Saturday, August 5, 2017

‘In Real Life’ by Cory Doctorow

Anda, a teen girl who has just moved to a new school, is inspired to join a guild in a massive multiplayer role-playing game, at the invitation of the guild’s organizer, who came to speak to her high-school computer class.

A more experienced player soon invites Anda on missions with real-world earning potential: money will be deposited in her PayPal account if she kills “gold farmers” in the game.

At first, Anda is excited by the opportunity to earn easy money; she dispatches gold farmers, and has money to buy snacks for her Sci-Fi Club at school.

But Anda discovers that the gold farmers she is killing are not game-generated “bots,” but people who make a living under grueling conditions: during 12-hour shifts at computers, they direct their in-game avatars to collect artifacts. Their employer sells these resources to players who want to “level up” or acquire online possessions without putting in their own effort.

Anda gets to know the real-world player behind one of the gold farmers, and learns about the difficulties he faces in his out-of-game life. She tries to help him, and encourages him to lead a strike for health-care among his co-workers.

Meanwhile, helping the gold farmer places Anda at odds with the more-experienced player who is mentoring her; their conflict places Anda’s status with the guild in jeopardy when Anda and her “Sarge” are placed on suspension for bullying other players.

Written by Cory Doctorow and illustrated by Jen Wang, In Real Life (First Second Books, February 2018) gives readers a lot to think about. In this online community, who is exploiting the game — and are the ways that they do so, equivalent? Is killing gold farmers for money, more or less justifiable than harvesting artifacts and selling them?

An introduction by Doctorow helps to frame the role of economics in online gaming, and highlights ways that it is easier than ever to organize for change, through the power to reach people through the Internet.

Other areas for exploration include issues of body image as they relate to attractiveness and power. What might people’s choices when designing their avatars say about how they view themselves or the self they would like to be? In what ways are avatars’ appearance and companions reflected in players’ out-of-game lives?

Or witness the way that Anda’s school Sci-Fi Club dismisses someone not like them, a girl who wanted to invite them to help form a board-game club that “all kinds of people” could join.

The scene put me in mind of microagressions that have been documented in fandom, directed against “outsiders” by people who, themselves, have been marginalized by higher-status cliques. I was glad when, at the story’s conclusion, Anda reached out to this other girl.

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