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Second Skin

Second Skin is a documentary examining the lives of those who are migrating into virtual lives, over and above the physical ones. Produced in 2007, it took a year to film, as the filmmakers followed a number of disparate groups of individuals, and the effect that this had on their lives.

That said, if you are looking for a realistic, balanced view of virtual life, look elsewhere. This has to be one of the most bleak, soul-destroying and depressing documentaries on VR, ever put to film.

It looks at three virtual environments. Two of them are MMORPGs, the third is a social VR. They are:

World of Warcraft
EverQuest II
Second Life
Social VR

Although, if you were not familiar with Second Life, you'd never catch the latter's inclusion. As it is, the first time this world is addressed by name, is during the end credits. The action focuses on World of Warcraft for the most part, with some excerpts from EverQuest 2 scattered throughout.

The documentary is roughly divided up into sections:

  1. The first thirty-five minutes stay mostly with the groups the filmmakers followed, exploring their lives.

  2. Then we move onto a segment discussing the virtual economies of these worlds and the knock on effects in the outside world, discussing gold farming predominantly. This is interspersed with more input from the groups followed, and continues for 25 minutes.

  3. Next we have a 12 minute segment on disabled users of VR and how it empowers them to escape the confines of a dysfunctional body. This includes a brief segment with a young man with no voice.

  4. Finally we move on to a closing 20 minutes with the groups followed, again.

It is interesting and mildly irritating to note that of the groups being followed, none possessed a disability, which the VRs could help alleviate, and all were exclusively MMORPG gamers. The disabled users and the positive uses being corralled to the closing half hour of the film, interspersed with talk of suicides, did not make for a balanced and fair viewpoint.

The Groups

You would be hard pressed to find a collection of people who portrayed a more 'stereotypical gamer' feel, if you really, really tried. Every single one was markedly overweight and sedentary. Most were unemployed. Whilst the filmmakers did get some points disconcertingly accurate, their choice of study group showed open bias from the get-go.

There are three main groups, with a collection of side stories. The groups consist of:

  1. A hopelessly addicted World of Warcraft player who loses everything in his life except World of Warcraft, then eventually loses that too.
  2. A household of gamers who spend almost every waking, non-working hour playing World of Warcraft.
  3. A young couple in the early, tentative physical-world stages of a romantic relationship that blossomed in EverQuest 2.

Gaming in EverQuest at a marriage ceremony

The Hopelessly Addicted

Dan, the hopelessly addicted World of Warcraft player, is the main protagonist of the documentary. We follow his life in more depth than the others, blow by blow, by sordid blow. He is close to 300 pounds in weight, lethargic, and at the time the film catches up with him, he's living in an unofficial 'MMO gaming addiction therapy centre'. In actuality this is an unlicensed, untrained woman's house that she opened up to gamers, and where she basically runs them through an alcohol addiction course for games.

Dan blames World of Warcraft for all his life's troubles. He had a thriving business he claims, until he purchased World of Warcraft. The game sucked him in, to the point where he was playing 12-14 hours online every day. He stopped going to work, stopped seeing his friends, shopped showering. His weight ballooned, his health deteriorated. He lost his business, the bank foreclosed on his house, he lost his relationship, and eventually he lost the game as well.

Now, part of this story rings true - World of Warcraft is dangerously addicting. However, it is only addicting in the same way that alcohol is. If you have nothing going for you, you drink yourself into a stupor. Thus, whilst Dan's story may be true, it is hardly indicative of the greater population.

More sort of a worst case scenario of what happens when highly addictive personalities are exposed to a highly addicting substance. This does happen of course, and the press are full of stories of lives destroyed by addiction. Perhaps 5% of the population or one person in twenty can get addicted to anything. Yet again and again, the VR world is demonised.

In part WoW does deserve such demonising, as it is a grindmill: it sucks players in and rewards them for time spent in world, levelling characters up. Stronger characters means they can do more, get better loot, explore higher ranked areas, socialise in large clans, et al. The documentary covers these aspects too, even touching on one guild of 600 World of Warcraft players and how they have formed up outside the world as well.

Back with Dan, we hear from the woman who runs the facility, the upsetting story of another man, just like Dan, who reached the end of his tether. Dan tells us of how at the end, before he sought out help, he was ready to commit suicide. He wanted to end his life. He tells us this over and over to make sure it sinks in. The lady who runs the place relays her tales of the other man who shot himself because he could not go on - shot himself at the PC with World of Warcraft running on it.

Dan decides it's all too much for him and leaves the 'addiction centre', heading back home to Philadelphia where he manages to move back in with his folks. As time progresses, he gains access to a computer, and buys a copy of World of Warcraft. From there he follows the same old pattern all over again. It's not the world that is the problem; it's all Dan.

Still, the film crew are not going to let him give up. Over the course of the rest of the film,, he kicks his addiction, and stops using computers entirely. He loses over 100lb of weight, gets active employment, and discovers he loves life. At the very end of the film he tells us proudly that he loves life too much to play World of Warcraft or any VR any more. He will never play a computer game again.

Smiling and happy, he heads off out of his apartment, into the wider world.

Ohhh?kay, so the ultimate message of a documentary about VR is that computers are evil? Seems a touch suspect.

The Household of Gamers

A group of three young bachelors Anthony, Chris and Matt (and occasionally their girlfriends) living together in what can only be described as a pad, are up next. Also Americans - as are all the examples in this film - they live in Fort Wayne in Indiana. Two of the three are unemployed. All are markedly overweight, and the one who does work, constantly gets ribbed by the others, that he is missing out on gaming time.

