BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Cory Doctorow
2010, Tor Teen
Filed under: Young Adult
This is a pretty dorky book. It’s initially about gold farmers: low-salary workers in China, India, and elsewhere, mostly, who grind MMO games like World of Warcraft for in-game currency and items, then sell them to Westerners. In For the Win, groups of these gold farmers band together to form an international union of workers, both online and offline. Interestingly enough, it’s not dorky in that it dwells in descriptions of video game worlds and fantasies (it doesn’t, really). This book is dorky because it doubles as a pretty sound lesson in fundamentals of economics. I learned a lot actually.
An econ lesson taught through video games? That might sound boring, but actually For the Win is riveting. Doctorow describes some complex systems, and replicates them with the structure of his book. The unionizing internet workers (Webblies, a play on the IWW nickname, Wobblies) are cogs in a complex system that makes investment bankers across the world quite rich. Some of the videogame economies are amongst the largest in the world, and some of their virtual commodities are trading in real markets. (This is not so far from real life. Remember the virtual property boom?)
Similarly, FTW features many points of view from characters of different stature and purpose within the system. There are gold farmers, thuggish bossmen, economists, system administrators, investment bankers, idealistic economic students, exporters, union leaders, it goes on. They all play a role in a tightly woven narrative.
Doctorow does a great job of breaking down economical situations and presenting them as a cause-and-effect relationship crucial to the plotting of his story. He succinctly explains financial systems and concepts, as well as external forces upon an economy. He explains the various players in these systems. And the reader (this is written for a young adult audience) is encouraged to put together the pieces along with the growing movement of virtual teamsters. Here’s a snippet:
And if any worker, anywhere, can communicate with any other worker, anywhere, for free, instantaneously, without her boss’s permission, then, brother, look out, because the [cost incurred in making an economic exchange that will result in] demanding better pay, better working conditions and a slice of the pie just got a lot cheaper. And the people who have the power aren’t going to sit still and let a bunch of grunts take it away from them.
The Webblies expand from a group of gold farmers to other professions employed in online games, such as Turks. Soon they combine forces with factories workers in China, and textile workers in India, many who have never heard of the games the gold farmers play. Strikes break out with international solidarity, and threaten global economies, both government and virtual. The battle they find themselves in is no longer just a virtual one with spells and swords. People are injured in this book; people die.
Much like Doctorow’s Little Brother, FTW focuses on young computer geeks. National identities are skewed for the Webblies. A California Jew names Leonard refers to himself as Wei Dong, and one of the Chinese goldfarmers is named Matthew. The cast is international, most working class and impoverished, many only share computer slang as a language. But due to their sharing a virtual space, they develop a sort of patriotism all their own. They become a pretty endearing crew, zits, body odor, and all.
Despite the unorthodox premise and setting, FTW scratches that us-versus-them YA itch: empowerment through friendship and the chance to save one’s world. I found myself surprised and pleased with the depth of its themes and concepts, and the story was exciting and well-paced. MMO games don’t appeal to me even a little bit, and when I realized they played into the premise of FTW, I almost put it down. I’m glad I didn’t. There’s isn’t much video game dorkery in here, and what there is is presented in a manner approachable to whatever reader just had to Google “MMO” to see what I was talking about. This is the best YA book I’ve read yet this year, so if you’re up for a good one, give it a shot–the ebook is free (as are all of Doctorow’s ebooks).
Similar Reads: Ender’s Game (Card), Wastelands (Adams, ed.)