Book review: Cory Doctorow’s “For the win – organize to survive!”
Cory Doctorow’s novel could be described as a thriller for the MMORPG generation. The author / co-editor of Boing Boing, describes a near future scenario, in which professional gamers in developing countries stage revolts, first in-game, and later, in real life (or, as Doctorow would prefer, IRL) and eventually a virtual financial coup, as means to protest for better working conditions.
We are presented with 4 main subplots:
- 2 groups of exploited professional gamers, one in China, the other in India;
- a Jewish-American teenager fascinated with gaming and Chinese culture (which leads to his bizarre alter-ego “Wei-Dong Goldberg”);
- and a PhD dropout responsible for the virtual world economies of a gaming studio.
Their stories are intertwined in an interesting but not very believable way, but Doctorow’s wisely takes advantage of the over-developed sense of suspension of disbelief present in his target audience.
These “professional gamers” work as gold-farmers, a digital take on the sweatshop: mostly teenagers and young adults are recruited in developing countries to perform repetitive tasks inside the game worlds, as helping paying customers that wish to progress faster in the game (in a morally permissible “cheating”) or retrieving virtual goods, which are then converted to real currency through black market operations (as most of this transactions are strictly forbidden by the games terms of service).
The fictional games this workers toll at day after day are characterized as tongue-in-cheek amalgamations of popular culture tropes: Coca Cola’s Zombie Mecha and Nintendo’s Mushroom Kingdom are just a few examples of Doctorow’s geeky mashup. But as a probable gamer himself, this aspect of his satire is actually credible and well constructed, and very refined to the post World of Warcraft crowd.
Amidst SpongeBob and Harry Potter references and gamer slang, Doctorow seems more interested in validating his credentials as a digital pop culture connoisseur than as an actual novelist. Messy sentences, some narrative gimmicks and characters that are less tridimensional than the games they play – imagine even worse analogies than this one every other paragraph – plague what could be a very interesting work, and damage his actually creative plot.
Even though briefly mentioned in the first pages, the cliché pseudo cyber-punk neon glow and the futuristic themes are nowhere to be found. The story could very well be set at the present day, as more and more gold farming operations are being organized to exploit virtual economies. The mechanics of these organizations are very well described, and provide an interesting insight to a strangely growing occupation.
The macro and micro economic concepts that are at the foundation of those exploitations are well explained, even though (naturally) tainted with the pop science approach whose absence would undoubtedly scare off half his audience. It must be said that, regarding this topic, Doctorow seems to have done his research. He didactically goes through economic concepts to situate the reader (which could be younger than expected, as hinted by the “young adult science fiction novel” tag that describes his novel in Wikipedia). Some of his statements are questionable, as his apparently moral objection to High Frequency trading in the stock market, but he mostly manages to provide enough technical information to roll out his second act: aided by an economics scholar, the Webblies (the unionized gold farmers) manage to hold the economies of virtual worlds hostage (and, consequentially, a significant portion of the real world economy, as various virtual goods were being packaged in real world – mostly toxic – bonds).
A very important parallel with the recent global financial crisis is established as more and more characters sink money in insensible investments and derivatives of dubious precedence. Greed trumps all, even in mostly virtual transactions. And in a particularly interesting passage, an economics professor exposes the mostly virtual essence of the global financial system to justify the importance of regulation – although this is only brought up in a discussion regarding workers rights. This topic could have been further developed, and even become the central part of a very interesting metaphor to our very recent credit crunch.
However, the author prefers to focus on the workers theme (as his subtitle “organize to survive!” already hints at). The sweatshop narrative reads almost as Slum dog millionaire meets World of Warcraft through a very mild Marxist point of view. The worker’s rights theme, along with state-sponsored censorship are well exploited throughout the novel, providing support to the “gamer” section of the plot, even though they could be also more seriously discussed by a more ambitious author.
The author manages to realistically tackle the gaming culture topic, providing enough references to validate his familiarity with the topic, but not as much as to provide an anthropological perspective of the dynamics of these communities. However, the description of software, of techniques used in-game, of actual behaviour of the gamers as “clans” -with leaders, rituals, and division of labour – is very accurate.
Even though Doctorow’s writing could be more polished, the basic idea is original, and creatively approached. At one point the narrator somewhat naively describes the internet as “chaotic, spread out, without a few leaders making all the decisions”, to rationalize the workers strategic advantage over the bosses: the kind of enthusiasm that oozes out of the novel should be an inspiration for any new novelist interested in tackling real world problems through new media perspectives (even though, as Doctorow, they would have the very dense shadow of William Gibson to account for).