Monday, July 19, 2010

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

Posted by Simcha 11:04 AM, under | 7 comments

Today I have for you a guest review from Baruch Speiser who often reviews books for my website. For the Win looks like a really great book and I hope to get to read it myself one day soon, but in the meantime here's Baruch's opinion of Cory Doctorow's newest book...


For the Win is another brilliant piece by Cory Doctorow. Like his previous work, Little Brother, Doctorow aims technology in the face of politics. This time around, he places the economy front and center, using the worlds of massive multiplayer online roleplaying games (thankfully abbreviated as MMORPGs) as a basis for understanding the economy.

The story follows the tale of factions of gamers who are being paid to pit against each other, until finally someone convinces them that they are all being exploited and should demand better treatment. Skeptical? Honestly, so was I – and I’m a true geek. For those of us in the safety of Western democracies, the importance of a virtual economy on real life is hard to swallow. Yet Doctorow does an elegant job of changing our perspective: for the poor citizens of Shenzhen, China; or Dharavi, India; the virtual economy can be more important than the real one.

The plot is complex and sprawling, and there are a large host of characters, but the story focuses around three groups – General Robotwallah in Dharavi, Los Angeles teenager Wei-Dong and his gamer friends in Shenzhen, and Big Sister Nor and her sidekicks in Singapore.

General Robotwallah (real name: Mala) is saved from poverty when a mysterious businessman realizes she has a talent for defeating foes in an online world called Zombie Mecha. He hires her and her friends to hunt after rival factions of professional game players. Soon, Mala is making enough money so that she and her mother can afford to live comfortably – which means finding a place with indoor plumbing. It’s too good to be true – until an associate of her employer begins to make inappropriate advances.

Wei-Dong (real name: Leonard Goldberg) plays online games because he finds it entertaining, and he joins up with a crew of professional Chinese players. Matthew, Lu, Ping, and others work for Boss Wing in Shenzhen, China. Boss Wing owns a “gold farm”: a factory where rich Americans decide that they don’t want to spend fifty hours of boring playtime getting all the fanciest online weapons and amassing a hoard of gold. No; these rich Americans decide that they’re not patient enough, so they outsource their game-playing to a bunch of Chinese until they’ve got a sufficiently strong virtual warrior. Matthew decides that he’s done working for Boss Wing, and he’s going to start his own game-playing business.

For thirty bucks, his clientele can get their game god, and Matthew can buy 561 bowls of pork dumplings. Not a bad deal for playing games – until Boss Wing sends two goons over to crush him, throw him back into the factory, and force him to play twenty-two hours straight. At the end of the day, Boss Wing takes all the real cash for himself, along with all the in-game treasures and gold that can be auctioned of on the open market. His workers get a place to sleep – all eighteen of them in a small room – and what to eat while they play, seven days a week, eighteen hours a day. If they don’t give him their gold and treasure, he shoots them. When they complain, the police shoot them.

When Big Sister Nor introduces herself to them through an MMORPG, she convinces General Robotwallah and Matthew from Boss Wing’s factory to unionize and demand better treatment. Within a short time, the gold farming factory bosses like Wing are sending thugs and gangs after Nor and her associates.

Sound ridiculous? Absurd? Even a little crazy? Maybe, but it’s all true. There are professional gamers in China, people who are forced to play World of Warcraft or EverQuest all day and night because someone else is willing to pay for that service. Doctorow builds on this idea, building a convincing picture of the actual world: virtual economies are real.

At any given moment, thousands of virtual items can be bought on Ebay, from virtual dolls to virtual trading cards. Even the Supreme Court of Korea has weighed in on the relationship between real and virtual currency. Doctorow does an excellent job here, guiding the reader through the messy complexities of modern gaming and the equally muddy waters of modern finance. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (the authors of Freakonomics) would be very proud.

For The Win is an extremely compelling work. I couldn’t put it down. The characters are deep, the action is surprisingly real, and the gamerese doesn’t bog down the story. While the individual subplots are less cohesive, the overall story is well-crafted and quickly paced. Stylish, sassy, provocative, and intense, For The Win does indeed win.


Being forced to play video games all day - that sounds like my son's dream career. I didn't know such a world existed!

Wow...that sounds like a dreadful plot. But the fact you found it immensely enjoyable may mean it warrants a closer look. Good review!


This sounds somewhat similar so Cory Doctorow's Anda's Game which was my favourite of his podcast books.
At first it was a little complicated and involved for someone like me who doesn't play MMORPGs but I enjoyed it.

I look forwarding to reading this new one.

StephanieD: I didn't know you had a son! I feel that there is so much I don't know about you...You really need to post more personal stuff on your blog :)

BStearns: Really, You don't like how the plot sounds? I think it sounds really intriguing, even though I'm not much of a gamer. I'm definitely looking forward to reading this book, I just need to get it back from whoever borrowed it from me this time.

Esther: I haven't yet read anything by Doctorow, though I've heard great things about Little Brother. I figured this book can't be too complicated if it's YA, plus the research he did for it is fascinating.

I used to be a gamer, but not so much anymore. However there is just something about the way this seems presented that makes me want to run in the other direction. But, when you do get it read let me know how it is and I'll go from there. Cheers.


For The Win is such a great book! And i think it might be based on Anda's Game, I remember hearing Doctorow was planning to expand that short story, but I don't remember what it turned into.

This is definately one of those books where the plot is about teenagers, and gaming, and business deals and money. .. but it turns out it's not really about any of those things.

I recently heard some public schools are hoping to get Twilight on the summer required reading classes. . . why can't they discover some Doctorow and put THAT on the required reading lists?

Redhead: Wow, schools must be pretty desperate to get kids to read if they are adding Twilight to reading lists. You're right, Doctorow would be a much better choice.

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