By Cameron Hatheway
When Cory Doctorow first came up with the story of In Real Life, it was as an article on Salon.com titled "Anda's Game" almost 10 years ago. The issues of gold farming and hostility towards female gamers in massive, multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) were as relevant then as they are now, especially with the recent controversy in video game culture known as #GamerGate. In my opinion, the release of this graphic novel from First Second Books on October 14th couldn't be timelier.
The intersection of the Venn diagram documenting people who read comics and people who play video games is a nice hearty size, and often the two mediums work together hand-in-hand as well. I was never a hardcore gamer growing up, but I was a massive fan of Myth II: Soulblighter back in the day. I even played the ever-popular World of Warcraft when it first debuted, but only for a short period of time before taking a break. It was Walter Simonson's World of Warcraft comic from WildStorm that hooked me once more, sinking its claws deeper into me the second time around. It felt like everyone I knew was playing it, and when running around the world of Azeroth it felt like everyone in the world was also playing it alongside me.
While not everyone has played EverQuest or World of Warcraft, they get the basic gist of what the setup of the games are about: vast fantasy worlds occupied by players from all different walks of life, creating digital alter egos who go on quests and fight beasts or beings of legend. Some people play occasionally, while others dedicate every waking moment to their poison of choice. Speaking from experience, it can be an incredibly enticing prospect to play in an MMORPG. But after playing several times into the wee-hours of the morning with school or work creeping up from out of nowhere, one really has to manage their time wisely.
In Real Life follows Anda, a recent resident of Flagstaff, Arizona. Being the new girl at school, her confidence isn't exactly stellar. She seems to do extremely well in her game design class and plays D&D with her fellow outcasts in the Sci-Fi Club, but she's still a pretty shy person. When a guest speaker one day gives a talk at her game design class about the popular MMORPG Coursegold, Anda's given the opportunity to join an all-female guild on a probationary membership. She's played online video games before, but never with a female avatar. After some pleading with her mother to allow her to sign-up for the game, Anda joins Clan Fahrenheit as Kalidestroyer.
As Kalidestroyer levels up, so does Anda's confidence. She feels a great connection with her fellow girl gamers in Clan Fahrenheit, until she's recruited by one of the senior members to go after gold farmers. It's explained to her that it's not fair to the other players that the gold farmers are able to sell large amounts of pixelated gold on the online black markets for real cash. Any player can buy large quantities without going out and doing the work themselves. Clan Fahrenheit gets paid by anonymous people to takeout the gold farmers, which Anda sees as a little hypocritical. Anda's a little hesitant to join in on the slaughter, but soon enough finds herself slaying hundreds of the mindless drones, thinking nothing of it. Her whole world is turned upside-down when she discovers that the gold farmers are actual people from other countries, and work in sweatshop-like conditions mining gold online all day.
The social commentary and real-life ramifications of online gaming hits the reader hard, and suddenly the graphic novel transforms into more than just a story about a girl playing video games. When Anda befriends one gold farmer by the name of Raymond from China, we suddenly see how both gamers live extremely different lives. Raymond is 16 years-old and mines for gold 12 hours a day, and has a hurt back from the cramped working conditions. When Anda suggests he talk to his fellow gamers about forming a union, Raymond is fired and Anda has to figure out how get in contact with him again without her guild finding out that she's friends with the enemy. To make things worse, her parents are worried about her activities online that is earning her money from people she's never met before.
I feel terrible for waiting so long in this review to introduce the artist for In Real Life, Jen Wang. While the story is heartwarming and thought-provoking, Wang's art is the main reason you should pick the graphic novel up. She creates such a fantastical and mesmerizing world throughout the Coursegold game, which makes me salivate and want the game and world to actually exist. Everything from the characters and their pets, the various inventory items, to the player versus player battles screams great detail and respect to the multiple MMORPGs that have inspired the story.
Not only does Wang illustrate, but she also colors her own work as well. The beautiful blend of watercolors and ink wash painting make for a fitting alliance and feel for the overall tone of the story, while supplying captivating visuals page after page.
Anda may be a brunette with some curves in real life, but Kalidestroyer in contrast has fiery red hair, an athletic-yet-moderately-dressed body with powers and a big sword (sorry guys, no Red Sonja-esque outfits). Both in real life and online, Anda tries to navigate the tricky path of what's morally right and wrong when it comes to the bigger picture. To watch her scale some obstacles and trip over others is nail-biting, for you're definitely rooting for her to ultimately succeed in the end.
In Real Life is a perfect read for all-ages, and really brings to life a discussion about female gamers, the political and economic problems of gold farming, and what the future of online video games holds. The art is simply incredible, and can be appreciated by everyone, whether they've actually played an MMORPG or not. Good art is good art, pure and simple. Be sure to go out and treat your eyeballs to this visually stunning masterpiece when it's released October 14th.