Book Review #20: In Real Life (Graphic Novel) by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

Saturday, 17 January 2015
Product details:
Publisher: First Second
Format: Paperback
Length: 187 pages
Published: 2014
Rating: ☆☆☆☆
Source: Purchased with a Christmas gift card.

Anda loves Coarsegold Online, the massively-multiplayer role-playing game where she spends most of her free time. It's a place where she can be a leader, a fighter, a hero. It's a place where she can meet people from all over the world, and make friends.

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.

First of all I just want to mention, a graphic novel about gaming? Can you figure out why I was instantly intrigued to buy this? I think so. This is the story that behind it's simplistic storyline hides important messages that are often overlooked in society, but more on that later. To start with as usual I'll talk about the cover, the plot, the characters, the illustrations and anything else I feel relevant to this review. So let's jump right in!

Cover- Frankly my dear this cover is beautiful. Instantly viewers are drawn in to the dynamic colour schemes that parallel between the two scenes, a female gamer and her gaming character counterpart. Now I'll be honest, I didn't actually read the synopsis of this book before I went and purchased it, the cover was enough for me because instantly the vibe I was getting was 'girl escapes into a video game to hide her real identity and to feel wanted.' In reality I don't think I was that far off from being wrong. Going back to the cover though, I love the typography, especially that of the IRL. That pixelated look is very retrospective of a vintage MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) and I respected that. Very stylish and fitting with the story.

Plot- The first thing that I was drawn to plot wise was Doctorow's intentions to promote female gaming (females actually playing AS females). I thought that in the gaming society that is quite a major issue, not so much now, but promoting the confidence to play as yourself was a very positive factor that I greatly appreciated.  The plot goes on to develop this, explaining how our main character Anda is trying to fit in, and playing the MMO
Coarsegold Online allows her to escape this and enjoy what she loves. One thing that I did love about the plot was that it highlights the dangers of online gaming from a parents perspective and actually got it right for a change. Anda's mother is cautious to let her play  Coarsegold Online at first due to the fact she could be talking to anyone, but lets her play and supports her as long as she plays responsibly. When however she doesn't (and this was my favourite part), she revokes her privilages, and like a stereotypical gamer instead of going on a murder spree or cursing everyone and everything, Anda simply sulks. It's relatable and true to life. I like it.

Characters- In this graphic novel we meet Anda, our main protagonist, Raymond, the poor and hardworking chinese teenager, Lucy (Sarge) and many others. Unfortunately I feel that some of the characters could have been a little more developed in this graphic novel. As this is based off of Cory Doctorow's original story 'Anda's Game' (found online only), it's understandable that the original novel would identify more depth but I found that I was just a little bit more eager for the development of Raymond and especially Lucy.  Although we hear from Raymond a lot I would have liked to see some more of the realtime effects of his lifestyle in the illustrations. We caught a glimpse of a few but I thought that might have been a nice touch. Anda however I thought was very well developed. We were introduced to Anda as this sixteen year old girl, slightly podgy and insecure and I found that it was nice to see. However I felt that Anda lacked a certain social aspect. Fair enough it's fair to assume that gamers lack certain social qualities, but she didn't seem to have any friends at all at school. This kind of made her character seem slightly unrealistic for me and I would have liked to see some better decision making on her part as well. Everything just seemed to jump around a bit when it came to her trying to make up her mind. With Lucy as mentioned earlier I definitely would have liked to see a bit more of an angle taken with her character to develop it. I think this graphic novel would have benefited from taking a three way perspective to tell the story, so we got to see the impacts of all three of our predominant characters as the story suggests 'in real life.'

Illustrations - I think when it comes to the illustrations in this graphic novel to say that I was overly happy with them. Wang's images were very vibrant and reflected well the mood of the current situation. I liked the instant parallels between the game world of Coarsegold Online and reality and I thoroughly enjoyed how emotion was shown through the characters' faces. You could always tell the emotions that were being felt by each character at the time. The drawings of the characters are quite simplistic with less detail being focused on a character's features and more on what they are wearing. I liked this detail though because when it came to the game world that simplistic design of Jen Wang's really brought out some of the crazy outfits that were being worn by players. Very well done.

However I think I must mention a factor that did occur to me whilst reading this graphic novel and if I'm honest it plays quite a large focus in other reviews I've read. This idea of a white character playing saviour to those of other ethnicity. I mean don't get me wrong, I love the idea of Anda's character wanting to change the situation, it's her bold and strong sense of virtue that I solely appreciate, but whether it took it the step too far by suggesting the white hero saves the day? Perhaps but this was a factor that didn't really hit me until moments after finishing the novel. I do have to say though that there was one moment in this novel where I seriously had to do a double take. There is a moment where Lucy (Sarge) comments to kill anything that doesn't talk or speaks Chinese. Borderline racism much? I mean don't get me wrong I understand why it was inserted there but to me I just questioned on whether it was necessary.  

Overall, this empowering story spotlights female teenage gamers and also sheds light on unfair Chinese labor conditions. Cory Doctorow's introduction provides perspective on the economics of gaming, the history of humans working together in real life and in person, and the rewards of fighting injustice and I feel that besides it's flaws, it is worthy of a 4 star review. I definitely will be checking out the text version of this story 'Anya's Game' which I will link here.

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