Published by First Second on October 14th 2014
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