On Thursday, September 25, 2008, I saw Second Skin at a screening at The Calhoun School in New York City and was quite impressed. Second Skin is an honest and real look into the lives individuals whom are actively engaged in MMORPG’s, i.e. ‘Gamers’. The film, however, is not an all inclusive look of those in virtual spaces focusing heavily on gamers especially those involved with World of Warcraft, and Everquest. There are brief mentions of non-MMOG platforms such as Second Life, but not the core of the film. In reality Second Skin is a starting point in the discussion of MMOG’s by exploring the many aspects of gamers and their involvement in these worlds.
The story is divided into several stories, the core of these stories revolve around a group of gamers whom play and live together in Fort Wayne, IN (known as the Fort Wayne Boys); a couple who has developed a relationship online and are meeting other for the first time (Heather and Kevin); and a gamer who struggles with life’s circumstances of his addiction to World of Warcraft (Dan). The other and very relevant stories concern those who are physical disabled, lead by Andy (Mienai Kitsune), Gold Farming, and community lead by The Syndicate.
Each of the stories presented are very compelling and real, nothing seems farfetched and you can relate with each of the characters and their stories. Second Skin does a great job is displaying their struggles, their reasoning for gaming, while presenting the many sides of the topic without confusing the viewer. Throughout the Fort Wayne Boys segment, the viewer understands how close-kit the group is, how intertwined their lives are, and how changes in each of their individual lives affect the group as a whole. Their story is one of kinship; a group of people are able to share a bond with each other through an MMOG and incorporate it into their life. There are several surreal moments, one revolves around a conversation about toilet paper, and is only one of the many humorous gems presented through the film. Moments like these remind you that you are still peering into a different lifestyle.
The story of online love, as developed through Kevin and Heather’s relationship, is really a story of meeting the right person and the struggles of building and maintaining a relationship. It is a very compelling story, presented extremely well and connects with the experience of meeting a special someone. If you were to remove the fact that they met through an online game, it would parallel any romantic movie, love story, or romantic story of how two individuals have met and fallen in love. The fact you get to see their struggles, fights, and abilities to work through their relationship problems takes the story from that of two “gamers” whom have fallen in love and turns it into a story of romance.
Dan’s story of video game addiction is one of triumph and life. Throughout the film, I found myself cheering for Dan wanting him to succeed. Dan struggles with extremes, the first is online game addiction and the second is absolute redemption presented by Liz. Through Dan’s introduction you experience the feelings, emotions and thoughts of a game addict and presented this sort of addiction in a very manner way. Liz is presented as a solution as the founder of the Online Gamers Anonymous group, an AA for online game addicts, who is eager to help those afflicted by gaming addiction. As the story progresses, you begin not to like her, as the details her methods, her background in counseling addiction and her process of video game rehab. While there are many things that can be said about Liz, you understand her feelings, why she wants to help, but you get a sense that her methods are mixed with bitterness. Her story is a great opposite view of Dan’s and puts into prospective how game addiction affects others, presenting the subject in a manner rarely presented. Dan, however, triumphs with beating his addiction regardless of the help facilitated by Liz. You are able to see the changes he makes in his life and how he overcomes it. Dan’s story is an honest, real, humanizing look into game addiction and all of the things associated with it.
The smaller stories are equally as important and woven throughout the film. They seem to begin the conversation about many of the other important aspects of MMOG’s and its culture. Andy’s story of accessibility through virtual worlds is a tangent on the topic of MMOG’s, but important as the viewer understands the ability of online worlds (not just games) to enable those whom are constrained in their day-to-day lives. This segment hits right at the humanity of virtual worlds and MMO’s. It is further supported by the story of The Syndicate, that connects many of the larger themes Second Skin presents; that of community building, friendships and contact. Although weak, the gold farming story was compelling purely out of interest. A great job was done in describing the nature of gold farming, its methods, and some of the issues behind it. Unlike many of the other stories, I feel there were some sides that were not fully explained such as the extreme dislike of gold famers in the MMOG community. The viewer gets a brief look into their lives but I wish there was more presented here. The topic of gold farming is a complex one; Second Skin merely introduces it as the topic could be a film all onto itself.
There are topics I feel Second Skin could have further discussed, for instance I would have loved to see more of Andy’s story. I also feel Second Skin missed several topics; its focus is clearly on MMOG’s ignores many of the developments in non-game worlds, and while it briefly touches on this it quickly backs out. Further insight onto virtual worlds in general would have presented a more comprehensive picture of MMO’s in general, but could have made the film more confusing and inaccessible. Much of the film focuses on the stereotypical gamer, although the film hints that this stereotype is being challenged it does not present many other examples of its case. It does say something about the “gamer”, and presents them as regular every day people; a view that mass media fails at presenting. The film it is not an inclusive story of virtual worlds or MMO’s but an important piece. While these are its weaknesses they are also strengths, as it begins the conversation surrounding online virtual worlds by explaining its culture in a very real, understandable and humanizing manner.
Overall, Second Skin is a beautiful, well crafted film. There are great effects, animations, game graphics and story arcs. This is the first real and honest look into the lives of those whom actively participate in MMOG, not just gamers. While there are stereotypes, it does bring upon the question of the gamer stereotype and challenges how they are viewed upon. Rather than focusing on the negative or the surreal aspects of their lives, it humanizes its subjects and presents a fair and balanced look. It does a great job at presenting the many different sides of the MMOG world, and its stories. The viewer connects with the characters in the film as they become tangible, real and human; the message being that these are real people. Second Skin is a very good overview into the complexity of MMOG’s culture and a must see grade A film.
Note: This review is my unbiased opinion of the film Second Skin, however I am in the film and also have helped the members of Pure West Documentaries with some additional aspect outside of my role. I have also become good friends with the members whom have recreated Second Skin. Their opinions, thoughts, or influence had no impact in this review.