Monday, November 12, 2012

Book Review: For the Win, by Cory Doctorow (2010, Tor Teen)

Recommended for ages 14+

Play video games. Earn money. It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn't it? It is.

For the Win is a lesson global economics and labor as seen through the eyes of teens playing MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games) and “gold farming” – acquiring gold and magic/rare items in the games, and selling them to players for real-world currency. The gamers are from poor families in third-world countries: India, China, and Singapore, working in deplorable conditions, and exploited by sweatshop bosses who pay pitiful wages. The players form a labor union to gain fair working conditions and pay and attempt to join forces with factory workers, often exploited by the same bosses and working in similar conditions; the retaliation they encounter forms a major part of the conflict.
The story follows several teen gamers: exploited game farmers Matthew, in Shenzhen, China; Mala, in Mumbai, India; and Leonard, a wealthy California teen who goes by the name Wei-Dong when he’s gaming online. Big Sister Nor, a union organizer, approaches Mala via the gamespace to discuss unionizing and Mala resists, feeling that her situation is better than it would be if she weren’t working for her boss. Her friend, Yasmin, decides to join forces with Nor and the union, calling themselves the Webblies after the Wobblies, or the International Workers of the World formed in 1923. Together, they plan to bring down the game economies. Leonard/Wei-Dong ships himself to China in a shipping container to help the Webblies blackmail Coca-Cola Games, owner of the biggest MMORPGs, into allowing their workers to farm gold and sell it to the players. Coca-Cola Games Command Central agrees to their demands and they work together to stabilize the game economy.
The book has a layered narrative, which begins with promise but has trouble maintaining the pace. At times, Doctorow lectures on global economics and trade unions via his characters, and readers may lose interest.
MMORGs are a great way to bring the idea of globalism, economics, and unionization to high school students. This is a group that is spending greater amounts of time online than any previous generation; they’re well-versed in online economies, and there is a chance for them to relate to the younger characters in the story. But even set in the world of online gaming, some readers may struggle to cut through the density of the text, especially when Doctorow begins preaching.
For the Win was a finalist for the 2010 Prometheus Award.
Cory Doctorow is a journalist, blogger and author; he is co-editor of the blog Boing Boing and an advocate for liberalizing copyright law.He offers his books for free on his website under a Creative Commons agreement. His site links to his podcasts, blog, articles and stories.

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