Image via WikipediaGaming is a Big Deal in my family. As a kid, I loved our Intellivision II, until we finally upgraded to a Super Nintendo (still my favorite gaming system). In high school and college, I matured to playing table top role playing games (if you want to hear a story of the Worst Decision Ever made - like, the sort of decision that gets people killed in horror movies - ask about the first time I went gaming with my new college friends. Note: offer does not apply to my mother - I don't want to give the woman a heart attack). Through the man who's now my husband, I discovered MMORPGs - games like World of Warcraft and Second Life (not that he plays either of those - Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes dominate in our apartment). So when I heard Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother, one of my tops reads of 2008), was combining MMOs with the sort of social justice stuff I also love, I was all over it.
Set in the not-too-distant future, For the Win follows several gamers from around the world, all of whom are employed in different ways in gold farming. They work in sweat shop conditions, mostly in India and China, playing for hours every day in order to collect gold and other in-game valuables that can then be sold for real-world money to first world players too lazy or inept to collect the treasures for themselves. The conditions are deplorable, but a step up from the dangerous factory work these children and young adults would otherwise be forced into.
A young woman who goes by the name Big Sister Nor recognizes that the conditions these gamers work under are dangerous and abusive - slave wages, dark and crowded work environments, and threats to family members are all part of the gold farmers' lives. Nor is determined to unionize these workers across the world, gaining the support of real world unions to help protect local gamer unions. But Nor isn't only working against the systems in the game (as gold farming is clearly against the Terms of Service in any game) - after all, she's taking on whole governments when she tries to organize workers in China, and even the small-time bosses in India don't take kindly to children demanding better treatment. It will take the resources and determination of dozens, even hundreds, of players around the world, to give the new system even a hope for survival.
Doctorow clearly knows his stuff, both when it comes to games and to Marxism. Unfortunately, this didn't always come out in the best way. More than once I had flashbacks to college discussions about the benefits of Marxism and unions and the details of various economic theories as characters sounded just like my professors - or worse, the text books. I was glad some of these topics were being explained, as a lot of readers will lack a working knowledge of at least one subject integral to the story, but the way the information was presented was too heavy-handed.
Editing was also a huge problem for this book. Shortly before I read this, Cindy and Lynn at Bookends posted about "bloated 500+ page books," asking where they'd come from. For the Win definitely could have been much shorter - and needed an editor to go through at least one time with a fine-toothed comb, as this had far more than the average number of typos and several repetitive phrases, including repeated definitions of PvP (made more awkward because alternatives like PvE and role playing servers were never mentioned) and warnings of Terms of Service so dense they retained the right to kick you off at any time for any reason (or no reason at all).
There were also way too many characters in play, few of whom got any real development. The cast is as diverse and multi-cultural as you can get, but the lone white American boy was the closest to getting an actual character arc. Also, while I appreciated the attempt at cultural diversity, a lot of the characters from all around the world felt and sounded essentially the same, making the different countries little more than window dressing and not actually an integral part of the characters' backgrounds. It's almost as though the only reason this wasn't just set in America with a generic cast is because you'd have to go a little farther in the future before we'd really believe the military would come in and kill people over a union trying to organize, but we know that happens in China right now.
So while I found the initial idea to be intriguing, unfortunately it fell apart in the execution for me. However, if you're like me and find your curiosity piqued no matter how many critical reviews you see, know that Doctorow not only talks the talk, but walks the walk when it comes to copyright issues, and the novel is available for free download in multiple e-formats, from plain text to Kindle.