Jan 4, 2011

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s For the Win is a YA novel about the practice of gold farming – acquiring multiplayer online role playing game currency, and then selling it for real money to other players. Gold farming employs an estimated 150,000 people worldwide full time, mostly in developing countries, while the buyers of this virtual gold are mostly located in the developed world. What this means is that the virtual economies of all these online games are in fact very much real: they have measurable consequences for thousands of human beings all over the world. What it also means is that they have become a new arena for age-old power relations between the developed and the developing world to play out.

Gold farming may sound like an unusual topic for a novel, but this is Cory Doctorow we’re talking about here: he can pull off pretty much anything. Plus like with any other topic, if you look under the surface it’s really about people. For the Win is a novel about two girls from Mumbai, Mala and Yasmin, and what they’re willing to do for the sake of their poor families and their friends; it’s about Wei-Dong, a misfit teenager from LA who smuggles himself to China to help his friends; it’s about Jie, a young woman in China who risks her life every day as the hostess of an underground radio show religiously followed by millions of factory girls; it’s about a woman who calls herself Big Sister Nor, a trade union leader who turns her attention to what’s happening online. It’s a novel about power, about the rights of labourers who work and live in subhuman conditions, about idealism and its costs, about economics, and about the effects of all these things on people who may be spread all over the world, but are united for a common cause.

I’m not sure how I’d classify For the Win genre-rise: it’s published by Tor, but (much like its predecessor Little Brother) its premises are almost too real for it to fall comfortably under the speculative fiction umbrella (then again, there is probably a lot of science fiction you could say the same about). Another thing it has in common with Little Brother is the fact that it unapologetically and seamlessly works complex theoretical concepts into a story aimed at teenagers. Doctorow clearly doesn’t underestimate his audience’s intelligence, and I love him for it. While his previous novel was concerned with civil liberties, privacy, and freedom of information, For the Win detailedly explores macroeconomics, inflation and deflation, virtual economies, speculation, social justice, the rights of workers, trade unions, totalitarianism, and so on. The expository passages may occasionally straddle the line between theoretical and lecture-ish, but they never fall on the wrong side of it. Possibly it’s the fact that all the stuff Doctorow is explaining is so vital for the story – and for the world at large, really – that makes it all work. There’s also his writing, which is smart, accessible, and absolutely never tedious – and I say this as someone with no particular predisposition to find economics interesting to read about.

The world of For the Win is not too different from the world of Gaskell’s North and South, for example, despite the centuries and the continents that separate the characters. The economic exploitation of labourers that predominated in nineteenth-century Europe is still happening all over the world, away from the sight of most of those who benefit from it. And this includes gamers. The solution these characters come up with is not boycotting gold farming altogether and leaving thousands of people out of a job; it’s to unite workers online and offline and demand acknowledgement, legitimacy, and fair conditions for all. There’s power in numbers, especially in a world where borders mean increasingly less than they used to.

For the Win is about a group of smart teenagers trying to save the world. They don’t always succeed, but they also don’t give up. The book is quite dark in many ways, and it shows that very bad things often happen to very good people. But at the same time, it’s the opposite of cynical: it shows the real cost of idealism, but it also shows why we can’t give up. I loved it all the more for this ultimate hopefulness: a world in which we give up on the idea of change before we even begin to fight for it is a world that will never move forward at all.

The only reason why I didn’t love For the Win quite as much as Little Brother was because the balance between ideas and storytelling wasn’t quite as perfect here. For the Win feels a little more disjointed, especially for the first half or so. But it’s still an excellent novel, and one I’d recommend to teenagers and adults alike. As is customary with Cory Doctorow’s work, For the Win is available for free download at his website.

