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In Real Life

by Cory Doctorow; Jen Wang (illus.)

Near the beginning of author and copyright-reform activist Cory Doctorow’s new graphic novel, Anda and her friends are listening to a speaker at their Arizona high school. Liza, a “kick arse” Australian gamer in a massive multiplayer online game called Coarsegold, has a pitch for the girls in the class: probationary memberships in her prestigious gaming guild on condition they play using female avatars.

In Real LifeFearing online stalkers, Anda’s mother is reluctant to let Anda sign up. As it turns out, the virtual and real worlds do end up colliding for Anda, but not in the way her mother feared or could even have anticipated.

As “KaliDestroyer,” Anda proves a formidable player. Ah yes, we sigh in weary, default approval, yet another celebration of girl power! But In Real Life proves to be something very different, and far more interesting.

Anda is soon approached by Lucy, a.k.a. “Sarge,” who explains how Anda can make real-world money by killing the avatars of “gold farmers” – players in developing countries who collect and sell in-game currency to players from developed countries who want, and can afford, to get ahead quickly.

Anda doesn’t question Lucy’s outrage about the gold farmers until she actually stops and talks to one of them. Raymond is a 16-year-old from China who works all night gold farming so he can avoid working in a zipper factory. Years of manual labour have left him with back problems that he has no medical coverage to treat. Appalled, Anda resolves to help Raymond, but her good intentions end up having the opposite effect. They also land her in hot water with Lucy, who now views her as a traitor.

Doctorow explores an intimidatingly complex set of issues – economic disparity, gaming, and the role of women in the latter – with force and clarity, thanks in large part to Jen Wang’s wonderfully loose, expressive illustrations. Part of Doctorow’s point, which he lays out in an excellent introduction, is that gaming and other online activities don’t just mimic the real world, they partake of and affect it in tangible ways. While the instant, Norma Rae–style uprising Anda coordinates falls on the simplistic side, In Real Life demonstrates the internet’s power to create injustice, and to just as readily correct it.