In Real Life

by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang (First Second)

The world of online gaming has always been dominated by guys, and often in a not-so-nice way. But make no mistake: Gamer girls are having a moment.

In Real Life, a collaboration between writer Cory Doctorow and artist Jen Wang, is the story of a high schooler named Anda who signs up for an MMO (a massively multiplayer online game) after a young woman visits her school and encourages the girls to play as part of her all-female guild.

The game is a made-up one called Coarsegold that is based on real ones like World of Warcraft and Everquest. As anyone who has played a game like those knows, it’s possible to make real-world money by selling virtual items within the game that help players advance faster by doing less work. It’s usually against the terms of service, but a common practice, particularly in Asian countries where people can—and in many cases, need to—earn a living this way. (Strange but true; the writer and game designer Neal Stephenson has been quoted as saying, “Gold farming is one of those things that makes you want to quit science fiction writing because you could never think up something that weird.”)

Anda turns out to be a natural at Coarsegold, slaying and raiding and racking up points. She soon gets recruited by another player, a punky looking young woman who calls herself the Sarge, to help kill off the hordes of gold farmers. The Sarge says farming lowers the value of gold, and that reducing the numbers of farmers is unquestionably a good thing to do. But the ethics of the situation turn out to be quite a bit more complicated than that, and Anda soon begins to learn as much about the “real” world as she does about the game.

A science fiction writer who is perhaps best known for running the consistently awesome tech-news website Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow seems to have x-ray vision for every subject he looks at. In an introduction to this story, Doctorow tells his readers in no uncertain terms that what he’s really writing about is the internet, and the way it has changed the way human beings organize themselves—from getting a group of friends together for dinner to the workings of the global economy.

It’s hard to isolate just one or two things to like best about this book; it’s got too much going for it. For one, Anda is depicted as a pleasingly plus-sized girl, and her weight is never once mentioned as a problem. Then there’s Wang’s charming rendering of the game’s characters, humanoid creatures who are all decked out in pastel shades, pointy ears, and fabulous hair. Most importantly, Anda’s gaming experiences highlight specific instances of global economic disparity that are part of Western kids’ everyday lives, but in such an insidious, invisible way that they may never have considered or even heard of them before.

The fact that most of the book’s real drama is played out “in game” is interesting too; it proves the point that the things we do online most definitely count as “real life.”