Favourite bits:
What was it that made the big and the strong take such sport in terrorizing the weak? Whole groups of boys would do this to girls and even grown women sometimes -- follow them, calling after them, touching them, sometimes it even led to rape. They called it “Eve-teasing” and they treated it like a game. It wasn’t a game, not if you were the victim.
That was the biggest injustice of all, the injustice that had driven her to kick and kick and kick -- this oaf of a boy knew that he could get away with his grabbing and intimidation because she couldn’t afford to stop him. But she had stopped him and she could not -- would not -- be sorry.
“I can talk with Mr Banerjee,” she said. “I have his phone number. He knows that I’m a good worker – he’ll make it all better. You’ll see, Ammaji, don’t worry.”
“Why, Mala, why? Couldn’t you have just run away? Why did you have to hurt this boy?”
Mala felt some of the anger flood back into her. Her mother, her own mother --
But she understood. Her mother wanted to protect her, but her mother wasn’t a general. She was just a girl from the village, all grown up. She had been beaten down by too many boys and men, too much hurt and poverty and fear.

The world’s economy is a runaway train, the driver dead at the switch, the passengers clinging on for dear life as their possessions go flying off the freight-cars and out the windows, and each curve in the tracks threatens to take it off the rails altogether.
There is a small number of people in the back of the train who fiercely argue about when it will go off the rails, and whether the driver is really dead, and whether the train can be slowed down by everyone just calming down and acting as though everything was all right. These people are the economists, and some of the first-class passengers pay them very well for their predictions about whether the train is doing all right and which side of the car they should lean into to prevent their hats from falling off on the next corner.
Everyone else ignores them.

"But people like us get hurt every single day. We get caught in machines, we inhale poison vapors, we are beaten or drugged or raped. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget what we go through, what we’ve been through. We’re going to fight this battle with everything we have, and we will probably lose. But then we will fight it again, and we will lose a little less, for this battle will win us many supporters. And then we’ll lose again. And again. And we will fight on. Because as hard as it is to win by fighting, it’s impossible to win by doing nothing."
They read it too:
Necromancy Never Pays
Presenting Lenore

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. I am very judgemental, it seems. Because when I saw the cover I almost did not read your review thinking it would not be for me anyway (I normally read everything you write, but um.. I shouldn't be online at the moment).

    Reading your post I now know I definitely want to give this a try! And it seems I can quite easily with the free download..

  2. Iris, I think we're all put off by covers sometimes! This one makes the book look a lot more action-y and sci-fi-ish than it actually is. I think there's a lot you'd appreciate both here and in Little Brother (which is also available as a free download!)

  3. I've wanted this for a while now, even though I didn't really know what it was about. (It's Cory Doctorow. I don't need to know anything else). Now I'm pretty well desperate for it. I've developed a growing interest in economics these past few months, and I can't wait to see how Doctorow deals with the subject.

  4. I'm always on the lookout for a book that will snare my son. He is really big into gaming, so this is in the right neighborhood, I'm just afraid the economics part of the story might get too dry for him (and me). I like the author's creativity though.

  5. Memory: I really think you're going to enjoy it. Yay for Cory Doctorow! He really can do no wrong.

    Sandy, I promise it's not dry in the least! I don't know HOW he manages it, but he makes everything feel so vital and urgent and alive. If your son disagrees I'll give you your money back ;)

  6. My son has told me about the practice of gold farming and according to him, those who don't produce like expected are punished severely. I think this book sounds fascinating.

  7. Kathy: Yes, and the book explores that in quite a bit of detail. It's horrifying stuff :\

  8. I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I didn't realize how serious the gold farming is--even after I'd read the book, I had the sense that Doctorow was exaggerating. But I should know better!

  9. Cheers for this, is going on the listof things to get my husband. He's a big fan of Little Brother and reads his blog daily.

  10. I loved his other book, so I got this one from the library, but it looked too much like it was about gaming, so I took it back unread! Maybe I should try again!

  11. I have never heard of goldfarming and think this book sounds amazing and am in the process of downloading it. I never really got the chance to read Little Brother, but both my husband and son did, and they were really rather impressed. I am going to have to make time for this one, as it sounds great!

  12. Oh this does sound interesting, even to someone like me who has never played a video game and has no idea what goldfarming is! I loved Little Brother and am looking forward to having the chance to read this as well.

