In Real Life

In Real Life cover

It’s a timely topic, the struggle of a young woman to play an immersive video game, but the recent explosion of debate over the place of women in gaming has unfortunately overtaken the events of In Real Life. It’s unfair of me to wish that the story of this graphic novel better reflected what everyone’s been forced to talk about over the past few months, but because the world has moved past this book, even though it’s just been released, it feels a bit outdated through no fault of its own.

Anda is fairly good at computers, but she isn’t inspired until a gamer speaks to their class about her online guild in Coarsegold Online, an MMORPG (online role-playing game). The presentation is about the importance of playing as a girl character, of presenting views of active women in the game. I found myself wondering what the rationale was for promoting gaming in school — but maybe Anda lives in a area where they don’t have obsessive parents looking for any “liberal” material like this to raise a fuss with the school board.

Anda’s new friend Sarge shows her certain missions, raids where they’ll be compensated for killing gold farmers. Although one of the messages is about girls playing together and heaping each other, we don’t see Anda interacting much with anyone but Sarge, who recruits her into making money, and one of the gold farmers, who becomes a friend. Raymond lives in China and wants to learn English.

In Real Life cover

Writer Cory Doctorow stacks the deck by opening the book with an introduction that talks about how the book will address “a bunch of sticky, tough questions about politics and labor.” It’s great that he wants to tackle big economic issues and the importance of organizing into movements, but the book might have been a more gripping read with less attention to high-minded ideas, a little more time spent on entertaining plot twists. It takes In Real Life a while to get to the meat of the story, the premise that’s been promoted. (Ironically, he later praises our era for “the degree to which it allows us to abolish all the boring stuff that used to be required for any kind of ambitious project.”)

Jen Wang’s art is simply lovely, though, with a good sense of personality for each character. She transitions nicely between everyday life — giving it the drab ordinariness it needs for this story — and the fantasy beings of the game world. I did wonder about the choice to show Raymond as some kind of elf, an artistic choice that makes him seem cute, young, and harmless, like a doll. It slants the reader’s reactions, although it’s in keeping with the “everything works out ok” happy ending.

There are some great lessons here about realizing that the characters you’re interacting with online are people, with their own lives and struggles, but no one specifically attacks Anda for being female. She has her eyes opened about how privileged most American lives are in comparison to other places in the world, though. Don’t let my criticisms sway you too much — although I wanted to challenge some of the specifics of this story, I still enjoyed reading a tale about a girl’s experience in video gaming.

You can read an excerpt online. has also posted another story, “Con/Game”, set in the same world.

Note: after writing this review, I discovered that the story was originally written in 2004, and Jen Wang adapted it to comics as well as drawing it. You can read more about her process doing so in this interview. (The publisher provided a digital review copy. )

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