Cory Doctorow talks up ‘In Real Life’ and Wang, feels down over gamergate

Oct. 14, 2014 | 4:28 p.m.

Cory Doctorow’s short story, “Anda’s Game,” was released in 2004, but it’s only become more relevant in the past decade.

Exploring the concept of “gold farming” in video games — the practice of amassing virtual wealth that is then sold to less patient players for real-world currency — Doctorow’s tale offers a fascinating look at video game economies through the lens of a young female gamer. “Anda’s Game” has gained greater gravity as economic and gender dynamics shift in the video game community, making now the ideal time for First Second to release “In Real Life,” a graphic novel adaptation of the story.

“I think science fiction’s signature move is predicting the present,” says Doctorow. “If you take stuff that’s already latent and clearly important in the world around us and write about it as though it were something that was going to happen in the future, then when it does happen after you’ve already published, people come along and praise you for being so incredibly prescient.”

In 2002, Doctorow saw an article on Slashdot about a man who came to a game developer’s conference and claimed that he had been paying Mexican workers small change to work in “Everquest” gathering virtual wealth that he could sell on to Western players. The man may or may not have been telling the truth, but Doctorow was inspired by the reactions to the claim and wrote “Anda’s Game” as a response.

Both First Second and Doctorow’s novel publisher Tor Books are divisions of MacMillan located in the same building, and Doctorow would often stop by the First Second offices to chat about comics. After being asked multiple times to write something for the graphic novel publisher, Doctorow developed a treatment for a series of comics based on “Anda’s Game” that expanded on the world of the short story by focusing on a different real-world country and a different virtual world in each short arc.

First Second ultimately decided that it just wanted an adaptation of “Anda’s Game,” and that treatment eventually became the novel “For the Win.”

To find the right artistic collaborator for Doctorow, First Second presented the author with an assortment of artist portfolios. From that group, Jen Wang stood out the most. “I looked Jen up and I realized she had written ‘Koko Be Good,’ which was one of my favorite First Second graphic novels, and I was like, ‘This couldn’t be more perfect,'” says Doctorow.

Wang worked up a script that Doctorow went over with her, and they would go back and forth with their editors at First Second, serving as tie-breakers for any decisions they couldn’t compromise on.

The two collaborators will meet for the first time during the book tour for “In Real Life,” which comes to Skylight Books on Wednesday.

“Between all of us, we developed [‘In Real Life’]. And I thought that was a very nice experience of having my work adapted. It’s an honor to have someone who’s really talented find things in your work that you didn’t know were there. It’s very exciting when that happens. And it’s also really intellectually stimulating to have this thing that came out of your subconscious be interpreted through someone else’s creative labors.”

Hero Complex readers can preview pages from “In Real Life” in gallery above or in larger versions via the links below.

‘In Real Life’: Cover | The Lizanator | Loading | Where do I start?

In a recent telephone conversation, Doctorow spoke about Wang’s integral role in the creative process, the connections between video games and comic books as artistic media and his feelings on the current “gamergate” controversy that is sweeping the gamer community.

Hero Complex: How has your experience as a short story writer and novelist informed your approach to a comic-book script?

Cory Doctorow: Jen did most of the writing and I want to make sure she gets most of the credit, but I think the major difference between novel writing and comic scripts is that novels’ signature move is to create the illusion where you can know what another person is thinking. And I think in that sense, all novels are science fiction, regardless of whether or not they have rockets or aliens in them, because all novels have telepathy in them. And comics don’t. Except to the extent where there’s gimmicky voice-over bubbles. For the most part, comics are about watching someone else do stuff, not being inside someone’s head as stuff happens.

But Jen did all the hard work. She wrote a treatment, and then a script. I went through the script, I edited it, I vetoed a few things. I asked for a few things to be added. All the really good stuff in there is stuff Jen introduced. All the new stuff that isn’t in the story is stuff Jen introduced, and the cool thing about that is that because Jen did the script, and she did an amazing job, I can look at this thing that’s been adapted from my work, and without being conceited in the slightest, I can say how cool it is because it’s not me I’m praising, it’s Jen’s work. It really is terrific.

A page from "In Real Life" by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang. (First Second)

A page from “In Real Life” by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang. (First Second)

HC: What attracted you to Jen from that initial group of artist portfolios?

CD: It’s hard for me to remember exactly. In hindsight, she has this unbelievably clever visual sense. Her character design is great. I love the way the people in the book look, and the way she distinguishes the game people from the real-world people. And just all this clever visual stuff with the way she varies the palette depending on whether it’s in-game or out-of-game. To me, it’s like sorcery.

The last time I worked with an artist adapting my work, it took me some time to get over the idea that [artwork] is transcendently hard, because for me it is. And at first, I felt delicate about asking for any changes to drawings because I just couldn’t imagine getting it right once, let alone twice. And it felt like every time I was asking for revisions to drawings, it was heroic. And it took a while working with some very patient artists for me to realize that for artists, drawing stuff is just what you do. It is just sorcery as far as I’m concerned.

HC: Do you see a connection between comic books and video games as artistic media?

A page from "In Real Life" by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang. (First Second)

A page from “In Real Life” by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang. (First Second)

CD: The point of any art is to make you feel some irreducible, numinous, complicated emotion. The characters in a story are inconsequential, literally (Romeo and Juliet never lived, never died, and are less worthy of our sympathy and care than the bacterial culture in my yogurt this morning, because at least that was a real, living thing). Insofar as imaginary people matter, it’s because their made-up, not-real adventures make you feel those complicated and interesting emotions. But it’s a very roundabout way of getting people to feel stuff. Novels do it by tricking your limbic system into mistaking the adventures of not-real people for things happening to real people.

