For the casual video-gamer, a few hours a couple days a week adds little bursts of excitement and fun. Some even dabble in online game play where they meet up with friends and complete quests or missions while communicating with each other in the comfort of their own homes. In FOR THE WIN, Cory Doctorow introduces the harrowing landscape of online multiplayer games complete with bustling economies, the chance to strike it rich, and the horrors of a run-down workforce.
Virtual gold is what it’s all about. Virtual gold buys players that newest armor, the best sword, magical healing, or whatever it takes to get ahead in the game. What kind of impact does virtual gold have on the real world? The creators of the game control all the gold, and they get investors to pump all their real money into the games. The real world and the virtual world are linked. If the virtual world would collapse, then it could spell utter doom for the fragile world economies.
Creators of the game regulate the gold by enlisting the help of players known as “gold farmers,” whose primary responsibility is to harvest gold and sell to the highest bidder. Most of these “gold farmers” work in horrible conditions under cruel and inhumane bosses, and they are tired of being treated as second-class citizens. This is where the story begins as Doctorow spins a tale that encompasses numerous countries, nationalities, and languages.
Sixteen-year-old Matthew works in Shenzhen under the brutal Mr. Wing, who is not afraid to use physical force to keep his workers in line. Matthew dreams of the day when he can play his favorite game free from the watchful eye of Mr. Wing. High school student Leonard lives in Southern California, but goes by his Chinese name Wei-Dong, seeing as he belongs in a group of Chinese game players who he plays with for fun. Wei-Dong feels a million miles away from his comrades and yearns to help them as they complain about their problems. Mala commands a small virtual army in rural India and has recently begun “gold-farming” for Mr. Banerjee. She is initially thrilled with the uptick of Rupees, but slowly begins to realize that someone owns her.
Matthew, Wei-Dong, Mala, and others are just a small group of gamers who are gradually joining forces with the Webblies, a rebel group challenging the working conditions of numerous types of sweatshops around the world. Headed up by the mysterious Big Sister Nor, the Webblies have a plan to bring the gaming companies to their knees until things change. A strike among workers is looming, and Matthew, Wei-Dong, and Mala all have a part to play --- even if it means risking their lives. Organizing a worldwide strike isn’t easy, however, and the Webblies have to play it smart; otherwise, it could be game over.
One of the most enlightening aspects of FOR THE WIN is the fact that it is very educational. Being a casual gamer, I had no idea that online multiplayer games were so popular or even that they are their own virtual economies. Cory Doctorow does an excellent job bringing “outsiders” up to speed. For the serious gamers, FOR THE WIN will ring true to home, and you’ll find yourself getting swept up in all the technical aspects that Doctorow includes throughout the book. Be prepared to give up the innocence of Mario and Luigi, and get ready to be launched into the complex and exciting world of online gaming.
Reviewed by Benjamin Boche on May 11, 2010