The Story: In Real Life, a graphic novel written by Cory Doctorow and illustrated by Jen Wang, is a story about Anda, a teenage gamer who is drawn into the world of Coarsegold Online, a MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game) where she’s recruited at school to play as a female character in an all-female clan, Clan Fahrenheit. Anda engages in various missions as she progresses through the game. But after a violent excursion, she encounters a Chinese teen named Raymond who plays, not for fun, but for money. Doing so violates the game’s rules but it seems to be a sin the gamers overlook. Unable to handle the injustice of it all, Anda decides to help as best as she knows how.
My Take: I read this graphic novel after finishing Anya’s Ghost, another YA graphic novel that I ended up loving. Sadly, I can’t hold to the same level of enthusiasm here with In Real Life. While its design is fun and colorful, the story itself was more like a 2.5-star read for me on GoodReads.
Just a disclaimer, it’s only fair for me to state that I am not a gamer; therefore, I’m probably not the right audience to best appreciate this story as a whole. Granted, I’m not ignorant of gaming culture but I’m not intimately familiar with it. That being said, this graphic novel’s premise sounded interesting enough and I had never heard of the concept of gold farming before (more about that below) and was intrigued.
Art-wise, the images are colorful and slightly cartoony but not enough to be caricatures or look too juvenile. I also liked the fact that the scenes inside of Corasegold were differentiated from the “real world” as they burst to life with color and detail and the characters are truly fantastical, quite in stark contrast to the simple palette and depictions of the settings and characters in the non-game world. But this contrast is needed, certainly works, and fits with the story’s tone. Overall, this is a pleasant graphic novel to look at and it gets full marks from me for design.
Below are samples of the art, which you’ll need to click on in order to enlarge. (All screenshots were captured by me on my Kindle app; also, these are from early on in the novel, so there are no spoilers):
However, it was the story that fell a little flat with me in more than one place. On the plus side, In Real Life tackles the idea of how women can feel bullied in online environments (hence why some female gamers play as male characters to avoid harassment) and, of course, the topic of gold farming, which consumes the bulk of the story’s plot. I had never heard of gold farming before, so I had to do some research on it. In a nutshell, and in my best summation, gold farming is when someone plays a MMORPG strictly to collect in-game tokens and currency and then sells them to other players, usually in more developed countries, for real-world money. This practice is banned in many online games due to the ethical and economic ramifications, but that doesn’t stop it from happening altogether as it can take years for a gold farmer to acquire “goods” to sell.
For someone who knew next to nothing about this practice beforehand, I thought the novel explained the concept and consequences of gold farming fairly well, so I wasn’t confused and left scratching my head. I also appreciated the fact that Anda decides to take the moral high ground when she learns about the poor conditions under which Raymond works, from absurdly long hours to a lack of health benefits even when he becomes injured and is still forced to work. The novel concludes as you might suspect it does, which is fine (albeit not without some moral hiccups – more on that in a moment) and it succeeds in shedding light on an economically troubling problem.
That being said, the moral of the story, as it were, is hammered home a little too hard for my liking and becomes preachy in spots. I sense the message of this graphic novel perhaps isn’t so much that gold farming is a questionable practice but the fact that people need to organize, protest, and stand up against injustices. That’s all fine and good, I suppose, but a personal pet reading peeve of mine is a story that’s based on a message of protest, protest, protest. (The introduction to the story became a clue later on to me that this indeed was intended to be the message of the novel.) Again, this all comes down to personal likes and dislikes, but I prefer less in-your-face morals (such as the ones in Anya’s Ghost) as well as stories that aren’t so blatant in terms of a social issue theme. Again, gamers might find more to enjoy here, but for me, this novel got on a soapbox one too many times.
What also bothered me more so than the on-the-nose moral was Anda’s parents’ responses to her actions. After Anda’s mother discovers that Anda is being paid to game, she rightfully suspends her daughter’s online privileges. However, Anda sneaks around and uses an internet cafe to continue playing and communicating with Raymond. In the end, her sneakiness results in her becoming the story’s hero. When her actions are brought to light to her parents, rather than be upset with her for flagrantly disobeying them, they applaud her for, essentially, breaking the rules. Hence, in a story about socioeconomic and ethical injustices, we have a hero who saves the day by breaking her parents’ trust and their in-house rules, which seems subtely contradictory. That on its own would keep me from recommending this to a younger audience as the premise, at least to me, appears to be that it’s okay to disobey your parents as long as what you’re doing turns out right in the end – then all will be forgiven.
(As a side note, disobeying “authorities” is a theme common to middle grade and young adult works, such as the Harry Potter series, which I love. However, the difference is that in the Harry Potter books, by way of example, Harry and his friends are either punished or at least reprimanded for breaking the rules, though in many of the novels extreme situations call for extreme measures and breaking school rules is seemingly overlooked since a great threat to life and limb has been averted. In contrast, I didn’t find the central dilemma in In Real Life to be on the same life-and-death level and, thus, undeserving of flagrantly disobeying authority figures, which is what Anda does when she continues to play Coarsegold.)
All of this came across as very unrealistic to me, and while this is a work of fiction, it has to make some degree of sense as we’re contending with real-world characters here, not fantasy beings (unlike my example with Harry Potter). Are there times when it’s okay to disobey an authority figure in real life? Yes, but only if there is danger to life and limb. All Anda had to do was tell her parents what was going on with Raymond rather than sneak around and try to fix things by herself behind their backs. Again, for adult readers this might be a small matter, but for younger readers it might set a bad precedent. That being said, the themes within this work seem tailored more for an older audience (namely teens and adults) than anyone younger as I don’t suspect many preteens or older children would find the topics of gold farming and socioeconomic struggles interesting.
Language – Minimal, PG-level profanities with occasional PG-13-level words used (albeit sporadically).
Violence – While in-game, Anda and others engage in “kill” missions where they have to wipe out opponents or designated targets. These scenes are infrequent compared to the story as a whole and depicted in a very cartoon-like manner that avoids blood or gore. However, one such mission requires Anda to attack a group of defenseless peasants; again, while this scene isn’t graphic, it is intended to be emotionally disturbing, especially since it isn’t a fair fight.
Sexual Content – None. Some of the characters’ costumes in-game might be slightly immodest, but there is no nudity and nothing breaches the boundaries of good taste.
Overall, I found In Real Life to be an okay read, but in the end, this was a case where the back blurb appealed to me more than the actual story. I strongly suspect that gamers might glean more from this than I did, though it was by no means poorly written or designed. It’s just not a story for everyone but only for a specific audience who is probably already familiar with the gaming worlds and issues In Real Life presents and tackles.