In Real Life Review: First World Problems & the White Savior Trope

April 3, 2017 by Jeann @ Happy Indulgence | 2 stars, Books, Reviews

In Real Life Review: First World Problems & the White Savior TropeIn Real Life by Cory Doctorow, Jen Wang
Published by First Second on October 14th 2014
Source: Borrowed
Genres: Young Adult, Graphic Novel
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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.
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.

Being a gamer, I loved the premise of In Real Life, the unremarkable Anda finding a purpose within the MMORPG world of Coursegold Online and getting paid for it in real dollars. She soon looks forward to hopping online every day and escaping the monotony of her day to day school life.

There were some relatable comments covering what gamer girls deal with, such as Anda’s mum forbidding her to talk to strange men on the internet, Anda’s avatar depicting a new and improved version of herself and gamer girls needing to prove themselves in gaming, no matter how good they are. It was fun seeing Anda discover the world of creating a character and fighting things and soon building up a reputation within her guild for her fighting prowess.

Here’s where the issue comes in – she soon meets Lucy, who lures her into a dodgy scheme of killing “gold farmers” for real life cash. Lucy seems to be shady from the get go, yet as a naïve young girl, Anda falls into her trap anyway. It isn’t long before she asks to voice chat – and I baulked at even this very notion. I expected to hear a male voice on the other end of the line, asking Anda to do porny things, but of course this wasn’t the case because it’s fiction. Instead, Anda is lured into an online scheme that seems too good to be true. But not only does she get rewarded for it, this isn’t even the cautionary tale of the book. I’m not even going to go into the strange males who somehow start to make payments into her paypal account, just don’t do this at home people.

Anda’s new job in Coursegold Online is to kill gold farmers who in game, collect rare items that are sold to other gamers for heavily discounted rates. It helps anyone who wants to pay to get ahead, unfairly cheating the system. When Anda starts digging deeper, she finds out that the gold farmers are actually workers from a Chinese company, who are suffering 12 hours a day doing this for their job. She befriends a gold farmer by the name of Raymond, and encourages him to strike out against his company for his work-related health issues.

While Anda’s newfound understanding of her white privilege was a good thing, her interfering with Raymond’s life was not. Here is a 16 year old boy in a third world country, who is lucky enough to be working at a desk job doing something he enjoys. Instead, because he is suffering from back problems, apparently that is the worst thing that could happen to him and he should walk out on his job – which is clearly viewed with a white lens. While I’m not an expert on third world countries, I’m pretty sure Raymond was doing just fine without Anda’s unsolicited advice. Instead, her interference leads to him losing his job, which is quickly swept under the rug and rewarded in the resolution.

In Real Life is written with ignorance, showing that apparently the Western way of doing business is much better than the Chinese way. Self confidence, assertiveness, standing up for your rights and getting paid benefits – these are all things that are encouraged, even rewarded in the Western world. But this goes against everything a traditional Chinese worker is taught in their community – where you have to bond together as a group and work together towards a collective goal. Anda’s actions, and the resolution of the group where her “advice” leads to a change in the Chinese company where these gold farmers work, is the white saviour trope at its worst. The worst thing in a developing country isn’t having back issues while working at a desk job. The worst thing is not being able to feed yourself or your family and risking poverty and starvation.

In Real Life definitely had promise, and I loved the gorgeous, vibrant illustrations and the topic of the book. Unfortunately, the white saviour book tainted the experience for me, especially after finding out that gold farming exists in the real world. It’s not as simple as just “adopting the Western way of doing things”, just because people cheat in your game. First world problems, anyone?

Rating: 2 out of 5

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Jeann is an Aussie blogger, gamer, reader who loves to read, write, fangirl, geek out and eat food. You can find me glued to one of my many mobile devices 24/7, or fangirling over the latest YA book, TV show, movie or game. Chat with me on Twitter @happyindulgence

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15 responses to “In Real Life Review: First World Problems & the White Savior Trope

  1. madelinejohnston94

    This sounded brilliant until you began discussing the white saviour trope. I recently finished watching Sword Art Online and when I saw this I thought it would be something interesting to read that relates to that. Nope, nope, nope. I will definitely not be reading this. Great review!

