What happens when you meet someone online and you’re struck by a sudden need to help them, but they live on the other side of the world and don’t speak English? Jen Wang and Cory Doctorow ponder the intricacies that teenagers have to deal with, often on their own, in our globalized world. There’s a lot to like about In Real Life, so let’s get into it.
Firstly, the obvious: this is a story about gamers and gaming, but as the title implies, it treats these things as serious aspects of “real life.” Much like The Guild shows how a group of people manage to forge some pretty strong—albeit strange—bonds through gaming together, Anda’s experience playing Coarsegold changes her perspective on many real-world issues. Doctorow and Wang remind us that games are not merely distractions or diversions. They can be educational, informative, and thought-provoking—often unintentionally.
Doctorow says in the introduction that this is a story about economics. That’s true, in that Anda learns the basics of labour issues and trade unions, as well as the slightly newer economy involved in gold farming. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention to those themes, though, because I never felt the economic message was all that overt—except perhaps at the very end, when Anda helps some of the other Chinese gold farmers to organize a little. Instead, what impressed me more was the way In Real Life charts Anda’s growth, particularly her self-confidence.
I love the way Wang portrays Anda as a teenager who just happens to be overweight. There’s no big deal. The only time weight comes up is in the context of ice cream, and even then it’s Anda’s mother commenting about her father’s weight. Nevertheless, as you might expect, Anda’s physical appearance and nerdy interests mean she’s on the quiet side. It’s nice to see her grow and become more confident, and Wang very successfully uses visual storytelling to enhance this. For example, we see Anda peer down a supermarket aisle of haircare products—then cut to her dying her hair red to match her game avatar’s.
In Real Life is body-positive, and it prominently features a variety of women and personalities. From aggressive, fiery Lucy/Sarge to the commanding, imposing Liza we get women with different attitudes and priorities. And then there’s Steph. When this skinny “prep” girl crashes the Sci-Fi club asking for help starting a “board game club,” she gets rebuffed. And I totally thought it would be a case of the nerds “taking down” the preppy girl for being mean—because that’s how we’re programmed to see the narrative. It’s so much more complex than that, and I really like the follow-up and payoff that happens near the end of the book. It’s an empowering reminder that people with different interests can work together.
Similar to the no-big-deal portrayal of Anda’s body type, Wang and Doctorow also show her in a programming class, coding games, and in the Sci-Fi club, playing D&D like a boss. The message here is subtle but all-too-welcome: girls, you can be gamers; you can be coders; you can like D&D. It’s just something Anda does, and by making it background instead of foregrounding it as a “struggle,” they send the message that this is normal—as it should be.
Other than Anda, most of the characters are not well-developed. Her parents in particular are pretty stock, with Anda’s mother stereotypically overreacting to Anda’s online activities. I understand the need, in some cases, for this kind of shorthand to advance the story. Still, it’s a noticeable shallow area in a graphic novel that otherwise reaches deeper than you might expect.
In Real Life is a fun graphic novel that combines the best aspects of this form with Doctorow’s usual didactic flair. It’s a quick read—I read it in one sitting over lunch—but a worthwhile one. Despite this brevity, there is so much going on here. Adults like me can get a lot out of it, and I expect teenagers will also find it enjoyable and appealing. Above all else, while it shows challenges and onflict, its message is overwhelmingly positive and encouraging: you can do the thing.