.com/
Saturday, October 11th – CBR Robot 6 http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/
Sunday, October 12th – The Midnight Garden http://www.themidnightgarden.net/
Monday, October 13th – Cuddlebuggery http://cuddlebuggery.com/
Wednesday, October 15th – Novel Thoughts http://www.novelthoughtsblog.com/
Thursday, October 16th – The Book Rat http://www.thebookrat.com/
Friday, October 17th – Alice Marvels http://www.alicemarvels.com/

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