Tuesday, August 5, 2014

In Real Life

You've probably all seen the famous New Yorker cartoon with the dog on the computer, telling his buddy, "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog."  And for many, that's the appeal, isn't it?  On the internet, you can be whomever you project yourself to be.  In gaming, you can create an avatar that looks nothing like your physical body (or to be a bit more geeky, your meat body).  Yet, we also like to pretend that what we do on the internet doesn't have repercussions in the "real world."  We call this place online "virtual reality"--reality that exists on a computer.  Except, computers and the internet and tablets and all that jazz are part of our existing reality.  They cannot be a separate reality when they are so fundamentally part of our everyday lives.  Gaming, networking, blogging--it's all reality (unless you think we're living in the Matrix, and then I don't know what to tell you).

It's just plain reality.
What we do online directly impacts our offline lives.  They're inextricably linked.  Some people's careers exist solely online.  In his new graphic novel, Cory Doctorow discusses the "gold farming" drudgery that's sprung up in MMORPGs.  Now, I don't currently play an MMORPG, but I know the basic ideas.  I didn't know that there is this underground/vaguely shady way of getting money in the game that directly translates to money outside of the game.  As in moolah.  Casholah.  Benjamins.  Which players then turn around and use to quickly level up their characters.  Basically, it is on online mimicry of developed countries not wanting to waste time or people doing menial tasks, so they outsource them to people who desperately need the pay, and will take a job that requires 20hr workdays.  

Evidently, In Real Life is based on a short story written by Doctorow.  It raises some interesting questions, but ends up falling rather flat.  Proceed with caution: here be spoilers.

A girl gamer named Anda joins up with the improbably-named Liza the Organiza (who is from Australia and just happens to be visiting Anda's school) to create a GRRL power team of players in an MMORPG called Coarsegold.  Anda says that she's alone and left out, but she hangs out with all the techies at school, soooo... I don't quite get that.  Her parents are pretty strict, but she's allowed to join Coarsegold, where she creates an avatar that looks quite unlike her real self (I LOVE how Jen Wang's portrayed Anda in both situations, but more on that later).  She meets up with other girl players and soon starts killing gold farmers for real-world cash.  

Of course, Anda takes the time to get to know one of these gnome-like creatures and finds out that he is a Chinese boy named "Raymond" and works non-stop digging up gold for use by richer players.  Anda takes up the cause of the oppressed, gets busted for making money off the game, gets Raymond fired, and then magically meets up with a "hot Raymond" at a party in Coarsegold at the end, because of course all is forgiven since she's inspired Raymond to demand better working conditions from his boss.

So here's the deal: we're talking about the exploitation of human capital, yes?  That first world nations stomp all over third world nations because if you can't see what's going on, it can't hurt you.  And YET.  The whole story arc revolves around Anda "saving" the Chinese workers by "introducing" them to the concepts of striking and protest.  It's like the Europeans "saving" the Native Americans.  I am having such a massive facepalm moment here.  I understand what Doctorow is trying to say: gold farming is exploitative, but the solution he posits is, in its own way, just as exploitative and condescending.  

The bright spot here is Jen Wang's art.  It's glorious.  Anda "in real life" is a chubby high-schooler, while her avatar is a sleek redhead.  I like seeing people portrayed as people for a change.  Wang has some really nice touches in the panels as well, and her facial expressions are really spot on.  

All in all, I think you can skip it, but if you do read In Real Life, do it for the art.  I had hoped for a more thoughtful discussion of "virtual reality" meeting reality-reality, but instead I got a soapbox.

I received a review copy of this title from First Second.


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