In the time of GamerGate, where female-gamers are fleeing their homes in fear of being violently attacked from wanting an equal voice in the gaming world, “In Real Life” debuts like a life-raft. To those of us girl-gamers who are on the brink of forgetting why they started to game or even care if they had an equal voice in the gaming community, “In Real Life” begs us to stay and ask for more of our gaming communities. It asks us to crash open this GamerGate and continue to ask our gaming community to think of how it can use its collective powers of organization and pooled resources to create a fair and just society for all.
Perhaps the best thing about this graphic novel is that it introduces third world problems into its storyline but refuses to solve them by its first world female character Anda. It instead offers us a closer look into how we can use gaming communication and raids to connect across cultures and through economic disparity to seek a way to change how guilds or groups within society rule its citizens. It is a call to spread awareness on a global scale.
Or as one of “In Real Life’s” main characters Raymond (his English-given name) says, “What if misfortune were to befall us all? If it happened to me, couldn’t it happen to any of us? Please join me in my fight.”
“In Real Life” is a graphic novel adapted from Cory Doctorow’s short story, “Anda’s Story.” It’s written and illustrated by Jen Wang, creator of “Koko Be Good.” It’s no wonder why Jen Wang was chosen by Cory Doctorow (as he told us at NYCC ’14) from a lineup of artists to adapt his story. Like we saw in the introspective tale with Koko, Anda’s character struggles with similar moral choices of right or wrongs and what to do after the wrong choices are made. Wang’s supreme ability to display a moment of choice of a character shines through this tale in tight detailed close-ups that catch your eye like a chance snapshot. Her zoomed away panels also give us a precise eye into the aftermath of choice, often draping Anda in blue hues and faceless, processing the results of her choices. Choosing backgrounds with minimal details throughout contrasted with bright colored characters in thick chalk-like outlines, Wang creates a tale that is fantastical as it is confessional.
“I had written a draft of the script that at the time I felt was good enough, and both Cory and our editor Mark had given me the go-ahead to start penciling,” Jen Wang said, when discussing how long it took her to gain that fantastical yet confessional feel. “I’d drawn about 100 pages or so of this version of the book and the closer I got to the end the worse I felt. At some point I realized I was in denial and the reason I felt terrible was this wasn’t the best version of the book I could make. Just imagining the book completed on bookshelves filled me with panic. I wrote my editor a long email proposing I redo the bulk of the book and remarkably he agreed. I ended up drawing the final version of the book over the next 9 months and even though we were really pressed for time.
“I’m so glad I got the chance to make the book something both Cory and I could be proud of,” Wang said — and as our previously linked interview with Cory Doctorow reveals above, he is very, very pleased with the results.
“In Real Life” is the story about Anda, an awkward teenage girl-gamer who moves to a new school in Flagstaff, AZ. At school within an introductory computer-science class, she receives an impromptu presentation by Skrillex-looking gamer-girl Liza, who looks exactly like the type of girl-gamer that grew up in arcades and knew who the Smiths were before you did. Liza organizes an all-girl guild for an MMO RPG called Coarsegold Online. In attempts to recruit more girl-gamers to her favorite game, Liza offers Anda’s class a membership to her Clan Fahrenheit, but only if they play as a girl avatar. When Liza asks who plays as a girl avatar, we see the hands drop in the shadowy classroom. The awkward shame felt through the panel is palpable and all too familiar feeling for girl-gamers who are “in” games but not in the game.Continued below
Quickly, that panel is followed with an unexpected warmth that breaks the chill. In a white background, we are left with Anda’s face, wide-eyed but star-struck beside the lettering of Liza’s words: “Who’s in, Ladies? Who wants to be a girl-gamer and out?” In this stunning panel, the blankness on display by Wang evokes a feeling of possibility. As a girl-gamer, I immediately hugged my knees. Yes, Anda wants to be a person game-in and game-out.
