Books

The Economic Divide in Video Games

Pages from In Real Life (al images courtesy the publisher)
Pages from In Real Life (al images courtesy the publisher)

It’s all fun and games until the thinly veiled artifice of a virtual world becomes all too real. In the case of young Anda, the main character of In Real Life, a graphic novel written by Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow and illustrated by Jen Wang, she must reconcile that the distinction between good and bad isn’t always clear cut in the multi-player online role-playing game (MMORPG) she plays known as Coarsegold. In Real Life is spun out of “Anda’s Game,” a short story, also written by Doctorow.

inreallife-cover-640Each page of In Real Life showcases Jen Wang’s thoughtfully illustrated panels, which easily pull you into the story. Her drawings are loosely rendered — some areas appear to be drawn playfully with a crayon-like texture — and are reminiscent of popular comic book illustrator Jillian Tamaki. Wang does a great job of keeping the real world in boring neutral colors to describe Anda’s suburban Arizona life, while the virtual world is either a series of warm yellows and oranges during fight scenes, or cool blues and greens when Anda is contemplative and about to come to a realization about in-game ethics. It feels like a necessary accompaniment to Doctorow’s original story — Anda is portrayed as a plain, stocky teenager, far from the beautiful comic characters that typically grace the pages of major superhero comics. Her idealized self in the virtual world of Coarsegold is known as “Kalidestroyer,” an athletic redhead that can kick ass. Anda gains confidence through playing as “Kalidestroyer,” and soon she’s accompanying another character, Lucy, on missions that pay cash — not in-game currency, but real dollars. Her missions are essentially to raid other player’s houses and kill gold sellers for money.

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An ethical dilemma arises when Anda learns that these gold sellers aren’t just robots — they’re real people from impoverished nations that are trying to make money through the game. They collect gold and artifacts within the game to sell back to more wealthy players — a common practice within MMORPG games. Upon realizing this, Anda befriends a young gold seller who, in real life, is a Chinese boy who goes by his English name, Raymond. Anda begins to question Raymond about his practices in an effort to figure out why he is gaming the system. Eventually, he divulges that this is the easiest way for him to make money without working in a factory.

With this knowledge, Anda begins to advocate for Raymond to stand up to his cruel employer, which has numerous consequences.

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Interestingly, Raymond has been changed from a gold-farmer of Mexican heritage in the original “Anda’s Game” to a Chinese one, perhaps as a reflection of current working conditions for many of China’s poor, a nod to the spread of MMORPG gold-seller sweatshops, and the proliferation of internet access. As all games, especially MMORPGs, can mirror aspects of the real world, In Real Life asks important questions about how assets are controlled, how prejudice is carried into a virtual world, as well as the ethics involved in online gaming. It also forces us to think about the implications of selling off precious artifacts to wealthier patrons in order to support oneself or one’s family — a practice all too common in impoverished countries.

“When you contemplate the microscale phenomenon of a world-in-a-bottle like an MMO and the toy economy within it, it equips you with a graspable metaphor for understanding the macroscale world of monetary policy. In other words: thinking about gold farming is a gateway drug to thinking about money itself,” Doctorow explains in an interview with Kotaku about the novel.

Though these are the broad ideas Doctorow aims at with In Real Life, it does feel like more of an introduction to moral issues within virtual societies and a simplistic look into broader problems. Some of the original criticism of sexism and gender in video games that was present in “Anda’s Game” is noticeably missing. For example, “Sensible boobs, sensible armour, and a sword the size of the world” is an epithet used a few times in “Anda’s Game,” but there is no mention of this in In Real Life. There is, however, a nod early on in In Real Life that there are more female gamers today and that more should start playing. But if Doctorow’s primary audience for the book is adolescent players easily indignant over the economics within an MMORPG, there’s definitely a lesson or two to be learned.

In Real Life, a graphic novel written by Cory Doctorow and illustrated by Jen Wang, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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