In Real Life
As a YA graphic novel, In Real Life will no doubt be described by critics as being “relevant” to its target audience. Writer Cory Doctorow uses the subject of gamers and the MMORPGs (Massively Multiple Online Role-Playing Games) they play to give a crash-course on how globalization creates the conditions for economic exploitation, even within the World Wide Web. It’s a timely message, and fortunately Doctorow packages it in a form that’s both comprehensible and entertaining. Artist Jen Wang produces some beautiful illustration work in order to fashion the book’s virtual world and the characters who populate it. But the story itself suffers from a weak 3rd act. As a result, Doctorow’s thesis that the virtues of interconnectivity will save everyone comes across as less than convincing.
Anda is an American teenager inspired to participate in an MMORPG called “Coarsegold Online” and to join a guild named “Clan Fahrenheit.” The fictional Coarsegold is described as having upward of 10 million players worldwide, while Clan Farenheit is an all-female gamer group that requires its members to also play female characters. This is because women often choose to disguise themselves by playing male characters within the game as a way to guard against harassment. So the guild’s policies are designed to challenge sexist attitudes within the online world while establishing a community that provides women with much-needed support and encouragement. Sounds like a cool idea, right?
However, even Farenheit's high-minded ideals are blinkered by their own privilege. Anda is conscripted by another member named Lucy to accept real-world cash payements from shadowy clients for slaughtering playing characters dubbed “gold farmers” - individuals who hoard the game's virtual resources (gold, magic items, weapons, etc.) not for their own use, but to sell to other players, and also in return for actual cash. There's a lot of money going around that's being kept on the down-low. Lucy justifies her own mercantile behavior by claiming that gold farming is inexcusable because it violates both the rules and the laissez-faire spirit of Coarsegold. She lectures Anda on the moral superiority of players who procure resources through their own efforts, just as the game designers intended. It isn’t long before Anda is forced to confront the contradictions within Lucy’s actions, and she befriends a gold farmer named Raymond. Anda learns that he’s just one of a multitude of Chinese teenagers who work for local companies that turn a profit from gold farming. Many of them labor under sweatshop conditions. Raymond himself is suffering from poor health due to the long hours he’s required to spend online by his employer in order to earn his wage.
IRL’s narrative constantly shifts back and forth between the real and game world. Wang is equally capable rendering both. But for the most part, the real world backgrounds look nondescript while Coarsegold looks sumptuous. The game’s blend of European and East Asian artifacts appears vaguely inspired by Hayao Miyazaki. I myself find the aesthetic quite attractive. Wang doesn’t markedly change up her drawing style to help differentiate the two worlds, but she does noticeably alter her color palette. The former is dominated by deep earth tones layered by brush in translucent washes, while the latter’s colors are purer and brighter, as if to suggest the digital nature of the setting. For example, Anda’s usual hair color is brown, but within Coarsegold it burns an unrealistic hue of bright red.
Wang’s art particularly shines in the character designs, as she demonstrates a facility for facial expressions and body language expected of an animator. I like how she maintains the basic physical features of Anda and Lucy so the reader can still identify them whatever form they take. Their in-game avatars are basically fantasy projections based on their real world appearance. And all the guild members can be distinguished through their individual avatars. By contrast, Raymond and the other gold farmers share the same harmless-looking gnomelike appearance that makes them nonetheless easy to spot in a crowd. They're effectively interchangeable mascots. If anything, the subsuming of rugged individuality to a bland corporate identity (or Eastern collectivism) might be a little too on-the-nose.
But if the morale of the story is all too apparent hallway through, it at least refrains from hammering it in (That’s what Doctorow’s written introduction is for). IRL succinctly raises a whole host of thorny issues when portraying how the globalized economy functions that deserve further exploration, but then rushes to conveniently resolve them. The plot in itself is rather flimsy, with most of the secondary characters popping up just to deliver some piece of exposition. The consequence is that the comic doesn't quite convey the full weight of the problems its trying to address. Anda and Clan Fahrenheit use the power of Internet messaging to unite the gold farmers in their struggle to obtain better working conditions. But the victory feels hollow. While the newly-empowered guild celebrates in their palatial headquarters, much of the actual struggle of their Chinese counterparts takes place of-panel. The only indication the reader gets in the end is a hazy reassurance from Raymond that things are now “better” for them.
And that’s the crucial limitation of an otherwise good book. Educating its young audience and getting them engaged might be a commendable goal. The privileging of their perspective might even make them feel better about themselves. But IRL mostly leaves out of the picture those who have to toil in less fortunate conditions. It hands them another empty promise that the more affluent parts of the world will back them up next time, because openness!