A new documentary about virtual worlds called Second Skin debuted at the South by Southwest Festival over the weekend, and it's already causing controversy for portraying gamers as social defectives. Though the filmmakers clearly want to offer a positive view of massive multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, they nevertheless managed to focus the documentary almost entirely on people whose immersion in virtual worlds destroys their engagement with the real world. Either that, or the relationships that the gamers form via the virtual world are shown to be unstable and perhaps even illusory. C|Net's Daniel Terdiman wrote a fascinating essay about the movie after its debut, pointing out how strange it is that we're still getting these one-sided portraits of the "loser gamer" despite the fact that gaming is fast becoming the most popular form of entertainment in the world.

Terdiman writes:

My take was that the film—which focuses mainly on three distinct stories, a gamer who is so deeply addicted to World of Warcraft that he loses almost everything in his life; a household of gamers who spend almost every waking, non-working hour playing; and a couple in the early stages of a relationship that bloomed in EverQuest II—depicts these people as largely dysfunctional, out of touch with the world around them and not very capable of dealing with that world . . .

We're introduced to the film's main redemption figure, Dan, when he is vastly overweight and tells us his WoW addiction cost him his relationship, his business and his home. Now, he's living as what amounts to a patient in the home of a woman who runs a video game addiction support group . . . Another major story line is that of a group of grown-up adolescents who live together in a house in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and who play WoW almost every minute they're not at work or asleep . . .

That leaves us with our lovers, Heather and Kevin. After meeting in EverQuest II, the two began to fall in love, even though Heather admits that she knows Kevin was also flirting with several other women in-game at the same time . . . Over time, they meet in person, consummate their love and eventually move in together. And while it's never fully spelled out, my take on their relationship was that both of them were passive aggressive, immature and that if they somehow managed to make it past a year living together, they would begin to hate each other.

My problem, I guess, is that the stories presented in this film did not present anyone living a life enhanced by their experiences with MMOs.

Terdiman's point isn't a simple, knee-jerk "we need only positive images" one. He's just asking for balance, for a way to imagine virtual worlds as integrated in the real world — the way it is for millions of completely normal people all over the world.


Imagine a movie about people who watch movies which introduced us to movie-watchers with broken relationships, addiction problems, and difficulty with socializing. Would these problems be traced back to their movie-watching, or to something else? Probably something else, because we think of movies as such a natural part of our lives that we hardly blame them for neurosis (except in extreme cases). And yet entering virtual worlds is still demonized, still held up as something terrifying, despite the fact that its as ubiquitous as movie-watching.

Second Skin is a kind of antifuture movie, which characterizes people who enjoy pop culture that is currently ascending as pathological. So what do we fear more? Virtual worlds or the future? Or is it really the same fear in the end?

Second Skin documentary bleak [C|Net]