Wang’s a master of precise character details. In the following pages we see an excited Anda in her baggy polka-dotted blouse with frizzled hair and flushed cheeks go home with wide-eyes, exclaiming to her mom about her need to join Coarsegold Online; her mom through thick-glasses and cropped hair wearily hands over her credit card. Choosing to highlight the clothing and facial expression of her characters first, we are not allowed too much time to question the characters or the pacing that hands time to us in a series of snap-shot like panels.
In the gaming aspects of the story the design is clever, familiar, and precise.
One of the most clever things about the tale is its transition into Coarsegold Online. The gaming world is painted in a completely different color palette. The world of Coarsegold Online is like a technicolor daydream of forests, equipped with cottages hidden in hillsides, indigo-colored rivers and bright bulbs of gold fields to harvest near sea-anemone-like-bushes. When asking Jen Wang about her choice to distinguish the two palettes, she said, “The story is told from Anda’s point of view so I wanted her real life to feel drab and boring while the world of Coarsegold Online is really engaging and colorful. I used a “brown” color filter over the real life scenes to make it look very serious, but not so drab as to be depressing. For the game world scenes I created a separate file that’s just a painting of all different crazy colors that I laid over the panels for texture. Everything in Coarsegold is just extra heightened and exciting.”
The difference between the worlds are so sharp and so clear that we as readers get why this world is evocative to Anda. We are (though Jen doesn’t mention it) also left with just enough empty space in exploring the Coarsegold Online world to believe it, and wonder about what else lies there while also letting us fill in some of the details for ourselves. We can see the marketplace. We see the training grounds, but we don’t need a map or get overwhelmed with the technical details to the point where we feel too distant from the world and are trying too hard to match this world up to another. We are welcomed in as a new avatar, like Anda.
Wang is acutely aware of how a story like this one needs to be as interactive as possible to evoke the audience into the gaming aspect too. As we see Anda log into the game as Kalidestroyer we can see her pointer-mouse choosing the options on the panel. This interactive feel continues throughout and beyond the initial character choice through the drawing of “inboxes” and a mouse-pointer on the screen that redirects our eyes to the path that we are taking, as if we are clicking through the panels. Allowing full page panels to see Anda’s transformation too was a smart choice too, as its screen mimics the start of MMO RPG games and for readers who are familiar with this pivotal moment of game-play we feel the excitement of stepping into character. “I played some World of Warcraft before starting the book,” Jen Wang said. “And that was the primary inspiration for Coarsegold Online. But I also pulled from a lot of open world games like Animal Crossing, the Sims, and Second Life. I felt like one of the most addicting qualities of games is the idea you could rebuild a whole life for yourself in a virtual world and I wanted that for Coarsegold Online.”
In particular, this redesign of self becomes clear in Anda’s avatar-building stage. Instead of her baggy shirts and skullcaps, we see her outfitted like a warrior. “I guess it helps that I’m a woman because I just designed the avatars to look sensible and appealing to me,” Jen Wang said as we discussed how she chose to design the avatars for Anda’s character. “I based Anda’s avatar costume on samurai garb, so it’s relevant to her class as a warrior. When you take out the prioritization of sex appeal it’s fairly straight forward to design your female characters based on storytelling needs as you would your male characters.”Continued below
As we travel through the world of Coarsegold Online we begin to see how the quiet Anda becomes an axe-swinging leader, slashing monsters in half in full-panel revelry. Anda quickly impresses other characters of the game, including Lucy. “I embellished Lucy’s costume with furs and animal prints to reflect her class as a hunter,” Jen Wang said. It is Lucy who recruits Anda in game to begin hunting gold-farmers for real-life money. Through Lucy we discover that the Coarsegold Online has a flaw in its system; certain real-life people are playing avatars (or players in other areas of the world) to mine game-gold for other characters to level up, and are being paid to do that work. Lucy says to Anda, “I’ve spent my whole life proving I’m as good a gamer as any other dude…and I had to do it without cheats.” Anda accepts the offer but begins to show signs of reluctance (with a shoulder cringe) when Lucy adds, “If they don’t speak English, you should probably kill them.”
