In Real Life
Anda is a perfectly normal teenager who’s just started playing an MMORPG called Coarsegold Online. She’s gotten a probationary membership in a all-girl players’ guild and is busy learning the ropes and leveling up in the game. She’s met a brash new friend online who calls herself Sarge, and the two of them enjoy going on raids together and collecting tons of XP. Sarge has a new scheme — paid raids, where the participants get paid in real money, to go out and attack players who are gold farmers from China, wipe them out, and collect their loot.
After she befriends a gold farmer named Raymond, she learns more about gold farming and conditions in China. Raymond is only 16, but he plays Coarsegold about 12 hours a day for money. Conditions are not particularly good there, but the money is good, and Raymond would rather earn money doing something he enjoys. But he’s sick, and there’s no such thing as sick leave for gold farmers. So Anda goes behind Sarge’s back to stay friends with Raymond and to try to improve things for him.
But at the same time, Anda’s parents don’t like her spending so much time gaming — especially when she’s getting Paypal money from boys from the paid raids. And getting paid for raids is also against the guild rules, so she may get her game account blocked. Plus Anda’s ideas about unionizing the gold farmers have gotten Raymond in trouble, and he may lose his job. Can Anda figure out a way to make things right for everyone?
Verdict: I think I’m going with a partial thumbs down. I mean, the book is competently written, the plot moves along well, the dialogue is fine, the characterization is really rather excellent — but I’ve got a problem with some of the places the story ends up going to.
See, the writer of this comic, Cory Doctorow, is a techno-utopian. He thinks technology will lead us to a new golden age for humanity. In some ways, he’s correct — the Arab Spring could never have happened without Twitter, and the Internet is something I consider a solid net-positive for the world. But the ‘Net also brings us clickbait and revenge porn and Stormfront and Breitbart and scams and lies galore, and while Twitter may be able to bring about good, it’s still just a tool, and it is often used to harrass and abuse women, awkward teens, and anyone who online bullies care to abuse.
In this story, online game chat in a fantasy MMORPG brings about unionization of gold farmers in China. That’s so unrealistic, it’s not even funny. It’s not just techno-utopian, it’s techno-pollyanna. In the real world, every one of the Chinese gold farmers would’ve been fired — if they were lucky. They could’ve ended up in prison. They could’ve ended up dead. China isn’t America, where a decent PR campaign and some online petitions will make megacorps adjust their behavior. Raymond’s friends accuse Anda of interfering where she doesn’t understand the culture — they’re right, and Doctorow is wrong.
Doctorow has written multiple books that feature characters who are gold farmers in MMORPGs — and who are able to use their online skills to effect real-world change. But those are set in science fiction novels at some point in the near-but-nebulous future. This is supposed to be a more realistic story, with real people playing a semi-realistic game in the modern world. Doctorow’s gold-farming optimism may have a place in a fantasy world, but here, it looks naive.
I’m also bugged by the fact that the story essentially works out to being about an Enlightened White Hero saving the Foreign Brown Hordes. The ending even has Raymond replacing his cookie-cutter gnomish game avatar with a tall, handsome, sophisticated avatar so he’ll look more like Anda’s character. It’s insulting — and embarrassing, too.
I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about illustrator Jen Wang‘s artwork, which is expressive and charismatic and humanizing and fun in every way. I think it’d be worth your time to look for more of her books.
If you’re interested in this one, you can go pick it up here.