In Real Life: What’s the Message, Exactly?

Posted by in Books

I completed the graphic novel In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang in an hour. My initial response was confusion. I read it again. I read it the next day.

I’m still confused.

It is a book that so desperately feels as though it wants to send a message. But what? I’m not sure.

Let’s start with a little context behind my confusion. I first heard about Cory Doctorow due to an ongoing controversy in the gaming community called GamerGate.

Gamergate isn’t something I fully understand myself. GamerGators claim that they’re against the corruption in game journalism. Anti-GamerGate proponents claim that GamerGate is a misogynistic hate group. There are examples of extremists in both camps.

Doctorow is part of the Anti-GameGate group, and has featured a couple of articles on why GamerGate “sucks.”

  • In Real Life released in October 2014, right in the midst of the GamerGate controversy.
  • It has a quote from Felicia Day at the top claiming that In Real Life is “a lovely graphic novel for gamer girls of all ages.”
  • The book even starts with a strong pro gamer girl narrative.

So, color me confused when it turns out the story isn’t really about girls in gaming at all.

The Gamer Girl Narrative

The story surrounds Anda, a girl gamer taking a game design class at her school. One day, another girl gamer named Liza comes to speak to the class. If you try to imagine a stereotypical “gamer girl,” Liza is it. Combat boots, half shaved head, long black skirt with a “GAME OVER” t-shirt.

Liza claims she used to be one of the top gamers, and had a small spiel about how sad it is that women didn’t play as female avatars in games. So, Liza’s there to promote her girls-only guild in the online game, Coarsegold (think: World of Warcraft), and offers probationary guild memberships to a few of the girls in the class, including Anda.

This whole set up is rather odd, but it’s a fictional graphic novel so I let it pass. The point is that Doctorow has really set up the book to be about girl gaming at this point.

Common Enemies Make You Allies, Right?

Anda logs in, and is shortly thereafter contacted by another guild member named Lucy. Lucy offers a way for Anda to make money through Coursegold, go around slaughtering groups of gold farmers.

Lucy talks up their role in stopping gold farming, that it is the “right” thing to do, but Anda soon learns that the money coming in is actually from competing gold farmers. Lucy spins a little narrative that apparently makes this okay in Lucy’s head, but clearly there are some moral lines being crossed here.

Then Anda actually talks to one of the gold farmers.

The… Actual? Story

Anda befriends a gold farmer who is actually a 16 year old Chinese boy working full time as a gold farmer. It’s his livelihood, and of course, he works in pretty dismal working conditions.

Anda learns that the boy, who uses the name Raymond, is having back problems. His work won’t pay for any medical treatment. Anda encourages him to plan a strike of some sort, and Raymond is fired shortly thereafter for plotting one.

Sparing the details, in the end, everything turns out fine and dandy. Chinese gold farmers stand up for their working rights and Raymond finds a better job than before.

Oh and there’s this side story about another girl at Anda’s school who tries to join her gaming group, gets shut down for being a prep, and then after all this happens, Anda accepts her into the group.

The Message

Why open it with such a strong pro-gamer girl message when it seemingly has nothing to do with the story at all?

If I were grasping, I could connect it by saying, “encouraging girls to game will lead to awesome things like Chinese workers getting better working conditions!” but that seems like way too much.

And I’m wrong, anyways.

Doctorow, in an interview with io9, states, “The thing that the book tries to do, and that all of the incarnations of this story try to do, is connect gender imbalance or gender inequities with wider inequities in the world.”

I managed to completely miss this. The book puts so much emphasis on the Chinese labor issues that I failed to see how the girl gamer issue even connected. Misogyny in online games isn’t even addressed, only the lack of women to begin with. Connecting the “inequity” of the lack of women gamers to terrible working conditions in China seems like a bit of a stretch, unless he is going for “look how much worse THEY have it. You should focus on helping them!” But that doesn’t seem to be the case throughout the book.

In the New York Times book review, Chris Taylor says, “Ultimately, Doctorow and Wang wants us to consider what it means to be part of groups that hate other groups, and how technology and persistence can help us overcome such barriers.”

Okay, I can jive with that message, but it does get a little lost. Some of the extra story elements distract from that message, such as of Anda getting paid by other, competing, gold farmers.

It felt like a book that wanted to be about girl gaming problems, but said “never mind” partway through, and suddenly switched to Chinese labor issues.

If Wang and Doctorow wanted to really to give more emphasis to the inequality of girl gamers, then it would have been better tied in throughout by making quips such as, “it’s so hard to find girl gamers who actually play as girls, they’re always nervous to join,” and so on, rather than leaving it at the beginning and failing to effectively revisit it later.

Other Observations

Encouraging Girls to Play Online

I do think the book does a good job of highlighting that playing games online doesn’t have to be scary for girls. There’s a point in the book where Anda’s mother worries that online games are where perverts and terrible people thrive, and I can certainly connect with that.

I played the lovely game of Runescape as a kid, and my mother sat me down to have the “talk” about online games and their dangers. Do guys have this talk with their parents? I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem like they do.

But of course, when Anda does join, it’s all well enough. The other girls in the guild are nice, and even though Lucy certainly has her faults, she doesn’t mean ill. It’s really about finding a great group of people to play with.

Chinese Labor Issues

I don’t believe that the outcome that the book spelled out for the Chinese labor issues was the best idea ever, as well intentioned as it was. It ignores much of the finer points, such as the unethical business practice of gold farming to begin with.

Eventually, these gold farming businesses will hopefully be forced to shut down, but now with better working conditions, the employees will resist the closures that much more. It’s like slapping on a band-aid that has such strong adhesive that it rips open a new wound when you’re forced to take it off.

Perhaps that is the correct way to go, I’m certainly not an economist or anyone who has studied these types of things, but it seems risky.

Final Feelings

In Real Life certainly had potential, but it failed to send a strong message across. The book was based on a short story of Doctorow’s called Anda’s Game, and I think they simply tried shoving in too many of the elements from that. Reducing some of the details and honing in on some of the main themes would have made it a much more effective message.

Did In Real Life have anything to do with GamerGate at all? I don’t believe so, even though they tie it in during the io9 interview. Considering this book could still exist with the same message without GamerGate, it doesn’t seem to have much of an influence on the story as a whole. Unless they’re trying to compare GamerGate to Anda, and Anti-GamerGate to the gold farmers, which would be next level weird – and I don’t believe that is the case at all.

Also, I found the book in my local tiny library, so that’s pretty neat.

Have you read the novel? What do you think of it? Was the intended message clear to you and I’m just dumb?