  13. I've got this on my computer—can't resist a free download! I'm glad to see it focuses on the real-world repercussions of gaming, especially in a labor and economic sense—how interesting! I'll get around it to sometime. :)

  14. I really was surprised by how much I loved reading this one!

  15. While I've heard of gold farming before, I have to admit that I still don't entirely understand it. But with this: "...explores macroeconomics, inflation and deflation, virtual economies, speculation, social justice, the rights of workers, trade unions, totalitarianism, and so on..." you totally sold me! I just hope I'll be able to understand it. :P

  16. I have to agree with Iris that the cover puts me off a little. I know that is rather shallow of me. I haven't read anything by Doctorow, in fact I have actually heard of him before. I do trust your judgement though, so maybe I will look out for the other book.

  17. My son Marc read this one and really enjoyed it. Especially because he is a gamer and could really understand and visualize the world Doctorow created.

  18. The cover scared me off at first :) But your review makes this one sound fantastic (again!). Though this concept of gold farming sounds as real as the stock-market to me (which I somehow still don't really believe in ;) ).
    I love that the author provides a free ebook download, reminds me of some great bands who do the same with their albums.

  19. I am looking forward to reading this at some point. I want to read Little Brother first, though. I have it on my eReader. It is just a matter of finding the time!

  20. I forgot Cory Doctorow makes his books available for free. What a cool guy!

    Also, have you read Auden's poem "The Shield of Achilles"? Those excerpts reminded me of it a little bit.

  21. I've never read this author but it sounds like a cut above your "typical" YA novels that I've attempted. I've never heard of gold farming ... though it doesn't surprise me that something like this would happen.

  22. I enjoyed Little Brother as well as Overclocked, so I'll definitely have to check For the Win out. I love the way Doctorow writes, blending in social issues so deftly. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention!

  23. Nymeth, this is all so new to me. i never knew such a world existed. I really should read this book.

  24. Ha! The rumors are true--you really do compare North and South with For the Win. I haven't read anything by Cory Doctorow but I remember your review of Little Brother. Free to download, huh? Interesting.

    PS--I meant to tweet you the other day, but Happy Birthday Ana!!

  25. How fascinating. That is NOT what I thought the book was about but I'm definitely intrigued now! I thought it was a book about sports. hah.

  26. I've not read any Cory Doctorow before (although I want to), but I wasn't sure about this one.

    Your review though, definitely has me interested!

  27. Jeanne: I couldn't stop clicking the references on the Wikipedia entry... by the sound of it, if he was exaggerating it wasn't by much :\

    Rhinoa: He'll be sure to enjoy it, then!

    Jill: Do try it again! The games are the arena where some of this plays out, but they could easily be factories, 19th century mills or mines, you name it.

    Zibilee: Little Brother is even better, but they're both such great reads. Enjoy!

    Claire: Don't worry about the games thing - like I was telling Jill, they could almost be mentally replaced with a 19th century mill!

    Clare: I hope you'll enjoy it when you do!

    Lenore: He really knows how to make even the most seemingly obscure topics appealing, doesn't he?

    Debi: You DEFINITELY will!

    Vivienne: I should have posted the UK cover... it's actually much nicer :P

    Staci: I think even non-gamers will be fine!

    Bina: Hahaha, exactly - and he does make that analogy in the book.

    Kailana: Do read LB first - it's better, after all :P

    Jenny: It's awesome of him, isn't it? And nope *googles* but I will now :P

    Jenners: I don't think he is, actually, but then again I find most of the YA I read every bit as smart and challenging as adult fiction. What that says about me is up for debate :P

    Erin: I must read Overclocked myself!

    Veens: I wasn't really aware of the extent of it either!

    Trish: lol - they are, yep ;) And thank you for the birthday wishes!

    Amy: lol, can see how you thought that :P

    Darren: Read this and Little Brother asap! You can thank me later :P

  28. Gold farming is something new to me and each time I visit your blog, I learn something new. I wouldn't have been interested in the book because of the cover but your review changed my mind.

  29. The end of the passage about "Eve-teasing," where Mala says she understood her mother was a village girl, was really powerful! I noticed that was one of Doctorow's strengths in Little Brother--presenting teenaged characters with the breadth of interest and observational power to speculate about adults as well as other teenagers. The "teenagers are so self-absorbed, they don't pay any attention to adults" assumption so many YA authors seem to work under is really hackneyed, even if I can't speak for it's accuracy or lack thereof. Doctorow is such a breath of fresh air. I am definitely going to read this book, thank you for your review.


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