Graphic Novel Review: In Real Life

Synopsis:

Anda loves Coarsegold Online, the massively-multiplayer role-playing game where she spends most of her free time. It’s a place where she can be a leader, a fighter, a hero. It’s a place where she can meet people from all over the world, and make friends.

But things become a lot more complicated when Anda befriends a gold farmer–a poor Chinese kid whose avatar in the game illegally collects valuable objects and then sells them to players from developed countries with money to burn. This behavior is strictly against the rules in Coarsegold, but Anda soon comes to realize that questions of right and wrong are a lot less straightforward when a real person’s real livelihood is at stake.

From acclaimed teen author (Little BrotherFor the Win) and Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow and Koko Be Good creator Jen Wang, In Real Life is a perceptive and high-stakes look at adolescence, gaming, poverty, and culture clash

First Thought:

I remember grabbing this book at a comic book store near the beach a few years back; I believe I read it then but I’m not 100% sure on that. I do remember what caught my eye though, girls and gaming. I’ve played video games since I was seven years old and my older brother wanted someone to play Halo with him. While I’ve never been personally ostracized for being a girl gamer, I’ve had friends who were made fun of and criticized for it so I was interested in the content of In Real Life and I wanted to see what it was about.

Overall Thoughts and Opinions:

I think this story was trying to bite off more than it could chew. In the descriptor it talks about tackling adolescence, gaming, poverty, and clashing cultures but it only does one of those really successfully and the others in declining order. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story for the most part but I have to recognize that it was flawed and in some ways that really hurt the storytelling.

So the one thing that I really liked about the story was one of the focuses of female empowerment in gaming. Like I’ve said before, I personally have always been treated respectfully as a female gamer and have never been made to ‘prove my worth’. However, I do know that people are criticized for being female gamers. Hell, I’ve even witnessed male gamers be made to feel worthless by their peers for doing what they love. In Real Life’s first message is to show that girls can feel empowered by being themselves in both the real and virtual world. We see this through Anda’s development through the story. At first she appears to be this meek girl that enjoys making games and playing D&D with her friends, but by the end we see a more confident individual that even tries to make friends with someone from the ‘popular’ crowd. They even drive home the message further with the physical change to Anda’s appearance, giving her the opportunity to make herself look more like the virtual character she created, showing that her virtual and real selves were becoming the same. I also enjoyed some of the little things they did as well with this message, including dialogue showing that the other female characters weren’t sticking with Anda for her gender but because of her skill and reputation in the game. I’m all for girls sticking together, but I find it more organic if it’s out of respect and not shared genitals, just my personal experience.

I liked a lot of what they did with the gaming element of the story, in a way it kind of reminded me of Sword Art Online but more modern day than futuristic. I haven’t actually participated in a lot of MMOs, in fact, that’s not really my gaming of choice because internet connections have always been too terrible for me to try, so I’m not sure how well In Real Life portrays it. From what I understand of that style of gaming, the graphic novel does a fine job showing the positives and negatives. However, I felt like it could’ve done a better job at explaining gold farming and why it’s so bad for gaming, because in my gaming experience farming has a different meaning—and not just that it means to grow/raise plants and livestock. I also felt like it could’ve explained more about guilds and why they’re important for community building and such, but this didn’t really impact the story like the gold farming does.

I’m not sure how this story tackles poverty, other than the whole lack of health care for the Chinese characters. I mean this story does bring to light the fact that a lot of Chinese workers don’t get paid very much so they have to work long hours to make things livable. But I don’t feel like that was a main focus in the story, it was mostly about Anda trying to help a stranger from another country and learning that not every place is like the U.S. With that said, I really don’t think she had a hard enough lesson because the author sacrificed a more realistic ending to make it a happy one. Her ‘punishment’ for interfering in affairs that are beyond her comprehension are laughable and non-existent, she doesn’t really learn anything. She complains about how unfair reality is, but then gets an unrealistic happy ending that is supposed to help her feel good about herself. I get that the biggest point the author was trying to make is that through unity, which we can accomplish more of and on a grander scale now that the internet makes communication easier, we can bring positive change to the world. However, I felt that with the storyline the author was going with the greater lesson would’ve been shown through failure. Yes, not every place is like America, but not every place can become like the U.S. especially not using the means we can to get what we want. The better lesson would’ve been taught through failure because it would’ve shown that the best communication comes through understanding both sides, not by injecting your own values into everything.

Ratings:

Art: 4

I really enjoyed Jen Wang’s art! The character designs are great, each one is unique and really helps make each character notable. There wasn’t a single time in which I confused one character for another, except when it was important to the story. I loved the coloring job as well, everything is so bright and soft—like it was done using water colors! The most detailing was done on the characters, not so much the story sets. The backgrounds for the characters were fine, there’s enough detail to know that they’re not just floating in place. Personally, I like to have more details in the backgrounds especially if it’s a setting like in a video game because I LOVE scene setups in video games. But I understand that the main focus was the characters, so they got the most detailing. The one thing that did bother me was that occasionally the panels looked a little blurry, I don’t know if that’s an art style and done on purpose, but it really stuck out to me in a bad way. Otherwise, the art is fantastic and one of my favorites!

Story: 3

I felt like the author bit off more than they could chew with this one. I can enjoy social commentaries, but this one tried to tackle girls in gaming and social issues in China. When I put it like that it doesn’t really fit, right? Yea, it really doesn’t. The first half was great because it focused on girls being girls in gaming, that if you be yourself in a virtual world you can better embrace yourself in reality. That’s all fine and dandy, and hey it brought some positive light to gaming, that it could be used in a way to build community with others and to build one’s self-esteem. The second half was kind of a mess, and mostly because the ending just didn’t fit. Some people might find the second half to be offensive because Anda deals with characters from outside the US, specifically China, and she tries to help them better their lives by using American means. Her intensions, while pure and misguided, lead to terrible consequences that get her and others in a lot of trouble. However, the author sacrificed good writing and character development to give the story an unrealistic happy ending, and to applaud Anda for her screw-up so she doesn’t really learn from the consequences of her actions—just how to fix them. I also didn’t really care for some of the character development, especially Anda’s mother who was so against online gaming in the beginning and then did a 180 by the end for no real reason.

Overall: 3

While the art was fantastic the story didn’t live up to it. The author wanted to comment on too many issues at once and I felt like it burdened and weakened the story as a whole. The story is still an okay read if you’re looking for an empowering story about a girl trying to come to terms with herself through gaming. But if you don’t want to read about social issues in other countries, especially when an American tries to get involved by themselves, then I would suggest you skip this one. Overall, I find this graphic novel to be quite polarizing. On the one hand I really like the beginning and all the bits in between that doesn’t deal with poverty and just sticks to gaming; on the other hand all the parts dealing with poverty and culture-clash is just poorly written and disappointing to read.

Details:

Title: In Real Life

Publisher: First Second

Writer(s): Cory Doctorow

Illustrator: Jen Wang

Released Date: October 14, 2014

Pages: 175

Genre(s): Young Adult, Contemporary, Virtual Reality

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