  2. soudha

    It was such a long time since I read this and it was either my first graphic novel or one of my first and I remember really loving it. Which is why I found your review really interesting as you brought up a lot of stuff I didn’t think about when reading it. I love the art style and I thought it was a quick, fun read but now I can see the issues with it too. I’m thinking of re-reading it just to see what I’ll think of it now XD. Really enjoyed your review ^^

    My latest post: The Beauty and the Beast Book Tag (Original)

    • Yeah, I guess while reading it was definitely at the forefront of my mind. I did enjoy the artwork though and the subject matter but some things were just so annoying. Thanks for the lovely comment Soudha!

  3. Cyn @ Bookmunchies

    Well dang, that's definitely unfortunate! Because it sounded like a great premise with some lovely artwork. But the use of white saviour kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth too. Sorry this didn't work out for you. Thanks for the review, Jeann!

    • Yeah, I really enjoyed the artwork but I was so annoyed while reading it, and even afterwards. It did leave me with a lasting impression, every time I think about it I get annoyed lol.

  4. Wowwww. Yeah ummm no. Lots of people have it wayyy worse than "back problems from playing computer games". WHAT EVEN!? Like there are people who have NO jobs, people who literally work manual labor jobs until they collapse for mere pennies… we could go on and on. And the kid from China LIKED his job!? She needed to keep her mouth shut for SURE. Maybe he just had back problems because of shitty genetics, and here this girl is having him end careers! You covered this, so I will shake my head a lot and move on to the next "WTF even!?" topic- this is a YA graphic novel that basically says "YES, trust all randos you meet on the internet, no matter HOW shady and absurd their proposal sounds!". I… no. Just no. The art is pretty though. Great review, sorry it was such a miss!

    • Yeah, your comment really nails how I felt about it! It really felt insulting how a Chinese character was used for a white character's "development". I still get really annoyed when I think about this book, and the weird stuff with trusting randoms online? I just did not like it at all.

  5. Valerie

    Wow. I agree with you. I feel like there should have been a different conflict, instead of this one. I don't know why anyone would quit their job because of this first world problem. And yeah, things AREN'T black and white, like you said. Ugh.

    I really think I would have enjoyed this, so I'm sad that this is pretty problematic. I might flip through it if I find it at the library. Awesome review Jeann! <3

    • Yeah, especially because it was clearly viewed with a white lens, which I found really annoying. Thanks Val!

  6. brittanysbookrambles

    I don't read graphic novels much anymore, but based on your review, I will definitely be skipping this one. This totally sounds like a lot of close-minded, first-world thinking. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

    Brittany @ Brittany's Book Rambles

    • Yeah, I was quite annoyed with it because it's easy to point at others and judge them especially when you don't know the background and culture. Thank you!

  7. theliteraryhuntress

    Aw, this book sounds cool at first, but then I got to the end of your review and I'm just NOPE. It's good that Anda realize how priviledge she is, but forcing her values to him who is for different country and obviously have different cultures are not okay. I think the issue of cultural and value difference within western books and us other countries readers rarely addressed in books (or reviews), so I'm glad you touched a bit on the subject here!

    • Yeah, I hated how a Chinese person was used to help her recognise her privilege, especially after she enforced her own values onto them as well. Different cultures operate in different ways and it was annoying how this one just used one lens over it.

  8. This sounded like it had such a cool premise and I love that cover, but ugh. The white savior trope and the blatant disrespect for the work Chinese culture just makes me lose ALL interest. I'm sorry this was a dud for you, Jeann. I'll stay away.

    • Yeah, I was so annoyed while reading it, that a Chinese person was used to help the heroine better herself. Ugh.