Cory Doctorow talks gaming and sci-fi culture

Although Cory Doctorow doesn't self-identify as a gamer, he's certainly put in more than his fair share of /played at the keyboard and console. Doctorow's specialty, his uniquely savvy take on pop culture and technology, synthesizes ideas and spits them out to an ever-expanding internet audience. An activist and vocal supporter of Creative Commons, a journalist and blogger, and a new father along with his wife, gaming standout Alice Taylor, Doctorow is perhaps most widely known as co-editor of Boing Boing and author of such science fiction novels as Makers and Little Brother.

Doctorow's latest young adult novel, For the Win, pries open the seams of the shady scene behind MMO gold farming. Its young protagonists are gold farmers and gamers themselves. Doctorow has woven his own experience and sensibilities with focused research to outline a world of gold farming that sprawls far beyond the lines of cartoon-image gold farmers that most of us have painted in our heads. We chatted by phone with Doctorow for this conversation about gaming culture and his recent fiction, plus a lengthy companion piece on gold farming at our sister publication WoW.com.
Massively: I know you've said there's no need to play video games 70 hours a week or more in order to legitimately call yourself a gamer anymore. What do you think is the distinguishing factor in being "a gamer" today? Is it hours played? Is it an outlook? What is it?

Cory Doctorow: So science fiction had this problem long before gamers did, right? It used to be that science fiction was a kind of cult phenomenon, and if you were a science fiction fan, you were part of an in-group, and you were also kind of a "persecuted religious minority" and so on. And actually, science fiction fans got off on that, too. Being an in-group who's persecuted is actually kind of fun while you're huddled down with all of your friends, right? It makes all the pleasure a little sweeter.

Then we had to recognize that although not everybody read science fiction novels or went to science fiction conventions, that the single most popular genre of entertainment overall was science fiction -- you know, TV, movies, games and so on ... science fiction and fantasy. By the standards of science fiction fandom when it began, every person on the planet was a science fiction fan.

And then we had to specialize our definition of science fiction fandom: "Oh, yeah, they like science fiction, but they're not a Capital-F Fan." I think gaming's got the same problem.

I was 8 years old when I first saw Pong. My neighbor across the street, Mark Leiberman, got it; he had the cool parents that not only subscribed to Hustler but also got Fresca in their living room bar fridge and got a Pong machine. And so I started playing video games with like the first-ever generation of video games, the cave painting equivalent of video games. And now under my television, we've got three or four consoles that represent the jet engine of video games, and I have been alive and had a moderate to heavy exposure to every single kind of video game ever made -- and I'm not a gamer! Right? Like I'm not a Capital-G, heavy-duty gamer. I'm just a 38-year-old.

You'd be pretty hard-pressed to find a 38-year-old who wasn't, by that definition, a gamer, who wasn't a small-g gamer who hadn't basically logged 10,000 hours playing innumerable games including text adventures and 8-bit arcade games and side-scrollers and MMOs and shoot-'em-ups and first-person shooters and everything in between. My mom is a gamer. My mom has logged hundreds of hours with various kinds of 8-bit video games and casual games and so on, without ever considering herself a gamer.

So at the end of the day, when you start to figure out who's really a gamer -- once you win, once games are everywhere and ubiquitous and everyone plays them, although people don't necessarily self-identify as gamers -- you end up in this weird thing where you end up being like the punk kids in high school who spend all their time arguing about who isn't really a punk: "Oh, that guy's just a poser." So I would say, I like inclusive definitions. I would say, if you want to call yourself a gamer, you have my official blessing as a bona fide science fiction writer to call yourself a gamer.

I take it that you don't think of gaming as an alternative activity or lifestyle anymore, that it's not outside of the mainstream anymore.

No, it really isn't. I mean, it's out of mainstream respectability, but it's not outside of the mainstream as an activity. It's pretty firmly in the mainstream now. We think of gamers as kids or as adults for whom it's a lifestyle. But you know, the average FarmVille player is a woman in her 50s with a GED or equivalent. It's not 12-year-olds playing FarmVille. So it really is mainstream; it really is something we all do.

