McMillan’s Codex #14 by C.T. McMillan
I.R.L. (In Real Life)
Videogames offer unique experiences. With the click of a mouse or pressing of a key, you can explore fantastical worlds, solve complex puzzles, and live out taboo desires. Since the dawn of the Information Age, we have never been more socially connected, and the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) is where such interactivity occurs in an imaginative context in group activities like raids, quests that require many players to complete, and the ability to organize guilds like clans. Players from all corners of the globe can interact. The possibilities seem endless, and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow explores those possibilities in his first foray into graphic narrative.
After a guest speaker at her school advocates for gender diversity in the MMO Coarsegold, high school student Anda decides to buy a subscription and play. She joins a guild exclusive for women and comes to enjoy the experience. In the midst of fighting other players, she forms a bond with one named Raymond and finds there is more to him than a virtual avatar. His problems go far beyond the reach of gaming, and Anda takes it upon herself to do something about it.
As odd as this sounds coming from a critic, videogames are not that big a deal. Most of them are brilliant works I hold in high regard, but more often than not they are just pleasurable distractions.
At the same time, In Real Life makes a valid argument that the connectedness of MMOs can be an avenue for change. Much like social media, you can organize whole movements and support causes through interaction. The cause in question is Anda trying to help Raymond get health insurance at his job in China by rallying his coworkers on Coarsegold. It also talks about the gold farming industry, the ethics of paid-gaming, and the effect of MMOs on social issues.
Gold farming is the practice of acquiring digital assets to sell for real money to other players. The farming aspect comes from playing a game for long periods of time to gather assets in bulk. This entails many hours locked in front of a computer screen, resulting in health issues for gold farmers. Businesses that engage in this practice, some of which are labor camps, tend to have mounting human rights violations by working their employees longer than ethically possible.
Raymond has back problems exacerbated by 16-hour workdays and his regular addiction of playing more Coarsegold for recreational purposes when he isn’t working. He lied about his age to get the job and being from outside his place of origin (Hunan, China), his access to proper healthcare is limited to say the least, and his employer is reluctant to give him or his co-workers insurance. These conditions are bad, as he tells Anda, “I was lifting boxes at a factory before this. It gets especially bad when I’ve been sitting too long. Sometimes I have to excuse myself to the bathroom so I can lie on the floor a little while.”
Before she met him, Anda was a part of a her own financial scheme where outside benefactors would pay her and another player to kill gold farmers in Coarsegold.
On the outset this appears like a solution to those who pay gold farmers to make unethical jumps ahead in their avatar’s power in the game, but it is not long before she discovers there is no difference between killing gold farmers and being one. Both make money playing the game, on a long and regular schedule, and for a singular, monotonous purpose. It presents a moral grey area and Anda realizes she is more in the wrong than Raymond. She learns of his health problems, the working conditions, and decides to help him. She says, “Raymond is a real gamer! Gold farming is just a job… What else is he supposed to do? Make zippers for 25 cents a day?”
While her goals are lofty and heartfelt, Doctorow is not shy about the real world implications of Anda’s activism. Even though Coarsegold provides a way for widespread communication, it does not change the fact she does not really know a whole lot about the culture of Raymond’s region or that of the workplace and her decision to help him is motivated by pure naive emotion. What seems unethical to some is normal to others, and Anda learns the hard way when her meddling gets Raymond in trouble. One of his coworkers tells her, “The boss caught him conspiring to take down the company and fired him immediately… Nice job, American. You don’t know anything about us. Next time stick to our own game.”
IRL does not hide the fact you cannot entirely change the world through gaming. Even conventional social media struggles to have the same effect as genuine activism. But Doctorow is optimistic nonetheless. The story remains steadfast that despite the complexity of the world and its cultures, everyone from all walks of life has the capacity to come together on common ground, be that social media or MMORGs. Like standing on a picket line, it takes time and sacrifice.
The book is surprisingly exceptional as a graphic narrative. Jen Wang’s style is simple with an aesthetic reminiscent of Adventure Time and Scott Pilgrim, but more realistic, accurate body proportions, skin color, and hair. The story shifts between the real world and the world of Coarsegold. Everything in reality is painted in dark earth tones, whereas the game world is bleached in bright colors that complement its fantastical elements.
As a comic, the book is consistent in its use of visuals to tell the story. A lot of information can be gleaned from expressions and the images in each panel. You cannot just read the dialog without the pictures to help you along with what the characters are feeling. A fellow classmate is rebuffed by Anda’s friends:
“D&D and Jenga are, like, completely different things. So, thanks, but I think we’re cool just playing here.”
“Okay, well. Let me know if you change your minds.”
In prose, those lines would not make sense unless the characters’ voices and expressions were described. With comics, it is as simple as drawing a smugly risen eyebrow on one character, and a sad face on another, and IRL’s effective visuals make it a page-turner.
I appreciate In Real Life for making videogames seem more than recreational material and for considering their potential for self actualization and seriously socially destructive behavior. The fantastic art by Jen Wang and the incredibly tight story telling by Doctorow make it a quick, engaging read that makes you think about where the MMO culture is going.