This is basically a story about behavioral economics. And I’m not just saying this to sound analytical- it pretty much says so in the introduction.
Still with me? Good. OK, so yes, it is a story about behavioral economics, but it is also a story about finding your voice and using it to make positive change in the world. You might be asking, “but I thought this was a graphic novel about playing an MMORPG?” It’s that, too. But Doctorow uses the social dynamics and internal economy of a video game to touch on deeper subjects.
Anda is a quiet girl who discovers her own inner badass when she starts playing an MMORPG, Coarsegold Online. For those who have never played MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games), they essentially work as an immersive and detailed alternate world- often High Fantasy or some variation thereof- with their own social structure, economy, and idiosyncrasies. Many players will tell you that one of the advantages of these games is the ability to play with people from all over the world and dissolve cultural barriers. But what they won’t tell you (often because they don’t realize it themselves), is that this does not create the kind of egalitarian atmosphere you might hope for. As a microcosmic, if fantastical, reproduction of the world, it has its own issues. The one In Real Life highlights is economic, though also closely entwined with culture and social class, as economics always is.
The economy of an MMORPG is based on real economic principles; trade and monetary systems have a particular structure, often based on the actual difficulty of acquiring materials, but also somewhat arbitrary. Unfortunately, egalitarianism is thrown out the window when you realize that those people with the most economic advantages in the real world have an advantage in the game. Namely, there are usually underground websites where those with cash to burn can spend real money to acquire game perks: currency, gear, character upgrades, etc. Sometimes games will even provide these “in-game purchases” themselves to cut out the middlemen. So the real rich get fake richer, while also inflating the market for those that have to work strictly within the confines of the in-game economy. A direct result of this is the rise of gold farmers: players who specifically collect and sell in-game money and gear for real life profit. Most game companies frown on this, as the aforementioned inflation can chase away customers and completely imbalance gameplay.
Here is where the cultural thing comes in: most (or at least the most stereotypical) gold farmers are non-American/non-Eurocentric people. They are often poor and from a disadvantaged background, so gold farming is a quick (and probably fun for gamer types) way to earn real money, rather than working in a factory or other labor-intensive industry for low wages. That is not to say that it isn’t also a scam for higher ups that run the “farms,” and that comes into play in the story as well. But this has created a lot of racial stereotyping of gold farmers, and prejudice among gamers. What In Real Life highlights is not just the reality of this phenomenon, but also how it is riddled with class and race-based hypocrisy. Gold farmers inflate the economy, so other players will take them out, or rival farmers will target them for territory (as is the case here), with the players who eliminate the farmers receiving real life and/or in-game perks. Both farmers and certain types of players are taking unfair advantage of the system, but only one gets a pass for their activities (I’ll let you guess which one). Anda gets caught up in a complicated web of moral issues when she makes friends with a gold farmer, and realizes just how privileged she and a lot of her fellow players really are. Her awakening to the real world implications of economics and social class via the game world gives her a brand new, empowering perspective on the real world.
I realize I’ve gone down a bit of a rabbit hole with this, but this book made me really consider these sociological issues. We live in a world where you can live almost an entirely separate life digitally, and we are perhaps just now learning that this digital existence 1) can never be fully separated from real world prejudices and perspectives, 2) is much more difficult to study or regulate since most people don’t take it seriously or even understand it, and 3) is an extremely useful microcosmic way of looking at social/group dynamics in real life, often with genuine real world repercussions.
Cory Doctorow is pretty much the perfect writer to present this message, and opting to tell it in such an engaging (and covert) way is extra brilliant. Doctorow has built a career out of understanding not just the tech world, but also the sociological implications of it (see his essay collection Content for a sampling of his work). Translating his existing knowledge of how the digital world works into a legitimately fun and heartfelt personal adventure story just plain works.
From a storytelling perspective, it does work, but it has some minor flaws. The biggest one has to do with the interactions of the characters; they’re great, but the relationships are a little underdeveloped. I think this comes from the story having an overt message, which puts straight storytelling on the backburner a little. It is geared toward a YA audience, so the immediacy and fast pace works in its favor for the intended audience, but I would have liked the character interactions to be a little more prolonged.
This is a graphic novel, so on the visual side it is gorgeous. Jen Wang’s art is beautiful, bright, and dynamic, with a lot of personality. It isn’t highly detailed, but it doesn’t need to be. The colors and the way Wang uses different palettes to separate the real and gaming worlds is especially evocative.
I know this is a lot of me analyzing/pontificating, rather than getting down to brass tacks, but there is so much wonderful stuff to unpack. In the end though, this is a great book, one that tells a strong personal growth story while also shedding light on issues that a lot of people are simply never exposed to. I hope a lot of readers, young and old, take something away from it that will inform their lives and influence their perspective, both online and off.