Compulsive play and 14 hour sessions are portrayed as the norn

The film also includes a married couple who live next door, Andy and Karalee.

The two households collaborated on constructing a third structure between their two homes, which they named "The Fortress of Dorkitude". This spacious clubhouse is filled with sofas, computers, and endless clutter.

It is here the five of them spend most days, logged into World of Warcraft 12-14 hours at a time. They socialise together, game together, and they are their characters as much as possible. This is normal for VR- that the people and the characters become one and the same. But the situation certainly is not.

Andy and Karalee frequently pull all-nighters. They raid on the PC, both playing World of Warcraft, whilst Karalee balances the chequebooks. They typically clock up between 40 and 60 hours of World of Warcraft each, per week.

During the film, the pair prove they still have a healthy sex life, as Karalee becomes pregnant with twins. However, Andy makes a disturbing complaint on camera. He does not know how he is going to deal with having children. They are going to be a nightmare to fit round his gaming.

Yes, that's right, 'fit round his gaming'. It seems Andy is determined that a pregnant wife, and his upcoming kids are nto going to interfere with World of Warcraft, which is far more important than any of them. Unsurprisingly, this attitude leads to escalating tensions between the couple.

Again, we have a decidedly dysfunctional individual, which the film is desperately trying to paint as the typical user of VR.

He goes on to say "Before I met Karalee, I'd never met a woman worth giving up gaming for. And if she asked me to, I probably would. But I know she wouldn't."

How do you even come up with an answer to a statement like that? Beyond grabbing the nearest heavy object and bludgeoning him till he stops twitching, that is.

Karalee's babies are born before the film ends. She still games, and plays Wow. However, it is done in moderation, and does not interfere with her life. Other things have taken priority for her, as they do with most reasonable adults. Perhaps that is why she gets markedly less screen time. Still, her husband's refusal to put her first over the game, is understandably grating, and Andy had best watch out for heavy objects.

Early Love

Our third group are the young lovebirds, Heather and Kevin. They met in EverQuest 2, and grew to know each other over time, moving tentatively out into the physical world, and meeting up for the first time, falling even further in love, and then risking it all. He moved to live with her.

It is a tale that has been repeated countless times across the world, and like all love, it's a rocky path, but the virtual offers a chance to peer more deeply into the id of the other than is easily possible normally.

Why then, did the film makers pick the most dysfunctional couple on Earth? Oh, right, the whole 'prove gamers and VR users are stereotypes' thing.

Heather openly tells us that she fell in love with Kevin even though she knew he was openly flirting with every female who came close to him in EverQuest - and frequently more than flirting.

Great. One of those guys. Why did you decide you wanted to be with him? Were you insane?

Kevin likewise admits he's had flings online going back thirty years. He tried to get close twice before. One turned out to be already married, when she claimed she wasn't. So, when he just turned up on her doorstep one day, he got rather badly mangled.

The second, turned out to have something of a violent history. So when he similarly turned up on her doorstep he?got rather badly mangled. Still, when he turned up on Heather's doorstep, she welcomed him in. There might be something of a pattern to his behaviour here.

However, the relationship isn't going well. Both of them seem a bit suppressed aggressive, and are constantly sniping potshots at one another through their segments. Both are rather immature, like overgrown kids really. As time goes on, the relationship deteriorated, and Kevin is on a collision course with getting rather badly mangled.

The Others

The section on MMO economies was quite interesting and well done, although it was more of a newcomer's introduction to gold farming in World of Warcraft and EverQuest two than it was anything else. The opinions of the three groups on gold farming was garnered, and a couple of experts - including Nick Yee - were given their chance to speak their piece. Overall, this was the more balanced part of the documentary.

China was examined, and the role that western virtual worlds were playing in helping to increase the Chinese economy.

All too soon the segment is concluded, and we enter the next phase.

VR and Disability

No documentary on VR would be complete without a section on how VR helps overcome disability. We speak to a couple of experts, and one - count them - one disabled gamer. Andrew Monkelban has no larynx, and is confined to an electric wheelchair. He uses Second Life (although it is never named as such) to interact with other people as an equal. They see only a withdrawn youth, quiet, introspective, but otherwise just like them.

He explains how he has been able to use the VR to open his life up; to learn values such as friendship and loyalty, values he just does not encounter in his shut-away offline life. This story is heartfelt, and tear-jerking, a stark contrast to the ones we have seen up to this point. Just don't blink, you'll miss it.

It starts at 1:12:44, and ends at 1:14:20. A minute and a half, that's all the time he rates. We have a short segment with Mark Sumerix, a game designer wheelchair user, then it's back to the dysfunctional minds of the groups once again.

Andrew Monkelban, and his Second Life life

A key gripe is the way a 'token disabled user' is tossed in for a brief glimpse of the other side of the coin - he's using a social virtual world, not a gaming world, and, after just the barest glimpse, you're dragged back out to watch 'a year in the lives of the most dysfunctional idiots we could find'.

This film could have been great, but with balancing like that, it is relegated to the garbage.

The sad thing is, this film is probably now a key 'intro to VR' for so many people, it's untrue. What do they get for that? A view into the narrowest, foulest, most angst-ridden subset of users the film makers could find. Only once every stereotype checkbox was ticked, are we offered even the hint of other possibilities. They are waved under our noses, just long enough to get a taste, then whisked away again, before they dare spoil the agenda the film is trying to promote.

Staff Comments


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