The moments of dialogue within the story are handled cleverly. Through boxed-panels that are mostly emptied of all detail but background coloring as Anda chats with Lucy, the form resembles chat-rooms or the type of view you’d see if you were chatting online in-game with another gamer, and a video boxed appeared next to the game (or story) that you were currently playing. Other moments of world-building and scene-setting that thrill are Wang’s use of canon details to set the game, like showing Lucy buying a Stork ride with the sketch of its price underneath, judging characters on levels, poking fun at noob characters (the drawing of the noob characters as recognizable egg-like faces indistinguishable from each other as field workers and low-quality level players), or seeing Anda kill a gold-famer and the little icon of items that pops up into her inventory after she snatches the items from the dead in-game character. The world is so tactile that it reads like a game walk-through.
Perhaps the most fun part of the in-game action is when Lucy takes out a BFG and blows away the remnants of a gold-farmer’s hide-out in a raid. “The best part of this adaptation,” Jen Wang said, “was I was allowed to adapt the story for myself to draw. So part of writing the script was simultaneously visualizing what the page was going to look like in its final form. In that sense I didn’t find the translation from text to drawing very hard because it was always in my mind from the start. And in a lot of ways visual language is easier to convey because it more literally represents the way we experience the world. Instead of dialogue you can rely on character visual cues and actions to tell you what you need to know.” One important way that this action is handled is that in moments of senseless violence we can’t see Anda’s face. We see a flurry of motions and a pan-away from the scene as if the murders of gold-farmers is an action that is of Anda’s character but not really her.
However, the fun of the game and the preciseness in its design, is secondary to the apt and sensitive way that Anda’s relationship with Raymond is handled. After joining the ranks with Lucy to kill gold farmers for profits, she happens to meet one of them, Raymond, and develop a friendship with him in-game. We see her use Google translate to try to talk to him in Chinese; we see her visit his in-game home to talk to him as he tells of his in-life health problems and multiple jobs and slave-wage-like hours and demands on his life. We see them fall asleep next to each other, and we see the rift it causes between Anda and Lucy.
The battle that occurs between Lucy and Anda relies on in-game rules. It’s all “spell” and “shield” tactics that spiral out of control into the real world and proves that the “magic” of the game, while riveting and bursting in warm hues, are only a part of the story paralleled to Anda’s newly realized feelings of helplessness to the “unfairness” of the world. The way that “In Real Life” handles Anda’s finding of this knowledge, the processing of this knowledge, and the display of how to ameliorate this situation is what makes the story an essential read. From the comical but bleak screaming to her parents in an ice-cream shop about how their decision to get ice-cream or not is a first-world problem that they could solve with the medical care they have to the point where she begins to watch the local news to learn of worker strikes in her area, we see a young girl grappling with how to solve the injustice of the world that existed far beyond her, her history, and how it continues without her consent.Continued below
The most important part of this story is to see how Anda fails, and how she succeeds. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that it is more important to read how Anda fails to understand the situation if we wish to see how to tackle inequality. In this GamerGate of a world that is failing us, we need to know how not to be apart of that community. That way is to not listen, and to speak for marginalized groups that do not ask for it, and to be dismissive of their existence.
Wang and Doctorow suggest that there are systems that are flawed and there are people that are deeply flawed, but the right to choose how you play and who you play with is a decision that is wholly up to you at any point. If the game is broken and the rules are unfair, then you find similar minds to connect to and share the resources of time, knowledge and funds (if applicable) to start a counter-movement that can remedy the inadequacies of the game. “In Real Life” demonstrates to us girl-gamers, to us gamers, to us as people that the world is full of more injustice then most people will ever see. But, if that is the case, then that also means there is a collectively larger group of people who are suffering, which also means a collective group of voices on the fringes of society that have a voice, and right to be heard.