Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) used to be a teen niche of Internet gaming. MMORPG have become, in Cory Doctorow’s new novel, a sub-culture as powerful as real world economies, leaking riches from make-believe to reality. For the Win, Doctorow’s latest, takes place in the real world thoroughly interlaced with cyber-culture. It is the 1984 of 2010, and it’s scary.
For the Win is a YA novel, and experienced young readers who embraced Harry Potter’s complicated universe should find this one satisfying. It also fits the adult fiction audience like a glove.
What happens when real world money-manipulators and power mongers discover real profit in virtual economies of MMORPGs? The moniker massively multiplayer is no exaggeration — millions of players interact with each other in real time on huge warring worlds. Players get sucked into cyber-cultures and these worlds become as real and competitive as everyday life. Relationships form, rivalries boil, and acquisition of virtual money, property, possessions, and power is very serious.
In the novel, we meet Mala and Yasmin in India. Country girls, they’ve been raised in poverty and taught never to aspire. They stumble upon MMORPGs in a cyber cafe and discover their own innate brilliance as they learn war and commerce strategies. The two girls build an army of winners, seemingly unbeatable. A man lusting after wealth notices their abilities and offers them money beyond their dreams.
In China, a gang of 14 and 15 year-olds, struggling to survive, work exhausting hours in a gaming sweatshop for subsistence wages. They harvest MMORPG virtual gold and treasure. Their boss sells it for big bucks on black cyber-markets. The boys, giddy with their own prowess and virtual power, rebel, take their talents to a cyber cafe, and attempt to compete with the boss. He is not happy, and he has no scruples.
Meanwhile, Leonard, a reclusive California teen from a comfortable family, hooks up online with the gang in China. Idolizing the freedom and excitement he thinks his virtual friends have, he loses himself in gaming. His grades plummet. He has no friends. He’s expelled from school. He is unimpressed.
Leonard — Wei-Dong in virtual reality — is a gaming pro, a legend in his own mind. He vows, at 16, to make his own way by virtue of his prowess. Leonard sees his moment, and takes it. He runs away from his family to live on potato sandwiches and soda pop as he develops a cyber Ponzi scheme he knows will make him rich. Later, as a stowaway, Wei-Dong heads for China and a piece of the excitement, not knowing his friends are running for their lives.
Ominous events in motion span the world, in fact, span multi-worlds. Young people tangle with nefarious characters you would expect to meet in Grimm’s grimmest fairy tales. Organized crime mixes with unethical law enforcement, and they combine with the arms of big business and small government. One by one, these teenagers are lured into real-world crime. They are hired to play their MMORPGs not for fun and escape, but for greed and dominance. We follow them across countries, on motorcycle chases, and into the depths of virtual worlds colliding with real worlds.
Doctorow is a storyteller. His prose is fluid and exciting, but For the Win is not easy to read. You will learn more about computer gaming than you might want to know. We learn about world economies, both real and virtual. We see how labor unions form and are smashed. We finally understand how technology impacts every corner of our lives, every relationship we have, every ripple and wave across global politics, economics, and business.
There is a lot of jargon to deal with. Without some exposure to online gaming, you’ll find it challenging to slog through slang. Characters pontificate to each other about politics, philosophies of gaming, and economics. He could have trimmed a bit and the book would not have suffered. We get a distinct sense of place from back alleys of China, to rural India, to the U.S. and into cyberspace. This is not an easy read, but we find it even more difficult to put down, and the challenge is a pleasure.
For the Win is a hell of a story that keeps moving. It has the pacing of Indian Jones, coupled with the lessons of Horatio Alger, and a feel as contemporary as Harry Potter. If you’ve read Doctorow before, you won’t be disappointed. If you haven’t, like me, you’ll feel compelled to search out his other work.
Maryan Pelland is a certified book ghostwriter/writer specializing in and writers’ issues and baby boomer tech. Her byline has appeared more than 400 times in major publications in print and online. You can contact her at: maryan[at]ontext[dot]com.