Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang Dissect Gender, Economics & Gaming In Real Life

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Ten years ago, Boing Boing editor and technology advocate Cory Doctorow wrote a novella for Salon called Anda’s Game. Focusing on MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games — the fictionalized Coarsegold Online in this case), the story followed the journey of the titular girl Anda as she learned how to game and found strength within herself from the medium. It also dealt with the complicated economic and labor issues that the new gaming ecosystems fostered in micro-transactions, such as the ability for players to buy upgrades and in-game funds with real money, due to the efforts of gold farmers willing to do the grunt work.

In the ensuing years, the issues Doctorow raised have only grown. If anything, the increasing popularity of free-to-play gaming has only forced a larger spotlight on them. This month, artist Jen Wang released an adaption Doctorow’s original work — In Real Life — released by First Second for a young-adult audience. The rich remains a nexus of discussion, so Paste chatted with Doctorow and Wang on issues such as new narrative shifts, the predictive nature of science fiction and the looming shadow of Gamergate.

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Paste: So Cory, did you write the script for In Real Life, or did Jen adapt your story verbally as well as visually? There are definitely some differences between the original story, published in 2004, and the comic: changing Anda to an American and Raymond from Mexican to Chinese; less of a romantic emphasis; an increase in the importance of Anda’s mom in the narrative. I’m curious who’s responsible for those changes. Some seem to soften aspects of the story and others sharpen parts of it. Is that just a function of having another voice involved? Is it a factor of 10 years having passed?

Cory Doctorow: All the good stuff was Jen! She seriously did all the hard work of the adaptation, and it’s a delight for me to see what she did with it. It allows me the curious sensation of taking unadulterated pride in something with my name on it without feeling egotistical.

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Paste: For example: in the comic, Anda seems to educate Raymond about organized labor, but it goes the other way in the original story. Was that change made because it seemed more realistic with updating Raymond to a Chinese character? Or to give her more agency?

Jen Wang: It was a bit of both. Since gold farmers are such a big focus in the story, I wanted there to be a gold farmer character that Anda could talk to, someone who would humanize the experience for her. That was easier if the character was a teenager as well. But also because we moved the story to China, it just seemed more realistic that Anda would be the one critical of Raymond’s situation, and not the other way around.

Paste: There’s also a lot more emphasis in the story on Anda’s being overweight and shamed for it. She’s still clearly overweight in the comic, and her Coarsegold avatar is a bit of wish-fulfillment (not only strong but beautiful and slim). But the other characters aren’t cruel to her because of her appearance. That seems like a feminist influence. Could you talk about that change in particular and why you made it?

Wang: IRL is a pretty dense book, and ultimately I wanted to focus more on the gold farming story. In earlier drafts there were more hints at her weight problems, but ultimately I like the way we have it. She’s overweight, but it’s not a big deal in any way other than her avatar implying she’s not her physical ideal. Real life Anda was by far my favorite character in the book to draw, so hopefully it’s something young girls of various sizes can look at and think “she looks cute and she looks like me!”

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Paste: The publication of In Real Life seems to come at the perfect time, publicity-wise, with Gamergate very much in the news. Similarly, the treatment of women in the comics industry (either as producers or consumers of comics) is receiving comparable attention and analysis. Is this all just timely or is there a reason these issues have been on your mind(s)?

Doctorow: No, that part IS totally me — I’ve been secretly marshalling the forces of easily-manipulated misogyny (using Persona Management software developed by HB Gary for the US Air Force!) to engineer a gender crisis to coincide with the publication!

More seriously, there’s really never been a time when gender wasn’t an issue, in every single domain. Science fiction predicts the present by casting into a futuristic light the problems of the present day. Orwell didn’t predict authoritarianism and ubiquitous surveillance, he observed it and then wrote about an exaggerated thought-experiment world where it had run its course, and that world has some passing resemblance to ours, but that’s not why Orwell is useful — it’s not like he gave us winning lotto numbers or anything.

The use of Orwell is in giving us a vocabulary to talk about abstract technological ideas in the language of human experience and narrative. So this story, about the relationship between sexism, racism, class war and labor economics, reflects the future 10 years out from its initial inception because race, gender, class and capitalism are forever entwined, and every technology gives us the opportunity to reconfigure their relationship and interrogate their role in our world.

Wang: These issues have definitely been in discussion for a very long time, so it’s both good and bad we happen to be talking about them on a broader scale right now. Bad because it’s ugly and people are getting hurt, but good because it brings awareness to the issues. The optimist in me wants to believe the tension is so heated because things are actually improving. Sexism and racism will never completely go away, but hopefully this emboldens the people who feel marginalized to continue to participate in these industries and make them better and safer. There are people on their side.

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Paste: How do you approach writing for young adults, as opposed to theoretically more mature or, at least, more experienced readers? What does the different audience affect? Were there things you felt you couldn’t do or places you needed to be more educational or soften the tone?

Doctorow: Nope — the cool thing about writing YA protagonists is that they get to do a bunch of stuff for the first time, which makes it exciting and brave instead of banal. The first time you tell a lie of consequence, you’re jumping off a cliff with wax-wings of your own making, and hoping they’ll keep you from crashing; the 100th time? You’re just a liar.

Wang: Yes, like Cory says, the best part about young adult characters is they’re experiencing everything for the first time. Everything is heightened. As far as an educational or softer tone, I try not to work that way. A young reader might be more impressionable, but they want to be entertained by a story as much as anyone else. All I can do is create a world that represents the things I believe in. The rest is up to the reader to decide.

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Paste: Jen, what attracted you to Cory’s story? I’m also interested in how you approached character design and coloring for this project. You work in a variety of styles, but there’s usually a lyricism to what you do, which makes your designs of the Coarsegold world especially fun to look at. Could you talk about any research you did into MMORPGs as part of the adaptation process?

Wang: I was definitely attracted to the gold farming aspect, which is not something I knew about beforehand. The relationship between China and the West is something I’m also fascinated by, and switching the setting to China brought so many new interesting possibilities to the story.

As far as MMORPG research, I did play World of Warcraft for a couple weeks before starting the project, which is the most direct influence on Coarsegold Online (the game Anda plays in IRL). Other games I drew inspiration from were Skyrim, Second Life, The Sims and Animal Crossing. I like open world games so I tried to incorporate elements of that into Coarsegold.

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