October 2014

Matt Terl


In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

The intersection of gender and gaming is clearly having a moment. There's plenty of positive, like the Left Behind installment of The Last of Us videogame, whose main character is a fourteen-year-old girl named Ellie. That game inspired Wired's Laura Hudson to write, in a terrific, moving essay: "Left Behind affected me, profoundly, not just by letting me be a girl, but by finally letting me be a human too." And, drawing more eyeballs, there's the abjectly awful, like the torrent of barely cloaked misogyny hiding behind the #gamergate hashtag, and throwing rape threats and hatred at women in the gaming industry.

It's a subject that has hit its Gladwellian tipping point, crossing over from closed-door geek-culture conversations to the front page of The New York Times. Combine that with the increase in the last few years of high-visibility videogame-themed books, fiction (Austin Grossman's You, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, Neal Stephenson's Reamde) and nonfiction (Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, Tom Bissell's Extra Lives), and it's clear that there's an opportunity for a breakout piece of fiction about life as a female gamer.

Cory Doctorow -- writer, blogger, copyright activist, and general geek icon -- has consistently shown the knack for thinking a few years ahead of the norm, and a surface glance at the new graphic novel he's co-created with Jen Wang, In Real Life, certainly makes it appear that he's hang-gliding on the zeitgeist again.

"A lovely graphic novel for gamer girls of all ages," says Felicia Day's cover blurb, which is true... to an extent.

In Real Life is the story of Anda, a teenaged girl who is inspired by a speaker at her school to become active in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called Coarsegold -- a fictionalized version of World of Warcraft, basically. In the course of trying to establish her role in a women-only guild called Clan Fahrenheit, Anda -- in her online guise of Kali Destroyer -- begins taking paying jobs wiping out "gold farmers," overseas minimum-wage workers who harvest in-game product and sell it to novice gamers for real-world money.

It's a setup with potential, but there's something in the execution here that doesn't fully cohere. Anda's world and the rules of her MMORPG are ill defined, and the story is strangely paced and occasionally bogs down in didactic exposition of society's problems. And yet somehow it feels like the fault doesn't lie exclusively with either of the creators.

The plot is sound enough -- Stephenson's Reamde and Doctorow's own YA book For the Win, among others, both, er, mine the same territory with some success. And Wang is a talented cartoonist, gifted at depicting facial expression and body language, and able to create characters who have the ineffable weight of humanity, whether in real life or in the virtual world. Anda in real life is slightly plump, slightly awkward, and completely endearing; her online avatar manages to keep the same look and feel in a completely different body type and setting.

But somewhere in the collaboration, something isn't clicking quite right -- which may have to do with the fact that it's not entirely clear just how the collaboration broke down. The natural assumption is that Doctorow was the writer and Wang the illustrator, but that's never explicitly stated anywhere in the book itself. The two are co-credited on the cover with no roles assigned; Doctorow is fully credited as writer only of the introduction.

Most interestingly, the indicia give the story copyright to Doctorow and the art and adaptation credit to Wang, and also note that the book is "adapted from a story by Cory Doctorow called 'Anda's Game' first published on Salon.com in 2004."

Reading that 2004 story, which is still hosted on Salon, brings some of In Real Life's flaws into sharper relief.

The world of the story, which feels inchoate and ill defined in In Real Life, is better limned by narrative asides in the prose original. (Also, the expectations for world-building in a 10,000 word fiction short posted for free online are different from the expectations for a 175 page full-color graphic novel with a $17.99 price tag.)

But the differences aren't entirely tied to the transition between media. The issues of feminism are clearer, oddly, in the 2004 story than the 2014 adaptation. This happens on a general thematic level, but also in specific adaptation choices: when the president of Clan Fahrenheit comes to Anda's school in the story, she notes:

One of the things I like to do is come to girls' schools like yours and let you in on a secret: girls kick arse. We're faster, smarter, and better than boys. We play harder. We spend too much time thinking that we're freaks for gaming and when we do game, we never play as girls because we catch so much shite for it. Time to turn that around. I am the best gamer in the world and I'm a girl. I started playing at 10, and there were no women in games -- you couldn't even buy a game in any of the shops I went to. It's different now, but it's still not perfect. We're going to change that, chickens, you lot and me.

That speech gets shortened by more than half in the adaptation, eliminating all references to girls being better than boys. The adapted version reads, instead, "When I started gaming online, there were no women gamers. I was one of the best gamers in the world and I couldn't even be proud of who I was. It's different now, but it's still not perfect. We're going to change that, chickens, you lot and me."

On a much broader scale, the gold farmers in the original are young girls kept in what amounts to a sweatshop in Mexico; this created a direct parallel between Anda and her sisterhood and the girls in the sweatshops. The adaptation relocates the gold farmers to China and changes them into teenage boys, which allows for the grafting on of a clunky teen romance coda.

Comparing an adaptation to its original is almost always an exercise in pointless frustration, but it's genuinely bizarre that a decade-old prose story feels more cohesive and relevant than its modern graphic novel incarnation, and the adaptation's choices seem particularly worthy of exploration in this case.

The issue of weight is also oddly reframed. In the short story, Anda's weight issues are severe enough to bring on a precursor to diabetes, which makes it all the more significant when she describes someone's online avatar as having "Sensible boobs, sensible armour, and a sword the size of the world." There's also a genuinely wrenching scene of bullying in the original -- "You disgusting lump of suet," the bully spits at Anda, "Christ, it makes me wanta puke to look at you." -- that's absent from the adaptation.

It's an omission that's made doubly odd because the first image of the book is a lovingly rendered plate of huevos rancheros, Anda's birthday breakfast. There's a scene, new to the 2014 book, of Anda's parents taking her out for ice cream and debating whether the ice cream will kill her. Food is clearly an issue, and Anda is drawn as plump, but the topic of health in real life never quite becomes a visceral topic in In Real Life.

And that, ultimately, is what this graphic novel is lacking: the visceral emotional core. What this current moment needs is the graphic novel adaptation of Hudson's Wired essay about Left Behind -- the genuine emotional responses to a game, and the feeling that the game itself is telling us as much or more about someone as that person's in-game decisions are. Until someone manages that trick, though, what we have is this: a "lovely graphic novel," just like the blurb says, but nothing more significant than that.

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
First Second
ISBN: 978-1596436589
192 pages