I have never played a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) or any online co-operative game. The closest I've come is going into a chat room with a virtual world and people represented by avatar's back in, oh, '97 or '98- forget the name of it, sorry. Basically all I did was wander around and annoy people, talking like a pirate, silently stand right between two people chatting, etc, until I was booted, then my friends and I would laugh and move on to whatever goofy pursuit we were doing that weekend.
While I've known both average Joe's and total nerds who are avid video and/or role playing gamers, my basic image of the kind of people who really dedicate years of their lives to a virtual fantasy world isn't that far removed from the World of Warcraft episode of South Park. I just don't understand how one doesn't grow bored with meaningless fantasy accomplishment or can form a true friendship when they never or rarely meet their fellow game-friend face to face. Director Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza's documentary Second Skin didn't do a whole lot to change that image but it did add a little more knowledge of this very modern phenomenon.
Second Skin ventures out a little to areas like The Syndicate, a selective large game playing community of some 500 gamers, and people with disabilities that find online games provide them with communicative abilities they don't have in the real world, but the real focus is on three different stories. We have a group of four World of Warcraft playing friends who, save for one, live together in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a potential romantic couple who met through Everquest, and a mid-thirties man from Pennsylvania who believes he became addicted to online gaming.
Of the WOW playing friends, the one who doesn't live with the others has a wife who is pregnant with twins and throughout the course of the film another becomes engaged and married. So, by the end, only two remain in the house. They are shown as pretty serious about playing, the sort who camp out for the newest WOW expansion and use their work-allotted sick days to play the game and increase the level of their characters. The odd point about that aspect is it looks pretty joyless, staving off sleep and playing for twelve plus hours straight, and definitely obsessive, like keeping a cooler by the computer because they don't want to waste time going a few feet to the kitchen. All for what, making their little character go up ten levels in a quick week instead of a month?
By the end, while they still play together, the impression that you are left with is that barring an actual romantic life you can be a hardcore WOW player, but, once you actually get a girlfriend/wife and some real responsibilities, being a WOW fanatic becomes a casual pursuit. And, as far as happiness, you tell me who is probably more fulfilled, the two friends with the significant others, children, an average homelife, or the two who are single, living in a ramshackle bachelor pad, and still eating Hot Pockets for dinner?
As for the couple, Heather and Kevin, the film details how they met in an online guild, flirted, and then decided to take the first step to meeting each other in the flesh (he living in Texas, her in Florida) which we see play out. It isn't the first time for either to be involved in an online relationship. The film subtlety plays with her romantic vision and that of the game, contrasting her talk of being in love with him before actually meeting him in person and the medieval fantasy setting of the game where she's a warrior lady and he a knight, a pretty strict contrast to their actual physical selves.
The real world, of course, isn't so glossy. Kevin, who is more realistic, guarded, and jaded, does eventually make the move to Florida and the two move in together. Heather, no dope, quickly sees that there is more work to be had for the two to get along, much less have a ‟love story.‟ While I wont go so far as to say they lack chemistry or don't look to work as a couple, it does seem to be a joining of two socially awkward people. For them, in the impersonal fantasy world it was easier to assume the magic of connecting with a perfect kindred soul, but in reality they have their warts and all to deal with.
The third story, the one that proves to be the most colorful and oblique, is of Dan Bustard, who claims that he developed an online gaming addiction. Jobless, prospectless, and claiming a back injury, Dan dove into Everquest and WOW so intensely that he eventually decided to enter a halfway house offering twelve step recovery for video gaming addicts. Dan is a bit of a working class dude and a bitter cut-up. For instance, at one point, he snidley remarks how a crack addict is better than a gaming addict because at least they have social lives and buddies they can go score crack with.
Dan's story is interesting for two reasons. It never makes a clear case that Dan's gaming obsession wasn't just an extension of other problems like becoming unemployed or popping pain pills for a tweeked back. But, don't tell that to the woman who runs the halfway house, who is tragically (mis)guided into thinking gamer obsession is an addiction akin to drug abuse because she lost her son through a suicide that she connects with gaming obsession (even despite her son being diagnosed with mental disorders). In the second stage of his story, Dan gets himself back on his feet while his brother develops a similar WOW obsession and downtrodden lifestyle just as Dan is rebuilding his own life and losing interest in daily gaming. The message here is muddy but the characters and unfolding events are interesting.
The formatting is pretty standard. Escoriaza never injects himself in to the proceedings. Instead the doc takes an observational stance following the characters along with more formalized talking head interviews with the particulars, other gamers, game designers, and field experts. Aside from the main trio of stories the film also touches on "gold farms," games as a business, and dishes out little factoids along the way (10 males to every female online gamer!). The only problems with the factiods is that their source isn't quoted. The film breezes over some aspects, like actual MMORPG gameplay or the contrast of how people choose to express themselves online. There is also some contradictory stuff like when interviewee experts proudly spout hyperbole about how your online gamer could be a kid or a grandmother yet the facts are that most online players are between the ages of twenty and thirty. Lets face it, mine is the first generation to grow up with household games and the internet, so it remains to be seen what kind of gaming activity we will sustain as we get older.
The DVD: Liberation Entertainment.
Second Skin is presented in a pretty typical standard fullscreen. I'm not one to quibble too much with documentary aesthetics. Its a tough genre, one that usually means little resources and funding, if any. So, for what it is, the picture is fine, no real issues beyond the rougher source which us relatively clean and well-composed.
Again, like the image, much the same goes for the 2.0 Stereo track. Here we get the pure basics and as such the audio package is solid if aurally unremarkable. No subtitles or close-captioning though, which is a shame, especially for a documentary.
Beyond the usual breeze-by-it-stuff like a photo gallery and trailer, the disc is packed with featurettes offering extended footage: Avatar Creation (1:23), Dan Bustard (3:31), Fort Wayne Boys (18:51), Heather and Keven (8:20), Talking Heads (25:50), South By Southwest (11:49), and The Syndicate (6:53). Finally, there is commentary by the director and producers. Talk of the pitfalls and hurdles of low budget/doc film making, composing the film, and friendly jokes and insider anecdotes. They begin by saying they will give a list of things they learned and advice for other filmmakers at the end of the film, which they do, but annoyingly just as they get to their final key bit of advice the credits and the track stops.
I went into Second Skin with some solid notions of what your typical online role playing gamer was like. The film gave me a lot more information than I had before, but, despite some of its subjects surface claims of online gaming being a valid form of social interaction and appealing to a larger mainstream than your typical geek, it didn't change my view of online gamers in the slightest. If anything, it backed up the cliches most associate with the niche. The disc is solid offering a good presentation and nice round of extras. I learn towards a rental purely because, while informative, the doc lacks the technical or emotional keys to warrant repeat viewing.