teaching machines

In Real Life

For SIGCSE 2017, I’m reading a bunch of graphic novels related to computer science and technology. First up is In Real Life, by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang. I share here notes and reactions from my reading.

Spoilers lie ahead. I have to write as much down as I can, because the book is due back to the library soon. I won’t own it, but not because it isn’t worth owning.


Anda is new in town. She’s at the tender age of 16, that time where we start to outgrow our parents. She is not the slim, underdressed heroine that we find in graphic novels that want to sell. Rather, she is short and squat. Romantic love is not on her radar, but she hangs out with boys all the time—in the computer lab. This is a girl who’s about to change. She’s about to become…connected.

A “girl gamer” and clan leader named Liza visits Anda’s computer programming class and shares about an online game called Coarsegold. She invites all the girls in the class to join her girls-only clan. At home, Anda seeks her mother’s permission to join, saying the things a mother wants to hear from her introverted daughter, “A speaker came to my class today and said it would boost my self-esteem to play with a guild. It’s like a team sport.” Moments later, Anda is crafting her avatar, a Warrior named Kalidestroyer.

Other players quickly recognize Anda/Kalidestroyer’s skill. After she fells an army of undead with her spiked flail, clan member Sarge compliments her, muddying the distinction between avatar and human, “I like you, Anda. You’re like me, you’re bloodthirsty.” Ironically, Sarge hates to be called Lucy, her player’s name.

Sarge and Kalidestroyer join forces to destroy gold farmers, who violate the terms of the game by amassing resources to sell to individuals who don’t want to spend the time leveling up and collecting things themselves. Anda silently questions the integrity of this, but Lucy’s attention makes it hard for her to say no.

When Lucy dies in a battle, Anda continues the mission solo and slaughters a room full of busy farmers. But with the fog of Lucy lifted, she has a chance to see one of the gold farmers for who he really is: a 16-year-old Chinese boy trying to make ends meet. His name is Raymond. Though Lucy finishes him off after she respawns, Anda continues to meet with Raymond in the game, privately, learning of his 12-hour workdays at the computer, his injured back, and his lack of healthcare. Anda becomes determined to help him out.

But when Anda’s mother discovers that she has been chatting with “strange men on the internet,” she loses access to the game. While sulking in front of the television, she learns about strikes and collective bargaining, which she believes are key to fixing Raymond’s situation. Anda sneaks online at an internet cafe and tells him how he must organize with his coworkers and demand benefits from their boss. They agree to meet again the next day.

Raymond isn’t there the next day. One of Raymond’s coworkers tells Anda that Raymond was fired for conspiring against the company. When Lucy overhears their conversation, she charges Anda with conspiring with gold farmers. Lucy commands her tiger to go after the gold farmer, but Anda slices the tiger in half. This leads to a showdown between the two friends. Anda wins, if you can call it that.

The clan soon learns of Lucy’s and Anda’s duel and their raids on gold farmers, which violate the clan’s mission. Both of their memberships are suspended. All this turmoil coincides perfectly with Anda’s family vacation to the Grand Canyon. Anda is unable to work up a smile for the camera.

Back home, Lucy videochats with Anda. Lucy tells her that one of Raymond’s friends is looking for her. Anda sneaks out to the internet cafe to find him, but she has to create a new avatar since Kalidestroyer is blocked. She chooses the Sprite, the same class as the gold farmers. But her hopes are dashed when she realizes how weak her avatar is, and there’s no way she’ll be able to find Raymond’s friend with her low experience levels—until Lucy sends her a contact list of new clan members that had been training with them. Protected by their strength and resources, Anda finds Raymond’s friend, who chastises her for foisting Western ideas on a country that she doesn’t understand.

Still, he seeks her help in organizing his coworkers. On Anda’s request, the clan members distribute a manifesto to all Raymond’s gold farming coworkers. The manifesto calls for the employees to unite and seek benefits that will help them all. The plan works, and their employer concedes.

When the complete picture of Anda’s advocacy for Raymond and his coworkers is revealed, she and Lucy are unblocked from Coarsegold. At a parent night for her programming class, Anda is praised by clan recruiter Liza for standing up against bullying, which is enough for Anda’s mother to restore her internet access.

In the closing scene, Lucy and Anda are inducted as full clan members in a grand ceremony. Raymond shows up to dance with Anda. He has found a new gold-farming job, one that lets him spend time actually playing Coarsegold in order to harvest upper level resources. The ballroom empties when Lucy suggests they all go on a raid.


The book is called In Real Life, so we can pretty confidently say that one of its themes is the intermingling of the game and the outside world. Indeed, we see many examples of this:

  • Sarge commands a ferocious tiger named Danisa in the game, while her player Lucy commands a friendly cat named Danisa in real life.
  • While shopping with her father, Anda walks by the Health and Beauty section. In the next panel we see her coloring her hair red to match her avatar. The next day at school, Anda walks with the confidence that we have previously only seen her exhibit within Coarsegold.
  • The resources that the gold farmers collect in the game get sold outside of it for real cash. Likewise, Anda and Lucy get paid real money to kill gold farmers. Anda turns this “virtual blood” money into real snack food for her friends in a local gaming club.
  • When Anda learns the plight of a Chinese gold farmer who works 12 hours a day for meager pay and no benefits, she reverses from her in-game role of destroying gold farmers and begins investigating ways that she can protect them outside the game. Sarge has no tolerance for this humanitarian work, and Anda must step in and also defend the gold farmers in the game, this time from her own virtual boss.
  • Anda and Lucy end up suspended from the game for their harassment of gold farmers. The fallout in the virtual world effectively spoils Anda’s family vacation to the real Grand Canyon.
  • Immediately after Liza validates Anda’s noble defense of the Chinese gold farmers, Anda steps up her advocacy in other parts of her life. She locates the girl whom her gamer friends had dismissed earlier, and initiates a friendship.

Another major theme is the internet’s power to organize. Anda’s clan in Coarsegold draws in a profile of player that you don’t often find two of in the same hometown: a girl gamer. But within the game, scores of such women gather together in raiding parties. At the end, the clan members are able to distribute the manifesto out to the employees almost instanteously. Doctorow admits in the introduction that the ease of organizing is not necessarily positive: “thugs, bullies, racists, and loonies never had it so good.” He compares the cost and administration of activism in the 1980s the present day, robbing us of all our excuses for not taking a stand. These days you can still sit while taking a stand, says this book.

Doctorow additionally hopes, “that readers of this book will be inspired to dig deeper into the subject of behavioral economics and to start asking hard questions about how we end up with the stuff we own, what it costs our human brothers and sisters to make these goods, and why we need them.” I think this hope was clouded a bit by the fact that physical consumerism wasn’t a large part of the story. Sure, there was some ice cream, a few television binges, and an allusion to cheap manufacturing of zippers. But the connection between stuff and real human labor was an invisible bridge, if I ever saw one. Rather, the laborers were mostly gold farmers and the stuff was virtual stuff. Sadly, virtual consumerism just doesn’t tug at the heartstrings like physical consumerism. Probably because it’s all fake, and there are no chemicals and fumes involved. Maybe I’m just not young enough to be tempted virtual goods, but I don’t see them valued to the same degree as physical ones.


In Real Life shared the story of a girl who joined an online game to be somebody she was not in the physical world. Finally in a place where she was confident and respected, she had a chance to reveal her full human self, which probably wouldn’t have happened at school or even the D&D club. This is the power of the internet. It’s the door to many worlds, enough for each of us to be president or astronaut.

As a computer science educator, I could see myself using this book in an ethics course or in our orientation course for first-years. The technical content is low, but the conversation starters are many.


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