Published October 14th 2014 by First Second (first published 2014)
Format read: Finished copy via publisher
But things become a lot more complicated when Anda befriends a gold farmer--a poor Chinese kid whose avatar in the game illegally collects valuable objects and then sells them to players from developed countries with money to burn. This behavior is strictly against the rules in Coarsegold, but Anda soon comes to realize that questions of right and wrong are a lot less straightforward when a real person's real livelihood is at stake.
From acclaimed teen author (Little Brother, For the Win) and Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow and Koko Be Good creator Jen Wang, In Real Life is a perceptive and high-stakes look at adolescence, gaming, poverty, and culture clash.
Yeah, that was my thought when I was reading In Real Life.
There are many pluses to this book, including:
* The positive introduction of gaming - as someone who grew up in the N64 era, I absolutely came from a family where we viewed internet gaming with a dubious eye,
* The reinforcement that gaming is a team sport, that can be dominated by women,
* Anda's determination to help her friend Raymond, when she realizes that there is something wrong with his situation.
* The balancing of Anda's real life and Coarsegold. Doctorow and Wang did a great job of making me deeply interested in both, and wanting to see more from both.
But a lot of these benefits were profoundly overwhelmed by just how poorly Doctorow and Wang decided to handle aspects of Raymond's story.
There were elements of that story I appreciated - Doctorow and Wang do a nice streamlined job of explaining how many who aren't in the United States use the internet as a means to an end, and how what we view as a luxury - gaming! earning money ! - serves as a lifeline for many.
But where the story falters, is how Raymond's problems were addressed and solved throughout the duration of the story. As Anda tries to better Raymond's life by encouraging him to protest his work conditions, there's definitely an element of a white savior aspect to the story. Anda feels miserable, because she didn't realize the world was a cruel place. Anda is upset, because her family is teasingly fighting over ice cream, and that pales in comparison to Raymond's struggles. Anda is upset, since her account gets suspended, as she tries to help Raymond.
Anda, Anda, Anda. Get my point yet?
In so many words, Doctorow and Wang inadvertently make this about Anda's struggles and ability to understand a complex socio-economic problem in China, verses trying to see the perspective from Raymond's point of view.
And even as some secondary characters do make it a point of calling out Anda for her clumsy attempts to understand Raymond - something I did appreciate - things are made all the better again, when she rouses her group of fellow female players, to spread the word for Raymond. It's both faux feminism and faux activism. It's made all the worse in the end, when Raymond's problems are magically solved, and he shows up as a prince to Anda's princess, with things all the better now.
As someone who is Chinese-American and has lived in China on and off for many years, I was really bothered by this attempt to dilute a complex series of problems in China, into a brief graphic novel. I've seen a lot of what is described in this graphic novel play out in real life, and it's neither as simple or easily fixed, as Doctorow and Wang seem to believe.
I've read Doctorow's justification for writing the book, and I absolutely respect him for trying to bring some complex issues to light. But I can't help but wonder how much better the book would have been, if Doctorow had helped a Chinese activist write this book, instead of writing it himself. I know it's not my call, but I can't help but wonder.
With that being said, I would still recommend others read the book, simply for the sake of discussion, and using it as a gateway to a far more complex issue.
About the author/illustrator:
Jen Wang is an cartoonist and illustrator currently living in Los Angeles. Her works have appeared in the Adventure Time comics and LA Magazine. Her graphic novel Koko Be Good was published by First Second. In Real Life is her second book.