Volume 29, Number 2, Winter 2011

For the Win

By Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2010
Reviewed by David Wayland

For the Win opens in the midst of several Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), a virtual equivalent of Little Brother’s Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). In MMORPGs players interact with each other and computer created beings and environments, either through internet browsers or specially created applications. These games, like World of Warcraft, Second Life, EVE Online, EverQuest, and a considerable number of other worlds that range from Star Wars to Lego to Pixar’s World of Cars (aimed at the younger set) ad infinitum. These games are extremely popular, especially with males between 18 and 40, but increasingly with females. And especially in the wealthy Western world, where people have the money and leisure time to spend a third of their waking hours or more immersed in their favorite non-reality world.

Some typical elements of these games include guilds or teams of individuals who form together to participate in group raids, bosses at the end of each raid, and a market for virtual goods to level-up their virtual characters. And wherever there is a market, there is opportunity for what Friedrich von Hayek termed catalaxis, a spontaneous self-organizing system of voluntary cooperation. People with money but little time seek the tools needed to gain experience points, special weapons, and other enhancements to their characters. And thus a market appears, where individuals toil away in games not for leisure and fun, but essentially as a way to earn a living; farming gold from games to sell to willing buyers. These gold farmers tend to live in third world countries, especially India, Korea, and China.

Charles Stross covered the dark side of the geeky world of online gaming in his novel, Halting State. Cory Doctorow makes the gold farmers his focus in his 2010 novel, For the Win. And while fascinating as a premise, Doctorow manages to make the subject boring, his characters wooden and sterile—so unlike Little Brother. And, for being a Prometheus Award Best Novel finalist for best libertarian sf novel of 2010, For the Win is nothing if not The Communist Manifesto of the computer age: virtual workers of the world, unite.

Annelee Newitz from io9 wrote an interesting essay reviewing James Cameron’s Avatar, pointing out the Caucasian as savior theme in several movies. Although most of Doctorow’s characters are Asian, there is one exception. Young Leonard Goldberg, a high schooler living in Southern California, is seriously obsessed with online gaming. His guild mates are all Chinese, and Leonard assumes the Chinese name Wei-Dong, and later smuggles himself into China to help his buddies, borrowing perhaps subconsciously the Caucasian savior theme like the characters in Avatar and Dances With Wolves.

Aside from one other main character, Connor Prikkel, who works for the Man overseeing the proper functioning of some online worlds, the other characters are either Indian, Chinese, or from other Asian countries. This is fairly unusual in Western fiction, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the world from their eyes, and perhaps the only aspect that made this novel readable. Some of the other notable protagonists include young gold farmers, teenagers recruited to play games all day for cruel bosses. Matthew Fong in China, one of Wei-Dong’s guild members; and Mala aka General Robotwallah in India, who leads a pack of young players. And then there is Big Sister Nor, in Singapore, who is the focal point of the key plot—the leader in the effort to organize the gold farmers into a union, for as we all know, unions are the key to happiness and success. At the other end stands Connor Prikkel, the least of all evils, who as a lead developer at Coca Cola Games Central (apparently there is no greater bugaboo of consumer imperialism than Coca Cola). Prikkel just wants to police his world and ensure a fair playing field (though in reality consenting gamers who want to exchange real money for fake money is the libertarian virtual equivalent of consenting adults engaging in outlawed behavior). More sinister are the various bosses who rule their young gamers with an iron fist, the exploiters and modern day equivalent of the 19th century capitalists. And behind these bosses stands the power of the state, sent in to crush any small uprising, especially in China.

Riding on the ideological coat-tails of Ken MacLeod, even alluding to MacLeod’s blog title in his dedication, Doctorow’s message-novel sacrifices his characters for long moments of pontification on economics, politics, and third world development. His unionists proudly assume the mantle of the Wobblies (early 20th century labor union members and organizers)—they call themselves Webblies, part of the IWWWW. International workers of the web, in effect. Throw in an underground Chinese female talk show host, Jie, and her radio station directed to female Chinese factory workers, and we have lots of space for Message.

I don’t know Cory Doctorow, but I doubt he’s pushing any libertarian ideas here. I am just not sure why the LFS is pushing this novel as a work of libertarian fiction. That sounds like an award that has lost its mission, or at best, granting Doctorow major leeway for his brilliant (exception?) Little Brother. There are flashes in this novel, those that sketch the excitement of gaming, and one dealing with hi-tech smuggling. Those are few and far between. Certainly that itself was not enough to garner a nomination for the Prometheus Award?

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