In Real Life (IRL) is a new graphic novel from Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang. It's about a 16-year-old named Anda and her adventures as part of a woman-only clan in a popular MMO (called "Coursegold Online") based not-so-subtly on World of Warcraft.
Warning: this post contains spoilers for In Real Life
Aimed more or less at a young adult audience, it's about a lot of things — being a young woman in 2014, being a woman gamer, MMOs, online friendships, acceptance and internet culture.
What Doctorow and Wang really want readers to come away with, however, is an appreciation and awareness of labor practices in the wider world, the politics that shape them and the activism that can change them.
In the game, Anda finds herself taking jobs (that pay real-life money) for killing obvious "gold farmers" — people who are paid to do repetitive tasks in games so that more privileged players can skip past them. She happily takes the gigs, earning some income and battling people who "ruin" the economy of the game. But then she befriends one and gets to know the actual person — a young Chinese man named Raymond — behind the avatar. This results in something of a rude awakening for Anda, and a budding political awareness.
In the introduction to the book, Cory Doctorow writes that In Real Life is "a book about games and economics."
A lot of us pay attention to games, but think of them as trivial... As for economics, well, yeah, people think economics is important, but it's also one of those intimidating no-go areas that scares people away, despite the fact that economics — the study of why people do things, really — is the subject that has the most to say about the circumstances in which they find themselves. When you put economics and games together, you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a bunch of sticky, tough questions about politics and labor.
Anda finds out about the deplorable conditions that Raymond has to work in. He's a factory worker by day, lifting boxes. By night, he works at his in-game job, farming gold. He has back problems, he gets sick often and he almost never sleeps more than four or five hours. Understandably, Anda is upset and wants to help.
Coincidentally (conveniently?), the workers at her father's company go on strike right around the same time. Our young heroine asks questions, researches some of the methods activists have traditionally used, and, rather naively, encourages Raymond to fight for better working conditions. It's all very starry-eyed, and a simplified view of how activists and workers can organize for better conditions, but In Real Life is aimed at a younger audience, and it gets away with its somewhat overreaching optimism.
Partially, this is due to the fact that Doctorow and Wang acknowledge, however briefly, that cultural differences come into play. Anda is chastised for butting in to Raymond's life by one of his friends, after he is fired for speaking up and trying to fight for himself. "You think just because you read about us on the internet you know everything about us!" another gold farmer and Chinese player tells her.
Things do get better for Raymond and his friends. The power of organizing and activism shine through, and while nothing is presented as being a perfect solution, the message is clear: It's better to do something about a problem than to sit around and ignore it.
Saving the world, just a tiny bit
In Real Life is important precisely because it promotes awareness in a way that makes sense to young gamers, a population weaned on saving the (virtual) world, who may only be exposed to the cynicism of the 24-hour news cycle or otherwise be politically apathetic.
This is intentional. Doctorow talks about his own history as an activist in the '80s in the foreword, and speaks directly to his intentions for the book.
I hope that readers of this book will be inspired to dig deeper into the subject of behavioral economics and to start asking hard questions about how we end up with the stuff we own, what it costs our human brothers and sisters to make these goods, and why we think we need them. But it's a poor politics that can only be expressed by choosing to buy or not buy something. Sometimes (often!), you need to organize to make a difference.
Anda is the perfect vessel for this little voyage of discovery. She's likable and relatable. She's a bright kid — she makes her own video games at school, she asks questions, she cares about the people around her. And like many kids in the modern world, she lives much of her life online. Her tools are those of an online activist, which don't change if you are 16 or 60.
In Real Life doesn't go far into the complications, the pains and the heartaches that go into workers' struggles in a largely unfriendly world. But, as an introduction for the YA crowd, and a piece of work that aims to empower its readers, In Real Life hits all the right notes.