Review: In Real Life, by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

The integration of the internet into day-to-day and now moment-to-moment life continually narrows the distinction between still relatively abstract actions mediated by the network and those taken apart from it. Stories told since the popularization of the internet, especially those about young people, often include an element of moral panic, a concern that the new facet of modern life will somehow damage or corrupt the innocent and impressionable. In In Real Life, Cory Doctorow spins a compelling tale of ethical reasoning and moral awakening out of several popular bogeymen of the past generation: Stranger Danger! Video Games! The Internet! (No drugs, though).

His protagonist, Anda, is an authentically drawn girl gamer (MMO & tabletop) and budding coder, invited to audition for an all-female guild in a popular MMORPG. Recognizing her skill in the game, an elder guild member invites her to turn that ability into cash by disrupting the activities of other players who sell their in-game loot for hard currency. In doing so, Anda’s eyes are opened to the realities of the much different role the game she plays holds for people her age in other places as she at first clumsily, and then more humbly, tries to help them in a material way.

Doctorow manages to work in a realistic way with the obstacles and resources available to an attentively-parented teen exploring the world of online gaming for the first time, including justifying it to her mother by way of persuading her to advance the first month’s subscription, as well as allaying her fears regarding perceived risks. While told in an economical pace, he still manages to slip in an interesting inversion of stereotype, in which the traditional outsiders that are Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts themselves constitute an in-group dismissive of interest from more mainstream outsiders.

Jen Wang’s linework is expressive and effective in-game and out, providing a diverse cast with a broad array of telling detail, but not to the point of realism. Instead, a humanistic freehand style leaves even architectural detail with a warm unevenness. Where many other tales split between two “worlds” adopt the Wizard of Oz-esque convention of using a brighter color palette for the less quotidian one, Wang’s colors, suggestive of watercolors, do not change radically from one setting to the other. Instead, her panel layouts play the part of graphic differentiator, becoming more dynamic and less constrained by panel boundaries when Anda is in the game.

While the up-front novelty of In Real Life is its take on the global economies built upon MMORPGs, its message is more deeply rooted in the idea that actions should be based upon a firm understanding of the situation and informed by compassion. Even when such actions take place across a global computer network, they are fully a part of real life.