Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: Second Skin is outstanding. It is a documentary that does what it should: document. There’s very little in the way of agenda or self-aggrandizing. There’s no narrator, no artificial plot or conflict created by the director, and some loose ends are purposely left hanging and questions left unanswered. What we have, then, is a thoroughly compelling, entirely engrossing exploration of online games and the people who play them. Director Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza follows several individuals from a variety of walks of life who all happen to play some form of online role-playing game such as EverQuest or World of Warcraft. Through the course of the film we see how these online games affect the lives of the individuals–for better or for worse–and also hear thoughts and insights about online games from game developers and other industry insiders. And while online gaming might seen like a strange subject for a documentary, it’s the way in which these games affect the subjects of the film that transforms the film from a mere curiosity to a must-see for anyone who either plays online games or know someone who plays them. And there’s a lot more than you might think.
The individuals that Pineiro-Escoriaza uses as the subject of his documentary are fairly normal people: they have jobs, significant others, and social lives. But the one thread they all share is their love of online gaming. And I don’t mean love, like one might say “I love cookies.” These people game (yes, it is a verb) for six, eight, even twelve or more hours a day. Online gaming has, in many cases, supplanted reality as the preferred method of social interaction for these individuals–and in some cases for very good reasons. As is pointed out through interviews with the gamers as well as developers and academics, online games and their social communities can be a place where looks, cultural background, talent, and past failures are entirely erased. In essence, the first time anyone logs on to World of Warcraft or any one of the hundreds of online games available, he or she is free to create a dopplegänger that can literally be anyone he or she wants it to be. In a world where people are so often judged by looks, clothes, social status, and myriad other factors that belie the true character of the individual, online games offer a refuge in which people are free to live out alternate lives free of the prejudices and trappings of reality. And within the massive constructs offered by these worlds, people are free to pursue goals, gain new skills, meet friends, even join secret societies and elite clubs like The Syndicate. A compelling alternate-reality existence indeed.
Careful to not gloss over the complications of living this type of life, Pineiro-Escoriaza shows the good and bad sides of how this passion (some would call addiction) affects the subjects of his film. Andy Belford is a man who moves to Indiana to live with three other men he met online, and the four of them form a friendship that is deep and fulfilling both in real life and online. Kevin Keel moves from Texas to Florida to be with Heather Cowan, a woman he met on EverQuest. And Andrew Monkelban, an individual severely crippled by cerebral palsy, is able to life a fulfilling virtual life within the confines of his computer screen, meeting people, forming relationships, and enjoying simple activities like walking in a park that are beyond his reach in reality. Liz Wooley, a woman whose son committed suicide after becoming so engrossed in World of Warcraft that he lost touch with reality and took his own life, is now committed to helping gamers with their online addictions and even provides a safe house and a 12-step program. But with all the positive ways in which online games affect the individuals of the documentary, there are plenty of downsides too. Keel and Cowan have incredible difficulty relating to each at times, and are forced to deal with the many struggles inherent in merging lives in the real world. Belford and his friends drift apart after marriages and children begin to take over, and encounter an entirely new set of difficulties when they try to balance their love of (addiction to?) online games with newfound responsibilities in real life. And Dan Bustard, a healthy and prosperous man in real life, becomes so entrenched in playing World of Warcraft that he loses his friends, job, girlfriend, and even thinks of taking his own life.
Interspersed throughout the stories told in Second Skin are a number of interviews with couples who have found each other online, brief investigations into the shady practice of Gold Farming, history lessons on online gaming, as well as the aforementioned interviews and comments from actual game developers (though, curiously, none of the individuals behind WoW, EverQuest, or any of the other online games which are the subject of the film). In fact, more than most documentaries I have seen, Second Skin succeeds because it accomplishes the goal of the medium: it documents. And while there is always more to the story than what is shown onscreen, it doesn’t really push one particular viewpoint over another. Is online gaming good or healthy for people? How much online gaming is too much? Is is normal for people to take sick days off work just to play a World of Warcraft expansion pack? Such questions are raised but not answered, and instead left for the viewers to decide. And while the film does leave some loose ends, it does offer as much conclusion as possible on some of the storylines. But beyond the basic interviewing and reporting, Second Skin is a thoroughly engrossing and often entertaining look at a subset of a subset of our culture that is actually a lot bigger than most people realize.
Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is Bustard, who eventually kicks his gaming habit not through the help of Wooley and her program, but through sheer will and determination. In the end he regains his health, trims his waistline, and decides that even a solitary walk around town on a snowy evening is far better and more satisfying than any excursion in an online gaming.
Last 5 posts by Simon R.
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