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Review: For the Win by Cory Doctorow

I don’t play MMORPGs. I never have. They’re just too big for me. If I’m going to play a RPG, it’s going to be something I can play by myself, with lots of cut-scenes and a hint book — because, in my opinion, the best part about RPGs isn’t figuring out that you need to combine the Widget of Destiny with the Wilted Flower to create a Magical Key of Awesomeness. It’s playing the game like an interactive movie with battle sequences.

Which is why I love Final Fantasy VII and X so very much.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t also thoroughly enjoy Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, For the Win.

For the Win, ostensibly a YA novel (I’d say “mature YA”), contains some pretty heavy concepts, most of them dealing with economics, gaming, labor, employee rights, and the way totalitarian governments deal with lawbreakers. But fortunately, that’s not all it’s about.

For the Win follows a few major characters and spans the entire near-future Earth (much in the same way that Doctorow’s Little Brother was just around the corner in terms of its timeline). In California, Leonard Goldberg dreams of going to China to meet his guildmates in Svart… Svartal… Some-Long-Viking-Word Warriors. In Atlanta, Connor Prikkel works to protect Coca-Cola’s games division from people who game the system. In India, Mala forms an army to take on gold farmers at the behest of the games companies themselves. In China, Matthew Fong uses his savant-like strategies to get the best stuff from games. Also in China, we have Jiandi, a radio host very popular with the downtrodden factory girls — the young women who make a huge amount of stuff Westerners take for granted. And then, I believe in Indonesia or Malaysia, we find the trio of Big Sister Nor, Justbob, and The Mighty Krang, who just want gold farmers to have the same rights as everyone else.

Far more complicated than Little Brother, For the Win requires readers to keep all these characters and their motivations straight in their heads, while also keeping track of the different game worlds in which they all play. S-Word Warriors, Mushroom Kingdom, and Zombie Mecha are the three main ones, but Doctorow also gives us glimpses into others, such as Magic of Hogwarts, which I for one would really like to play. But like Little Brother, For the Win educates as well as entertains. Most gamers have at least heard of gold farmers, of boys and young men in China playing games to make money and get big items that can be sold to people who don’t have eight hours a day, every day, to level their characters up. What For the Win does is reminds us that these gold farmers, while they do get to play games all day, are still doing work, and if they’re in one of the many countries where workers don’t have rights… well, things can get ugly. Especially if they demand what even the most slacker teen working at Taco Bell has here in the U.S. (and much of the West).

It’s a big concept, and not something that every YA reader will be able to wrap his or her head around. Doctorow does a great job of breaking down the economics and the labor issues into understandable chunks, but I don’t think a tenth-grade teacher could give this book to an average English class and expect all the students to grasp everything as well as, say, a college freshman or early-30s writer could do. Not the author’s fault; like I said, these are big concepts, much bigger than Little Brother‘s relatively-simple “freedom to do what we want, without being spied upon, so long as we’re not harming anyone” message.

This book is also pretty violent. Kids are hurt, and even killed; there’s one scene where a murder takes you completely by surprise because you’re expecting something different to happen. The police beat and jail young teens and adults alike. There’s riots, narrow escapes, unjust imprisonments, and a disproportionate number of kicks or punches to the groin area — for a book as short as For the Win, I really did notice it. I guess that’s intentional — not every YA reader has been beaten up by the police, but I’m going to bet that most boys, by the age of 18, have taken at least one shot to the nads and can therefore identify with the pain the characters are going through.

I realize now that this review has been fairly dark so far, which isn’t fair to the tone of the book — Doctorow’s writing is quick and witty, full of contemporary phrases that the intended audience will totally grok. And there’s lots of hopeful moments, such as when Leonard realizes his dream only to find out that what his parents were putting him through was nothing compared to the lives his friends in China have to deal with, and then watching him rise to the occasion. Plus the irrepressible good humor of Jiandi, Ashok’s insistence that everything is going to be all right if only people listen to him, and of course the ending. I can’t tell you much about it, because it would be spoiler-y, but if you’ve ever read a YA novel where kids are the heroes and adults are the villains, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea what happens.

I really enjoyed For the Win, and I enjoyed it even more because Doctorow makes all his books available for free on his website. I read this as a PDF on my iPad — the first electronic book I’ve read for pleasure* — and if you have a device that can read PDFs, you can just download it. But that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with picking it up in the store. I’m fairly certain that most people have done so (or at least bought a Kindle/Nook version).

I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone just picking up Doctorow for the first time (although it is pretty accessible). However, if there’s a gamer in your life that you want to start reading books instead of killing orcs, this is definitely one to buy. Technically-minded people will also appreciate the level of detail and research in the novel, and genre readers will see all of this happening just around the corner.

For the Win. Full of win.

* I had to read Wealth of Nations on a website for one of my seminar courses in college. White Courier font on a black background. My eyes hurt. A lot.