[At the recent SXSW conference in Austin, a screening was held for a documentary film by Juan Carlos Piniero titled Second Skin, and Jessica Maguire provided Gamasutra with this review of the film, which presented the true stories of individuals whose real lives were touched in different ways by their experiences in online worlds.
The title, Second Skin, seemed to imply this film documentary would address Linden Lab’s Second Life and the general impact of virtual worlds on personal identity. As the lights dimmed, I was excited to explore how interactive media is changing our experience of ourselves. But instead, I just wound up feeling sorry for the losers playing World of Warcraft
Not that I think WoW
players are losers -- I don’t. But if my only contact with them were this film, I would.
As gamers with an avowed fondness for their documentary subjects, how did the filmmakers manage to boil 400 hours of footage and 900 pages of transcripts into such an unsavory treatment of virtual worlds? Thankfully, the film’s press kit offered some answers. One should not have to read the press kit, however, to derive a filmmaker’s vision.
It seems director Juan Carlos Pineiro, was inspired to make the film after witnessing a close friend’s problematic relationship with the online MMO Star Wars Galaxies
. Researching the matter, he found several websites bringing self-proclaimed gaming addicts and gamer widows together to share stories and seek help. Having just formed a documentary company with his college roommate and his brother, Pineiro decided they had the makings of a film.
Two months after starting the documentary project, the team met Dan Bustard. In a tale reminiscent of that South Park episode, Bustard used to urinate in a bottle while playing 14-16 hours a day online. He lost his relationship, business, and house.
At the beginning of the film, Bustard has no income and is selling his possessions to pay the internet bill. We watch him go in and out of an ad-hoc 12-step recovery program, eventually restructuring his life (possibly as a result of being filmed over time). He quits gaming, loses 80 pounds, and comes to see even a rainy winter day as more enjoyable than “being in a computer.” Sadly, over the same time period, Bustard’s buddy, a soon-to-be-dad, cracks out 18 hours a day and gains 50 pounds.
Although Pineiro claims his view of MMOs changed as he made the film, Second Skin still reads largely as indictment. It starts out sweetly, with the notion that virtual worlds allow the dead-end-jobber to get away from it all and be powerful. Players describe the synthetic world as a frontier, a place where everyone starts at the same line. Backed by a booming epic soundtrack, the opening scenes make MMOs seem quite enticing. Who doesn’t want to look bad-ass?
But the film is largely a freakshow parade, punctuated by statistics that hint at much larger trends. Virtual games are a $20 billion per year business. One half of MMO players consider themselves addicted. One out of three female gamers date online, where the ratio is one woman for every ten men.
We are introduced to Heather Cowan as she travels from Florida to Texas to meet her online sweetheart, Kevin Keel. The couple first met as a cleric and a knight slaying dragons on the Peaks of Everfrost, in the virtual world of Norrath in EverQuest
. Pretty heady stuff. As she descends the airport escalator in highwater jeans and clunky sneakers, we wonder how he will receive the real her. “You’re a whole lot shorter than I thought you’d be,” he says. Four months later, amidst some possible red flags, they move in together.
Next up, Andy Belford plays six hours each night and nine hours per day on the weekend. His wife Karalee Belford logs him in before he even gets home so he can start playing right away. Their neighbors Anthony Cronin, Chris Mitchell, and Matt Ellsworth are also avid WoW
players, logging 40-plus hours per week. When the guys make a bachelor party trip to Vegas, one remarks how he’d rather be playing WoW
. “I’ve out-leveled this content,” he says. Later in the film, Andy and Karalee welcome twin babies into their lives. They joke -- sort of -- about parenting versus gaming time.
The issues I found most compelling, however, were given far less screen time. Liz Woolley founded the 12-step recovery program visited by Dan Bustard as a result of personal family tragedy. Without giving anything away, the incident she describes raises important questions about gender and sexuality – and not only in virtual worlds.
That thread and two others seemed most promising for what I’d hoped this film would be. As a mirror to the physical world, virtual worlds are environments where “real world” issues get played out. Edward Castronova, author of Synthetic Worlds and Exodus to the Virtual World, posits that people’s flight to the virtual environment is a condemnation of the world we’ve made out here. That may be, but to what extent are inhabitants recreating the very same inequalities?
Back in 2002, Julian Dibbell published a piece in Wired magazine called “Unreal Estate Boom, or, The 79th Richest Nation on Earth Doesn't Exist
.” In it, he revealed some staggering statistics about the real-dollar buying and selling of imaginary items used in MMOs. Second Skin updates us on that phenomenon, interviewing employees of Yeh! For Games
The U.S. corporation hires Chinese gold farmers to play World of Warcraft
, get items, and sell them for real world currency. Want to level up in a hurry? Outsourcing makes your virtual life even easier! Never mind that most of the more than 100,000 Chinese workers get paid very little and spend 20 hours a day “playing” with maybe one day off each month. (Yeh! insists it offers a better environment than most, and the film shows workers on company outings to Monkey Island and karaoke night.)
On the other hand we have stories about people like Andrew Monkelban, who Pineiro met online. At the time, both had wings. They enjoyed each other’s company, and it was weeks before Monkelban revealed his physical condition to Pineiro. Monkelban is mute, almost completely paralyzed by Cerebral Palsy, and only able to express his personality through his right index finger. Their “real life” meeting was awkward and uncomfortable for Pineiro, who had a difficult time reconciling the vibrancy of Monkelban’s online persona with the unmoving and silent shell that is his physical self.
Pineiro’s subsequent epiphany is this. If we can view the freedom virtual worlds provide to disabled people as a positive thing, then why wouldn’t that hold for non-disabled people? The socially awkward, those deemed physically unattractive, and even those who just haven’t met anyone they connect with in this realm – don’t they deserve access to a larger group of potential friends?
Andy Belford keeps it simple. When people suggest his time might be better spent on things other than the MMO, he counters that their time might be better spent on things other than going to the bar, or watching football, or working on their car. In other words, we all have our vices and hobbies.
Pretty flat ending, if you ask me. Beyond my disappointment that the film never even mentioned Second Life, I was bummed that the most interesting aspects of this new medium were barely explored. How we experience ourselves is unarguably impacted by our relationship with virtual worlds and MMOs. The physical world still waits, however, for a film that fully explores these issues.