The internet is one of the most important inventions in human history, and since it went worldwide in the late 1990’s, it has become so ingrained into all of us that imagining how we even got through daily life without it is unfathomable. Everything you could ever want, both legitimately and porn-wise, is at your fingertips, and it has created a communication network that is vast and even a little bit terrifying. People who could not previously communicate with each other can now do it with the greatest of ease, and with the internet, everyone can voice their opinion no matter how dumb or awesome (awesome being “movie blogs” of course). At the same time, the internet is creating adverse effects as well. Simply put, leaving the house to meet people has become almost obsolete, with Facebook and other such networking sites telling everything you want to know about someone in one convenient web page.
With this has also come the rise of the massively multiplayer roleplaying game, or MMORPG for short. In these games, people create an “avatar” (character) and join up with other characters to slay demons, go on quests, or even just hang out (such is the case with the social simulator/creepshow that is Second Life). Second Skin, the 2008 documentary directed by Juan Carlos Piniero Escoriaza (say that three times fast), examines the life of a gamer and how their in-game antics affect their “real world” life. The results are startling, disturbing…and at the same time, sweet.
Second Skin focuses around different facets of the gamer life. The “main characters”, if there any, are a group of four gamers, all guys, who live together in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They live together, eat together, hang together, and play World of Warcraft together, their four computers all within feet of each other. While they try to manage their addiction to the game, they try to battle real life: jobs, love (the ringleader Andy is expecting twins with a woman who resents his gaming habits but loves him enough to suck it up), and all the other trials that go along with existence. Through them (the others are Anthony, Chris, and Matt), you get the real sense of how the game has created a sense of comraderie and friendship, so much so as they find their online pals to be better friends than anyone they had met in real life (case in point: Andy moved to Fort Wayne to live with the three dudes after meeting them online).
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have Kevin and Heather. They live far apart, but when they meet in game on Everquest II, they instantly fall in love and decide to meet in real life. Even in the age of internet dating, falling for someone you meet in a video game is a still a new enough concept that it has a negative stigma to it, but they truly feel for one another. They find that meeting people in game is easier, because it’s easier to open up to a stranger you don’t know in real life than it is to someone you have to see every day. Because of this, gamers who are usually afraid of negative repercussion will let their guards down and finally get to be themselves. Second Skin follows Kevin and Heather as they embark on their new romance.
While gaming is portrayed rather positively, Second Skin does not shy away from the negative aspects too. Meet Dan B. His life was great: he owned a business and house, and had a great girlfriend…until Everquest appeared and shot his world to hell. He became addicted to the point of where he lost everything in his real life, but he couldn’t stop and he even began to see visions of the game when he wasn’t even on it. This addiction leads him to seek counseling, and the doc follows him on the road to recovery and shows what can happen to someone who cannot help themselves from playing and cannot separate the two lives. To go along with how virtual gaming can ruin lives, Second Skin also probes into the lucrative market of “gold farming”. Gold farming is when a company hires a whole bunch of people to continually play one of the MMORPGs, gathering up as much gold (fake in-game currency) as they can. These companies then sell the fake money to gamers for real money, effectively turning a profit. Gold farming is especially popular in China, because of the cheap labor. It’s like a new age virtual sweatshop, with long hours and low pay.
I am not a gamer. I have tried online gaming, but people take it too seriously for it to be fun, and plus, I can find more constructive things to do than cut a dragon in half with an axe (like write movie reviews!). However, the popularity of this subculture and its effect is not lost on me, and Second Skin does a good job at highlighting both the positive and negative aspects, although it skews more positively as the documentary wraps itself up. Facts are presented with animated graphs to get its points across, and all the subjects presented are very interesting. I was especially caught up in the Dan B. story. I used to read about people killing themselves over games or neglecting children because of it, but to watch a real life case unfold was startling. These just aren’t games to people, and growing up in the age when they were, it’s hard to fathom but here we are. To lose so much over something so unimportant, you both feel bad for Dan and at the same time villify him in your mind because he’s throwing his life away. Game addiction is very real, and you could replace Everquest with Heroin, and the message would be exactly the same. It’s scary.
The process of gold farming is also unsettling. We’ve jumped on countries for using cheap labor in sweatshops, but the same thing is occurring, just with a computer instead of a sewing machine. The fact that fake currency is such big business shows the change in our society. People make their livings off of selling fake goods and fake money for real money. They can quit their jobs and live comfortably because of their prowess at an MMORPG.
Second Skin is an eye opener, that’s for sure, but at the same time, your personal thoughts on the matter can cloud your viewing. Many times, I wanted to punch many of these subjects in the face for the decisions they made, especially Andy and the gang who took off work for almost two weeks to level up in the new World of Warcraft expansion. Because of the way I view this stuff and the negative stigma I already had given it in the past due to people I had known, I found myself getting angry with the actions of these people for something that should just be entertainment.
At the same time, I found the romance between Kevin and Heather kind of endearing and, dare I say without handing in my man card, cute. They aren’t the most attractive beings in the world (sorry if either one of you reads this, I’m not that attractive either so don’t worry), and you can get a sense that their social awkwardness in reality didn’t exactly lead to a fruitful dating life. These two souls managed to find each other in a video game, but got personal enough to fall in love for real? I can definitely understand that, and the fact their relationship is able to work (outside of a few normal snags any good relationship has) is wonderful. The documentary also has interviews with other successful couples, and they all say the same thing: their video game life brought out their true selves and helped them find fulfilling love in the real world. Even if you find these people to be a bunch of nerds, love is a wonderful feeling and you feel happy that they could find some happiness for themselves instead of wandering the world alone because the town they lived in didn’t understand them.
Second Skin is captivating, well shot, and presents both sides of the story enough that it lets you form your own opinion, instead of just pushing an agenda. It ends on a positive note, but that’s understandable; this isn’t Precious or anything. If you’ve ever wondered what the allure of MMORPGs were, definitely check this out, it’ll make you understand why people flock to this and may help you understand anyone you know that also indulges…but make sure to also take notice of what can happen if your gaming habit becomes a gaming addiction.