The timely optimism of In Real Life

In the introduction to his new graphic novel, In Real Life, Cory Doctorow says, “In Real Life connects the dots between the way we shop, the way we organize, and the way we play, and why some people are rich, some are poor, and how they seem to get stuck there.” This, and the introduction it’s taken from, are a piece of overt framing that feels slightly out of place in a comic book illustrated by Adventure Time Comics artist Jen Wang, and aimed squarely at a young adult market.

Yet it’s also a rare case of the obvious and intrinsic connection between videogames and economic structures and practices being so bluntly presented. As Doctorow puts it: “economics—the study of why people do things, really—is the subject that has the most to say about the circumstances in which they find themselves.” In the context of videogames, discussions of this kind are often either couched in overly complex industry speak or are so basic as to be meaningless. However, here, among cute and elegant illustrations of teenage gaming, we find a wake-up call of sorts, an attempt to bring a discussion vital to considering gaming’s place in the contemporary world to the young audience that make up a significant proportion of its users. But once the introduction is over, and Doctorow has set up his position, this argument slips quietly out of sight.

Its touch on these subjects is a soft one. 

The graphic novel that follows is less of a polemic about rich and poor, play and work, and is instead a beautifully drawn, simply plotted and rose-tinted story. It follows Anda, a young girl who is recruited into an all-female clan in the fictional MMORPG “Coarsegold Online.” There she makes a little extra money through hunting gold-farmers, until she befriends one, and begins to hear his side of the story. It is a plot that seems to glide from event to event, much like any sleepy teenage life of gaming and studying, routine dominating both sides of the divide. Over the course of this narrative drift the novel passes through some of the most contentious videogame-related subjects of the moment—the treatment of female players online, pay-to-win game-design, internet activism, and, centrally, gold-farming. Yet its touch on these subjects is a soft one, and the world it presents is warmly imagined, where a parent’s reassurance is always waiting. It’s worth remembering the book’s audience in this case, but given the potential of the issues covered, its difficult not to feel that opportunities are missed to tackle the problematic elements of a digital life.

However, In Real Life does have a timely set of issues at its heart, whether by intention or coincidence. In the ugly, reactionary climate of contemporary videogames, In Real Life is willfully naive and disarmingly straightforward. Its world is one where these artificially inflated debates are taken in a comfortable stride. Connecting the labour disputes Anda’s father is involved in to her attempts at online activism is simple step, but In Real Life does it so casually that it highlights the blinkered “online-only” nature of the debate around many of the issues it loosely covers. There is a precedent outside of “gaming” for all of the “gamergate” issues, but this legacy is widely ignored. Instead discussions are taking place within hermetically-sealed online communities, circling in increasingly toxic waters.

In Real Life is willfully naive and disarmingly straightforward. 

Perhaps one of the weirdest events of “gamergate,” and one with interesting connections to In Real Life, is the creation of the bizarre anti-feminist icon “Vivian James.” A red-haired, hoody-wearing, “gamer-girl,” Vivian James was designed collectively by members of 4chan’s /v/ board. This strange turn of events came from a misguided attempt by the board to clear its infamously misogynist reputation by supporting the Fine Young Capitalists’ female-created videogames project. As part of this support the board designed “Vivian,” “a typical gamer girl.” With her dour scowl, she represents an image presented by aggressive anti-feminists as an attempt to placate those seeking better representation of women in games.

However, take that scowl and turn it into an wide-eyed gaze and you have the spitting image of In Real Life’s Anda, who dyes her hair red so it matches that of her Coarsegold avatar. These two siblings of a videogame crisis present perhaps the most visually striking examples of the struggle of female representation and its perception. Though visually comparable, Anda and Vivian are directly opposed. Anda is an optimistic teenager, a unremarkable girl, who, through an online videogame community, finds an activists spirit within herself. Vivian is a symbol of the anti-activist spirit that attacks and consumes all calls for change.

In Real Life is not a graphic novel about “gamergate”; it is just the right story at the right time. Despite the lightness of its debate, the optimism at its heart is compelling enough to leave it feeling like a breath of fresh air for anyone trapped within the concentric circles of videogames’ self-consuming communities. For those of an older generation it may bring back memories of a different teenage internet, one of forums and messageboards gathered around cherished cultures that ultimately became vital support networks in difficult years. These memories, though precious, are products of an un-productive nostalgia.

In Real Life is too young to remember those times. 

But In Real Life is too young to remember those times. Instead its ideas of accessible activism, positive communities and online gaming as a vital part of a social life are built on a forward-thinking optimism, and a fundamental humanism. Of course, in its simplicity, In Real Life also make a series of distinct missteps. In particular its limited presentation of Chinese gold farmers, leaving them in service of the protagonist with no narrative agency of their own, is highly questionable, as is its Disney ending complete with a prince charming avatar. It ultimately never comes close to Doctorow’s big-picture statements either, with few of the dots connected between the poor and the rich, the shopping and the gaming. Despite this, its small victories feel significant enough, and while a positive voice is not always the most respected, it can be as significant as a cry of crisis.