Games and comics do it differently — there’s some of that “caring about not-real people” stuff, but there’s also a lot more of the “here’s a visual image that, because of its own formal characteristics, its colors and composition, makes you feel a thing just by looking at it.” The relationship between words about made-up people and pictures is like the relationship between talk-therapy and SSRIs — the former is supposed to get your brain to generate interesting psychological effects, the latter just imposes the effects right on your brain by altering its chemical makeup.

Games have other mechanics, of course, that are inaccessible to comics. They make you physically engage with the art, using your body (or at least your fingers) to make the art-thing happen. I think that recruiting more senses and modes probably makes the effect more immediate and possibly more profound, inasmuch as there are more mechanisms at play with which to evoke that inchoate and irreducible etcetera. There’s just stuff that you probably can’t feel (or not as readily) by reading about stuff, that’s accessible when you’re moving your body. Psychologically, of course, but physiologically too: things that happen to your brain and your thought processes when you are directing movement, as opposed to when you’re imagining it.

Games also engage a different kind of puzzle-solving mental apparatus; Raph Koster calls games something like, “NP-hard problems that can only be solved through the iterative application of heuristics.” Which is fancy math talk, but it means that games are interesting in part because they present puzzles whose ideal solutions are indeterminate — for example, there are more possible games of chess than there are hydrogen atoms in the universe, so you can’t “solve” chess the way you can tic-tac-toe, by mapping out every possible chess game and ensuring that you always play towards a non-losing outcome.

Because you can’t solve these puzzles with pure logic, you have to apply heuristics — rules of thumb — that you develop through a combination of intuition and reasoned thinking, and that you refine by trying them and varying them, more or less systematically, in order to improve your performance in the game. This variation and retrying is what Koster means by “iteration.”

This has a lot in common with “reality.” There’s no optimal way to be alive and human in the world, no Plato’s Republic course of “right action” that will reliably produce a happy outcome for you. All you can do is try your best, developing theories of how to conduct your life and refining them as time goes by.

Games, then, are microcosmic versions of life. It’s not surprising that they engage our attention and our fascination, because the reason our ancestors survived to have the children that we became is that they were reasonably good at this process. When processes like this emerge, they give us both satisfaction from mastery, and an almost irresistible urge to play on. They’re rehearsal for the only “life skill” that matters  — figuring out how to come up with rules of thumb for hard problems, and how to refine them or discard them if they don’t work.

HC: There’s a significant educational aspect to “In Real Life.” How important is it for you to inform while entertaining?

CD: I am most entertained by things that inform me, so I don’t know that there’s a sharp distinction I would make there. Even when the informational content of a piece of fiction is about emotional truths about people and how they interact with each other, that’s still information. It’s still being informed. And so I don’t know that I can answer the question. I think if you’re not informing someone, there’s probably not a substance there to be entertained by.

A page from "In Real Life" by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang. (First Second)

A page from “In Real Life” by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang. (First Second)

HC: “In Real Life” stars a young female gamer whose mother is worried about her getting too involved in a community that isn’t particularly kind to female gamers. What are your feelings on the current gamergate and how it reflects those gender dynamics in the gamer community?

CD: It’s disheartening. My wife is a retired “Quake” player who played on the English national team, was a games professional. And I, because of her, have moved through a milieu where I’m surrounded by incredible women gamers. That kind of steamy, grotesque writhing underbelly of gamer culture — the rape threats and the violence and the reflexive hatred of Anita Sarkeesian — is really disheartening. And it’s not unique to gaming. I think it is an epiphenomenon of a wider social inequality. Gamers reflect that. [Gaming] is one of those places where it’s OK to say women get a [bad] deal. But even in the rest of the world where you’re no longer supposed to say that, it’s still OK to act like it.

We still allow employers to get away with paying their women less than they pay their men. We still allow cops to get away with sexually discriminating against victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. So long as they say, “I think it’s bad that women get discriminated against,” we let them actually practice discrimination. I have no apology and no excuse and no explanation for misogyny in culture, but if we were to make it socially acceptable to say, “You are a misogynist in gamer culture,” it would not be the end of our work. The important work is eliminating misogyny itself, not just the admission of misogyny.

 HC: Just how rampant is gold farming in Internet games?

CD: It’s been several years since I accurately researched the question, but about five years ago, there were 400,000 people earning a full-time living from gold farming in the Pacific Rim, mostly in China, but with a smattering in Vietnam, and there were also sizable enclaves in Eastern Europe. I don’t know what’s happened to it since, but I can only imagine it’s grown. That figure was from an academic at the University of Hong Kong who had a pretty good methodology for studying it.

HC: How do video game developers feel about gold farming?

CD: The companies that run the game don’t like it at all. I think some game designers are split on it, and I think players are generally pretty down on it. But it’s funny. When I talked to Ed Castronova, the academic who studies virtual worlds and their economies, about this, he recounted the story of gold farmers who he had lived with in China who, after a 12-hour day of gold farming, would relax in the evening by playing the game they had been gold farming in. So gold farmers are by definition players.

HC: What do you hope readers will take away from “In Real Life”?

CD: Obviously, the first and foremost thing is that I hope they have that irreducible, inchoate aesthetic experience that you get from being moved by a piece of art, and I hope that they come away with a lot more questions than answers about the relationship between the Global South and the Global North, between rich and poor, between China and the West. And that they also reconsider whether or not there is a meaningful distinction between virtual worlds and real life. Part of the point of that title is that games are real life, because you are really alive when you are playing a game, just like you’re really alive when you’re not playing a game.

– Oliver Sava | @LATHeroComplex

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