Review: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

IRL Comic

I find the world of gaming fascinating. It is intricate, diverse, and only seems to be growing. It is also deeply flawed, at least in the state that it is today. IRL: In Real Life, a comic by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang, acts as a great introduction to those new to online gaming, as well as a nice reminder of the imperfections of this world for the ones deeply ingrained in it.

IRL is set primarily in the virtual world of Coarsegold Online, a massive multiplayer online role-playing game. While stories set in MMORPG spaces are not particularly novel at this point, IRL mixes in several themes that are not often talked about, especially in YA literature. Besides race and racism, Doctorow and Wang’s comic is concerned with the economics of online worlds and worker rights. The hope is that by the end this short 175 page journey, you’ll become a better citizen of the internet.

IRL comic page

IRL follows Anda, an introverted high schooler, who is invited into an online guild. It goes pretty well until one of Anda’s superiors recruits her into killing “Chinese farmers”. To those unfamiliar with MMO terminology, “Chinese farmers” are players who do repetitive tasks in-game, accumulate large amounts of virtual currency, and then sell it for real world money. They do not necessarily have to be Chinese, but a lot of them are, and the primarily-Western players don’t particularly care about figuring out others’ ethnicity, so all of them are usually labelled Chinese.

“Look, it’s not hard,” Anda’s guildmate says at one point, “just talk to them, and if they don’t respond or speak English you should probably kill ‘em.”

As you see, IRL is not the most subtle comic. IRL is very direct and doesn’t bother hiding what it stands for, Doctorow’s introductory essay being another example of that. But to me, there’s no denying that IRL is effective. It grabs you, explains everything it wants, and quickly gets out. I’ve never thought that a comic with a 2 page explanation of what a sit-down strike is could be this entertaining.

Both comics and games often struggle with being recognized as worthy endeavours, and the reason I consider IRL an excellent read is its stance on them. It shows that games can be fun and entertaining, but, more importantly, that they can be essential to understanding the world outside of our immediate real life circle. And I think that’s pretty freaking cool.