(2010) Cory Doctorow, Harper Voyager, £14.99, hrdbk, 400pp, ISBN 978-0-007-352012-2
Okay I confess, I am a computer Ungeek. I don’t have a games console, nor do I play games on-line, the closest my gaming experience goes, is to play 'Bow Master'. Move mouse, pull back mouse, fire arrow, and if I get over 200,000 points per game, I am happy (so let’s not mention that the best Bow Masters get a score of over 400,000). Therefore I am a million miles away from the sort of gaming that Cory Doctorow writes about in his new novel For the Win; namely the world of the MMOMPG –or the Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game – imagine a sort of World of Warcraft vehicle. Then again, I am getting old and decrepit and he is young and hip. (Young enough to be named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, as well as being an obvious internet expert, and co-editor of the Boing Boing news site.) He uses the internet, he knows how it works inside out and he sees the consequences of massive game playing, namely that within these vast gaming worlds there is slave labour – those in poorer foreign countries find themselves tied by contracts or physical threats to amass virtual gold and other valuable objects for a pittance, or just simply to stay out of harm’s way.
In his novel, Doctorow has assembled a cast from around the world which includes teenage players who are part of gold farming teams who gather gold for lazy, more affluent Western players, who would rather spend real money for these virtual treasures rather than waste their own time playing to gather them. While most of these players are in China and India, one American player – Leonard, who calls himself Wei-Dong – lives by day in Southern California as the son of a wealthy shipping magnate, but at night slips around the world to join in on the side of the oppressed gatherers. From rural India we have Mala a fifteen year old expert at virtual combat who is known as 'General Robotwalla', undefeated, until she comes up against…..ah, that would be telling. Meanwhile, in China, young Matthew is building his own team of gold farmers. While an on-line teen rebel, a former garment worker is giving out information and advice that the authorities would rather see repressed and is being financed on the side by Hong Kong businessmen who hate the Chinese government. Added into the mix are shadowy industrialists and financiers, trade unionists and ruthless security experts. The stakes are high and the bad guys will stop at nothing, from beatings to blackmail even to murder to get their way and keep the status quo, where they get richer and the poor stay poor. If things are going to be overturned and our young fighters are to prevail, they must come together and do something audacious and huge, like devising a plan to bring down every virtual world at the same time.
For the Win is Doctorow’s spiritual sequel to his previous novel Little Brother, but this is a bigger brother. Large and bulky, and although fast-paced at times, it has ultimately too many characters whose strands interlink and become blurred and confusing. The book also comes across as a bit preachy and idealistic in places with more than it’s fair share of info-dumping which does not even try to disguise that this is an info-dump. Take some time out from the novel, Doctorow seems to tell us, because here is something I think you need to know, and often it is about the economics of this virtual world. If you did not know anything about 'Ponzi Schemes', or /Coase Wars' you will now. Think less science fiction (but to be fair Doctorow has come up with some wonderfully strange and witty games of his own) and more techno-thriller. To an extent the sorts of goings on in For The Win are happening right and here and now. So bring on the teen rebels, wherever you are, this book is your blueprint, and your time is now!
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