In Real Life
The vast majority of the graphic novels that I read tend to be adult in content but every so often, I find one geared towards teens that I have to share with everyone, regardless of age. This week, I’ll be talking about In Real Life, a one-shot story about gamer girls, the allure and the challenges of video games and the best ways to help your friends. It doesn’t have the gritty realism and violence of a lot of the graphic novels that I read, but its message to teens and particularly gamers is one that I feel needs to be shared. In Real Life is written by Cory Doctorow and illustrated by Jen Wang and is comprised of just one volume.
In Real Life is about a teen girl named Anda and her adventures in the world of Coarsegold Online. Coarsegold is a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game in which players pay a subscription fee to create characters and go on adventures for as long as their money, time and attention lasts. If you’ve ever played World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, or any of the Final Fantasy Online games, you’re familiar with the concept. During a a video game design class (Anda apparently goes to the coolest school ever), a guest speaker is introduced who wants to encourage more girls to feel comfortable being involved in games like Coarsegold Online and issues an open invitation to a guild (a group of players who go on adventures and raids together). Curious to see what this guild is all about, Anda convinces her parents to let her play and starts to make friends with some of her fellow guild members. Anda meets other gamers outside of the guild too and learns about “gold farmers,” players who use their avatars to do repetitive tasks to generate gold or valuable items which they then illegally sell to players who would rather pay to reap the rewards immediately. While many players condemn these gold farmers, Anda finds out that for some of them, it’s a full-time job and not as black and white as it first seems. What begins as the story of a girl getting involved in online gaming and making new friends after having moved to a new place slowly brings in economics and game ethics in a way that keeps from being overbearing or boring.
In Real Life handles some very sensitive issues and in general, it does so very well, particularly for a book geared towards teens. The young adult genre in general tends to get a bad rap for being overly simplistic and focused on romance and drama to the exclusion of anything mature or serious. In Real Life shows that this is a poor generalization. Anda’s friendship with one of the gold farmers helps her to understand very serious issues like the role of economics in games, the illegality of gold farming versus the necessity for some of these kids to earn money to survive and even labor issues. Anda is a very interesting and sympathetic teen, who genuinely wants to help her friends. Her challenge with understanding the situation of her new friend leaves her with some significant quandaries over how to help without screwing up his life even more. Given labor laws in China, his situation isn’t exactly stable and while Anda wants to help, how does she do so without losing him his job? It also tries to broach the issue that girls sometimes experience in the gaming world without being too heavy handed with it. It doesn’t handle this subject nearly as well. When the recruiter for the guild first talks to the girls in Anda’s class, it’s clear that some of these girls have had bad experiences in the past when they were open about being girls while playing. But then this issue is almost immediately dropped in favor of the gold farming once Anda meets Raymond. The story of the two friends trying to understand and help each other out is still well done, but it’s a little jarring to have an issue introduced and then quickly dropped like that. What did impress me however is that Anda’s parents aren’t your typical absent parents. They’re actively involved in Anda’s life, supporting her and trying to understand her gaming hobbies even when it’s something they clearly don’t quite understand. A lot of young adult novels tend to make parents non-entities and it’s great to see Anda’s parents break out of that mold.
The artwork by Jen Wang isn’t realistically beautiful but then this isn’t a story that would benefit from that. Instead, Wang uses bright colors and more comic illustrations to bring the world of Coarsegold to life. It really makes the game feel bright and intriguing and it made me miss playing one of the few MMOs that I’ve ever played. And Wang does an excellent job of differentiating between the players’ avatars so that the simple gold farmers avatars are easy to distinguish from the attention, detail and money put into some of the others. This is the first graphic novel I’ve seen from Cory Doctorow and I really like the pairing between him and Jen Wang.
In Real Life isn’t a graphic novel that I’d recommend to everyone. It focuses on the female perspective for gaming and is a great encouragement for teens to support each other, even when they’ve never met in person. It captures the magic and the appeal of MMOs without downplaying some of the less savory sides of them and handles economics in gaming much more than I would have expected in a graphic novel geared toward a younger audience. I’d highly recommend it to any younger gamer and anyone who doesn’t mind a sweet, although surprisingly complex story.