For the Win, by Cory Doctorow

12 Mar

2010, Tor Teen, ISBN 978-0765322166

Plot Summary: For the Win is a lesson global economics and labor as seen through the eyes of teens playing MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games) and “gold farming” – acquiring gold and magic/rare items in the games, and selling them to players for real-world currency. The gamers are from poor families in third-world countries: India, China, and Singapore, working in deplorable conditions, and exploited by sweatshop bosses who pay pitiful wages. The players form a labor union to gain fair working conditions and pay and attempt to join forces with factory workers, often exploited by the same bosses and working in similar conditions; the retaliation they encounter forms a major part of the conflict.

The story follows several teen gamers: exploited game farmers Matthew, in Shenzhen, China; Mala, in Mumbai, India; and Leonard, a wealthy California teen who goes by the name Wei-Dong when he’s gaming online. Big Sister Nor, a union organizer, approaches Mala via the gamespace to discuss unionizing and Mala resists, feeling that her situation is better than it would be if she weren’t working for her boss. Her friend, Yasmin, decides to join forces with Nor and the union, calling themselves the Webblies after the Wobblies, or the International Workers of the World formed in 1923. Together, they plan to bring down the game economies. Leonard/Wei-Dong ships himself to China in a shipping container to help the Webblies blackmail Coca-Cola Games, owner of the biggest MMORPGs, into allowing their workers to farm gold and sell it to the players. Coca-Cola Games Command Central agrees to their demands and they work together to stabilize the game economy.

Critical Evaluation: The book has a layered narrative, which begins with promise but has trouble maintaining the pace. At times, Doctorow lectures on global economics and trade unions via his characters, and readers may lose interest.

MMORGs are a great way to bring the idea of globalism, economics, and unionization to high school students. This is a group that is spending greater amounts of time online than any previous generation; they’re well-versed in online economies, and there is a chance for them to relate to the younger characters in the story. But even set in the world of online gaming, some readers may struggle to cut through the density of the text, especially when Doctorow begins preaching.

Reviews: School Library Journal: “Cory Doctorow has a way of tackling complicated subjects, such as economics and workers’ rights, in a really honestly, cool format. Video games are something that most teenagers are at least passably familiar with and so they make more sense than abstract explanations. And it’s fantastically well-written—there’s that, too.”

Booklist: “It’s hard to imagine any other author taking on youth and technology with such passion, intelligence, and understanding… He can’t resist the occasional lecture—sometimes breaking away from the plot to do so—but thankfully his lessons are riveting. With it’s eye-opening humanity and revolutionary zeal, this ambitious epic is well worth the considerable challenge.”

Awards: Finalist for Prometheus Award, 2010.

Reader’s Annotation: Play video games. Earn money. It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? It is.

Author Information: Cory Doctorow is a Canadian journalist, blogger and author; he serves as co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. He is an avid advocate for liberalizing copyright law and offers his books free on his website under a Creative Commons agreement. His site links to his podcasts, blog, articles and stories.

Genre: Science fiction/subgenre cyberpunk; political science, unions, workers’ rights, online gaming.

Booktalking Ideas: If someone approached you and told you that you could earn money just by playing video games, would you accept? What if you learned that your boss would demand long hours and you would work in unsafe conditions? Would it change your mind if you came from a poor family and knew that even low pay would still probably earn more to help your family than factory work? The characters in this story are faced with these decisions; when they are contacted by people who want to form a union to protect Web gamers, they’re also faced with the decision to organize and risk being hurt by their former bosses and even the police. How do you think you would handle this situation?

Reading Level/Interest Age: 14-18+.

Challenge Issues/Defense: Smoking, illegal activity, violence, language. Defense – It is a dystopian novel that portrays young workers being exploited and their fight against the machine. Think of them as Robin Hood. As for the smoking and the language, it is not excessive and representative of how teenagers speak.

Why did you include this book in the titles you selected?

Doctorow’s YA fiction has been highly regarded – Little Brother has received rave reviews, I’ve heard Doctorow speak about Creative Commons agreements and copyright law, and seeing that For the Win took place in an online gaming universe, I decided to give that a try first as a way of connecting with my 12-year old, who is an avid online gamer.


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