Study Guide pairs a lesson plan with a YA graphic novel for shelter-in-place students. The goal is to be a resource of writing prompts and activity ideas that look at the content and message of the comic’s story, its art, and how it was made. Jen Wang’s In Real Life is powerful and visually robust, a story of video game ascension from ally to advocate.
In Real Life
Written and illustrated by Jen Wang
Story by Cory Doctorow
Published by Square Fish
Statement of Intent
IRL is punk. A teenager and an online video game intersect at the concept of workers’ rights? This to me is an evergreen subject. In Real Life stands out to me as a book to read right now, however, in part because the story involves how spending money on virtual products contributes to real living conditions elsewhere on the globe, and in part because the lesson the story’s heroine learns is how empowering it is for everyone to listen.
Study Guide will break down the story into three parts, as well as cover art and the creation of the comic; each part will have ideas and questions that can be used for short- or long-answer written responses from students, classroom discussions, and some activities. I’ve also tried to outline the themes in a way that children who don’t respond to traditional methods can still engage with the content of the book. What is important is finding what the student connects with and developing that, as getting to the end of the book should be (and is) a pleasure, not a chore.
Set the stage with context for the readers. Is this anyone’s first comic book? A great time to go over the idea of panels, thought bubbles, what we expect a comic to be about. This is a story written by one person in prose (Cory Doctorow), adapted to comics by someone else, the cartoonist who also drew it (Jen Wang). You probably won’t have to explain the idea of video games to anyone about to read a comic about them, but it is a chance to connect everyone in the class to the reading (and each other) through their own experiences with computer games.
Feel out what interests the students about the book. That’s what you want to focus on. If it’s the art, skip to the art exercises and come back to the story prompts naturally; the art is just as much a part of the story as the script is anyway. Everything else follows if you can get them to fall in love. It won’t be hard.
In Real Life has been broken into three parts so that readers at any speed have something to work on. In the Square Fish edition of the book, Part One is pages 1-65 (ends with “Where’d you learn to do that?”), Part Two is 66-115 (ends with “ZZZZ”), and Part Three runs from pages 116-175 (ends with [redacted]). “Con/Game” is a bonus story at the end that can be read at the student’s pleasure.
Anda is finally maybe old enough to start playing Coarsegold, an online multiplayer computer game. From a keyboard and headset to exploring a lush fantasy world with the edge of a sword. Her interest and perseverance swiftly get Anda involved in doing things inside the game that pay real money in real life. But Anda doesn’t know who is really playing and who isn’t, or what exactly her job entails.
- Anda’s introduction to the Coarsegold game comes as part of a solidarity group aimed at getting more kids who identify as girls to play video games — as being a gamer girl has been made a burdensome travail in In Real Life as well as in real life. While the book isn’t centered around the problem men are causing everyone in video games, it’s a subject that bears talking over. You want every reader to be aware of what Anda’s experience would be like before the story itself starts to kick in properly.
- Recording your thoughts on the opening is a chance to project and will become an opportunity to reflect. Is being a powerful fighter going to prepare Anda for the conflicts that are to come? Is Coarsegold going to be good or bad for Anda?
- Money and power are both big themes in In Real Life. Anda’s household is on a budget where playing a game like Coarsegold is tricky. The money Anda makes from fighting is important to establish in a local and global context.
- There is a fundamental misunderstanding between Anda and Sarge and what the gold farmers are. These stories where outsiders are miscast as being inhuman are very dangerous. You could talk about how a problem like that might relate to the students’ experience, or to current events, or history.
Accommodation: The principal idea behind the opening of the story is the metaphor of the mask: a persona, a secret, making the choice to hide something. You can use “masks” (explain it, explore it, make some!) to aid students’ understanding of what is happening on the page.
Anda finds friendship in Raymond as her mother finds mysterious monster-slaying activity on Anda’s PayPal account. When she sees her parents’ security threatened by greed and then protected by workers’ direct action, Anda convinces Raymond — whose working conditions overseas are terrible — he should do the same.
- Now that the gold farmers have been established as people like Anda living under different conditions, the students should start visualizing the difference in wealth between her (or Sarge) and Raymond, and discussing the goals of changing system, dream of ideas to get there.
- Design characters you would find in Coarsegold — write about them, draw them, make a mood board, get into what the students would want to be able to be in the video game and walk that conversation into what they feel like they can and can’t do in real life.
