Reviews

Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza

USA, 2008

Credits

Review by Katherine Follett

Posted on 06 May 2008

Source 35mm print

Categories The 2008 Independent Film Festival of Boston

By all rights, I should have gone into Second Skin with my opinion on its subjects already in place. Second Skin is a documentary that looks at the world of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMORPGs (often double-abbreviated as MMOs), games such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, and non-game worlds like Second Life. These games can completely swallow the lives of their players. A good friend of mine was only a few months away from his wedding when his fiancée awoke one morning and informed him she was moving to Wisconsin to be near a fellow gamer she’d fallen in love with online. Another couple I was friends with also broke up because of MMOs; she said she was in love, while he said she’d been seduced by “some slimy Dutch Second-Life real-estate mogul.” I’ve even dated a gamer myself, and spent many an hour waiting for a raid to finish so we could hang out.

For much of the documentary, filmmaker Juan Carlos Pineiro-Excoriaza does examine the downside of the MMO world. He interviews a man who lost his job, his relationships, and eventually his house because he couldn’t bring himself to do anything other than play. The man seeks treatment with a woman who claims to help game addicts, though her actions may be more motivated by her need to deal with the death of her son, who committed suicide in front of a computer screen that still ran the game that he’d allowed to eat his life. It shows people preparing for the release of the new version of World of Warcraft, buying piles of foul-looking junk food, taking time off work, and abandoning their significant others.

Second Skin also makes a few none-too-subtle swipes at the general nerdiness of the players, focusing on people with bad teeth, too many cats, and awkward social skills. These people are sad and ridiculous, the film seems to say, and this stupid game is preying on them. And, in fact, many of the gamers were ridiculous. I laughed at them, as did the rest of the audience. A lot of movies about fringe groups, whether they are narrative or documentary, often want you to empathize with these odd characters and become absorbed in their world, but they also want you to laugh at how ridiculous the characters and their world are.

But there’s something else revealed by the fact that I know so many MMO gamers: these are my people. And while many parts of the film obviously did set out to make fun of gamers, I was proud to see that the film was never able to satirize them quite as viciously or wittily as they did themselves. One gamer referred to himself as “the narcoleptic fat guy.” Another dubs a gaming-convention wedding “the nerdiest thing I’ve ever seen.” The gamers constantly mock their chronic weight gain, inability to go outside, and neglect of their spouses. While gamers may very well be sad and ridiculous, they’re also obviously smart, funny, and self-aware. One of the funniest parts of the documentary was when MMO avatars goofily acted out the lives and emotions of the real players. I imagine that the gamers themselves might have animated these parts of the film, and might have been howling at the dorkiness of it right along with the audience. When the film tries to laugh at its subjects, they turn it around so that we’re laughing with them.

The style of the film is fairly typical informative documentary, with talking heads, animated statistics, and a few shots of the unfolding lives of its subjects. And it tries very hard – I would say, too hard – to be even-handed toward the MMOs. After the game-addict counselor tearfully recounts her son’s suicide, we immediately find ourselves in the home of a man who is bound to a wheelchair and cannot speak; we see his avatar skipping through Second Life, as his typed subtitles tell us how he can finally feel free in his online world. Sure, the film says, MMOs can wreck the lives of you and your loved ones, but are you gonna deny the guy in the wheelchair? The back-and-forth juxtapositions of “MMOs: Good or Evil?” seemed a bit heavy-handed and clumsily constructed at times. And the film’s desire to have it both ways, to both empathize with and mock its subjects, left me feeling that the filmmaker’s intentions were a bit exploitive. But in an odd twist, it was the subjects of the documentary themselves who managed to subvert this tone. By being able to make fun of themselves, it’s the gamers rather than the filmmakers who get to have their cake and eat it, too. It’s the gamers who really make this film as funny, entertaining, and informative as it is.

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