It's not highbrow. It's the same with science fiction; it's generally not considered highbrow. And any time anyone makes something that really is highbrow and science fiction, immediately the intelligentsia and the establishment declare that it can't really be science fiction, because it's too good to be science fiction. So they try to take Octavia Butler or Ray Bradbury or Jonathan Lethem away from us and say, you know, "That's not science fiction. All the stuff that I don't like is science fiction; the science fiction stuff that I do like is just literature."

And of course, that happens with interactive media and games too. And so we say, "Jane McGonigal's totally awesome, educational ARG games aren't really games, they're educational! They have redeeming social character!" There are lots of examples of this. Heavy Rain -- "Oh, that's not really a game; it's a beautiful story that will make you cry. It has nothing to do with rolling that ball until the centipede's eaten all the mushrooms, so it can't be a game!"

Let's turn to your own latest book, For the Win. What has been the response from the gaming industry?

Well, pretty positive. I think everybody likes to read novels or see stories in which they can recognize themselves and the things that they love, especially if they do something that has often been a minority pastime or it was thought of as kind of lowbrow or whatever. (It's) the same way that people from second-tier cities loooove to see fiction that's set in their cities. Growing up in Toronto, almost every time you saw Toronto in the movies, it was New York, right? But every now and again, you'd see Toronto as Toronto, and it would just make your heart sing.

So yeah, by and large, people have been pretty excited, I think.

For the Win originally sprang from a short story and at one point, you thought it was going to become a graphic novel. Do you have any plans to still head that direction?

Nothing right now, although the short story that preceded this, Anda's Game, that I kind of wrote as a warmup for this, really, has been bought by First Second, which is a great graphic novel publisher. It's a division of Macmillan, and they're going to be doing a full-length graphic novel based on it. I just had breakfast with the editor ... and he's really excited about it. They do great graphic novels.

And you have another book coming up that I understand you're thinking of as a threesome of Little Brother, For the Win and your next book, Pirate Cinema, is that right?

That's right. So Pirate Cinema is a book that was inspired by this terrible new law we've just passed in the UK called the Digital Economy Act. And among other things, the DEA makes it possible for an entertainment executive to have your entire family disconnected from the internet by accusing you of infringing on copyright without having to even prove that you've done anything wrong. This is pretty drastic. Not only could you or I not do our jobs without internet access, but there are whole kinds of public life that you can't conduct well without internet access. Poor families in the UK who have internet access, immediately their nutrition improves, their kids are more apt to go on to tertiary education, they get better grades, the parents get better jobs because they can more easily search the job market ... You know, even things like getting involved in politics. The last American president wouldn't be in office if it wasn't for the ability of his supporters to use the internet to come together. So this is really the death penalty for your participation in the information society.

So Pirate Cinema is a neo-Dickensian novel about kids who leave home because they've had their family disconnected from the internet, and they want to spare their parents the shame of living with a downloader. And they move to London, and they become a youth gang. And they call themselves "the Jammie Dodgers," and they make their own movies by remixing existing movies. They say, "We don't need Hollywood anymore; it's given us all the raw material we need to make the next kind of movie. And if having Hollywood means that we allow our society to be destroyed by these bad laws, then we'll make movies this way from now on." And that's kind of the premise of the book.

One last question, another about writing: I'm wondering what's brought you to the young adult audience for these books? It's the chicken or the egg -- which came first, the target audience or the topics themselves?

Well, I had some friends who'd written young adult novels and really reported just [how] exciting and fun it was. Writers like Kathe Koja and Scott Westerfeld and so on. They were just really enthusiastic about how much fun it was. So I started keeping an eye out for interesting subjects, things that might make good young adult novels. So I guess it was in the back of my mind. So when I came up with Little Brother, it really seemed to me it would make a good young adult novel. I mean, it doesn't have to be a young adult novel; it's marketed in the UK as a novel for adults. And I think that's true of all young adult novels. A young adult novel doesn't mean, "This is a book that only young adults will enjoy." It means, "This is a book that doesn't contain anything inappropriate for young adults." It's a very different prospect.

And so it just seemed like the natural story. And now that I've done one, I just can't seem to stop.

Read more on gold farming from this exclusive interview with Cory Doctorow at our sister publication, WoW.com.