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Arise ye gamers from your keyboards!,
This review is from: For the Win (Hardcover)
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Imagine a world where, as well as physical workers being exploited in sweatshops by ruthless bosses, virtual workers, slaving away at their keyboards to collect gold in online games, are exploited by ruthless bosses. (They're collecting gold, of course, for sale to wealthy players who don't have the skill or patience to do it for themselves). That's this world. Now imagine that the "virtual" workers band together to stand up for their rights. They strike. When the bosses bring in strikebreakers to take over, they form picket lines within the games. Then imagine that the real and virtual workers stand together in solidarity. When the bosses attack the strikers in the "real" world, they hit back in the virtual one.
That could be this world to. It is the basic plot of Cory Doctorow's epic new novel. But the book is more than that. It reminds me of Dickens in its breadth and its portrayal of rotten working conditions, grotesque bosses and lives blighted by poverty. Or - and this is an intensely political book (in a good way) - Engel's The Condition of the Working Class in England. The portrayal is vivid and includes stories and episodes that read very much as taken from life. But, of course, the point is not to understand the world but to change it. Doctorow introduces us to a cast of characters - union organizer Big Sister Noor, Jiandi, a broadcaster in China (who also describes herself as sister to the factory girls who she advises on her underground radio show); Mala and Yasmin, living in the slums of Bombay - who are determined to change things. Hard choices cannot be avoided. The option of absolution - of saying "this is terrible, I'm so sorry, please forgive but I can't get involved" - is disdainfully refused. "Which side are you on?" this book asks.
Linking all these vividly drawn characters is the world of gaming, which is not only what they do but how they meet. Doctorow doesn't see the gamers as passively consuming their games and needing to be roused to the real world but as a force within their game worlds and so in the real world.
Nor does he see the two worlds as distinct. Life is play, play is life. "It's all a game" says one character. "Everyone plays it because they've played it all their lives." There are echoes of another book I read recently New Model Army in which the Army of the title is an assembly of citizen soldiers, providing their own weapons and directing their tactics by a form of Wifi enabled democracy - not unlike the gamers in "For the Win. In fact, amidst a lecture about the "Coase cost", the cost of organizing an enterprise or project, Doctorow makes the link. "big institutions with a lot of money and power can overcome high Coase costs: a government can put 10,000 soldiers on the battlefield.. you and you buddies cannot..." That book is well worth a read for one take on what could happen when citizens gain the power to mobilize like that. "For the Win" presents another.
While it might sound unlikely that a story with such a central political message - and which frequently steps aside from plot for lectures on inflation, the place of gold in economics, organizational theory and always, always more politics - can also be a page turner, it is. Thought provoking, entertaining, exciting - a book that, once picked up, is hard to put down again till you're finished.