- This far into the book, it is crucial to acknowledge that comics are a visual medium and that the art is telling the story as well. Talk about the colors that Jen Wang uses to create a strikingly different feeling between the real world and video games. The pacing — the size and placement of panels to play scenes out in different moods — is another fundamental part of the story’s telling as a comic.
- Anda makes choices influenced by her father’s workplace going on strike. The search for justice for every student out there starts at home, Anda included. Whether or not they find tools to work with is on the teacher.
Accommodation: Understanding relative wealth is key to the middle of In Real Life. Everyone who plays the game needs to have the same amount of money to join, but students need to grasp how different the same can be.
Anda learns from her failure. Do you really want me to tell you the ending? Anda comes right up to the precipice of losing everything, and the real consequences for Raymond are dire on level beyond having a game taken away or a soured friendship. Anda breaks some rules and finds a way to help folks in need break some others.
- It couldn’t have been done without breaking the rules. In Real Life is a great starting point to talk about John Lewis’ advocacy of “good trouble” and the moral obligation we have to resist injustice. This ties into the next prompt, who activists listen to shapes the nature of their activism.
- Anda’s attempt at saving Raymond fails, but after listening to what Raymond needs, Anda uses her resources to facilitate his resistance. The difference between having Raymond conform to what Anda believes is best for him and Anda giving Raymond her power so that he can help himself is her transition from ally to advocate.
- In this part of the book, the color of Anda’s hair is the most subdued in its color when she is struggling the most — and consequently when her actions are at their most crucial for Raymond. You could talk about Jen Wang making choices with color to tell story. You could talk about not waiting for everything to be in the right place to act.
- Is Anda’s heroism something she discovered because of Coarsegold? Take a look at the second question in Part One and respond to the mix of where you were then and are now.
Accomodation: Ultimately Anda’s passion drove her to recognize and resist oppression. She fosters dissent against anything less than unconditional justice. Talk to your students about when a rule is unfair enough that breaking it is something you should do.
The Art of IRL
These are a few approaches to discussing the art of In Real Life. The general idea is to try to connect the specific visual beats the students respond to with their meaning to the story. Talk about the process of how it was done and try doing it.
Color in In Real Life is also texture and depth. It gives life to empty space. It fills up the page without crowding Jen Wang’s lines. Beyond looking at what its technical application does for the page, you can talk about the emotional character color gives to people and places. Color is a significant contributor to Coarsegold the place being a character in the book as rich and complex as the actual characters.
Jen Wang draws curves with a hand that flows, guided by emotion and style over anatomy and realism. Does a cartoony, “young adult” style of storytelling mean that the story being told is less emotional than something inaccessible to all ages? Look at the texture and weight of the lines as they relate to sensations and feelings. How does the line art convey what is delicate, what is intense? How does the lettering effect how you “hear” the text?
How does the art express identity? Look at the difference between the avatars of a Clan Fahrenheit player like Anda and Sarge and a laborer like Raymond or Ah Duo. Many choose the forms of spirits or animals. Character design carries over into what Anda looks like in real life, or Liza the Organiza’s aesthetic. It also flavors the levels within the game of Coarsegold, Jen Wang makes names on a map worth visiting.
You’ll find reminders throughout that this story is a video game being played. Menus drop down, items are put in inventory, health bars are drained, and all seamlessly sewn in to the aesthetic of the book. The experience of playing is shared with the reader, we get to see what Anda sees on the screen without breaking from our immersion in the digital world.
Classroom At Home: “In Real Life”
Not everyone in the classroom right now strictly qualifies as a student. These are a few ideas for anyone who wants to be included in the lessons but can’t yet follow the material. Or if you just need something for them to do.
- Read more comics!
- Jen Wang – Read more Jen Wang comics. Stargazing is about friends’ K-Pop dance moves. The Prince and the Dressmaker is a fairy tale where people wear what they want.
- Susan Kare – Take a look at Susan Kare’s classic icon designs for Apple in the 80s and then make some pixel art of your own.
- Jerry Lawson – Celebrate Jerry Lawson, the pioneer of the video game cartridge, through an act that will age you in every sense of the phrase, teaching young people that video games once came in cartridges.
- Wendy Carlos – Listen to computer music from pivotal figures in the development of the genre like Wendy Carlos, Suzanne Ciani, and Doris Norton.