Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Second Skin

I’m an avid gamer, and have been from the earliest days of the video game industry’s nascent home and arcade growth in the ‘70s through to today’s consoles. And yet, I’ve never understood the appeal of MMORPGs or their maniacal players who devote significant amounts of their lives to playing them. Second Skin attempts to lift the veil on these true gaming fanatics, offering a peek into their mindset as well as their attempts to balance their virtual lives with their real ones.

The filmmakers take a balanced approach to the subject matter, neither condemning nor praising the individuals who choose to escape into virtual worlds. They located an interesting mix of featured gamers and spend enough time with each of them during the course of the film to get a good feel for each person’s motivations and struggles. However, there’s an extremely limited scope to the games featured, with only reigning champion World of Warcraft and EverQuest 2 receiving any attention. Those are likely the biggest current online gaming communities, but far from the only ones out there, so the limited scope and in-game footage unfortunately plays out a bit like an unintended commercial for the games.

For most of the featured gamers, their virtual lives are at least as important as their real ones. Most of them spend at least as much time online each day as they do at their jobs, leaving precious little remaining time for sleep, actual human interaction, or any other activities. There’s clearly a health impact associated with this level of gaming, as shown by the generally pasty complexions and portly dimensions of the gamers, and yet their mental health seems fairly solid for all but one. These are not closeted teens living in their mom’s basements, they are intelligent 20-something career individuals who have their own homes of some sort.

The most intriguing gamer is probably the guy who moves from Huntington Beach, CA to Fort Wayne, IN for the sole purpose of living and gaming with three of his other clan members. Oddly, he also seems like the most well-balanced of all of the featured gamers. He somehow meets and falls in love with a girl while in Indiana, and the documentary follows their resulting pregnancy through to the birth of twins. There’s an amusing interview with him and his girl during the pregnancy where he tries to lay down the ground rules seriously stressing that his gaming will still be a top priority after the birth, later followed by her inevitable sniping about his need to rethink those priorities. This level of personal revelation gives the broad film appeal beyond just the gaming cognoscenti, making it easily accessible to any interested viewers.

Second Skin is now available on DVD. It includes a bevy of special features including more footage with the Fort Wayne boys, additional discussion about virtual worlds and avatar creation, production commentary, and SXSW world premiere vlogs.

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