'Second Skin' documentary a bleak look at life of online gamers

The new film, which had its world premiere at South by Southwest, makes it seem as though no one playing multiplayer online games has a normal, stable life.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
'Second Skin' is a new documentary that focuses on online games like 'World of Warcraft' and how those games affect their users. Pure West Films

AUSTIN, Texas--For some time I've been hearing about the documentary, Second Skin, which looks at players of massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft.

This evening I saw the film's world premiere in a screening at the South by Southwest film festival, and I came away from the showing feeling like I'd just seen a very bleak portrayal of a limited spectrum of the people that play such games.

I'm quite aware that my opinion was by far in the minority at the screening. The film's conclusion was greeted with raucous applause from a packed house, so it's certainly possible that everyone who liked the film saw something I missed entirely.

But 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.

Of course, that's an extreme view of the film, and I know for a fact that many in the audience saw it very differently. I overheard many saying afterwards that they thought the film was uplifting and a positive, realistic look at these games and the people who play them.

I just don't agree. For me, part of the problem may have something to do with the fact that I've been writing about virtual worlds and online games regularly for more than four years. As a result, much of the underlying context of the film was not even a little bit new to me. And so I think I may have been looking more at the way the film's subjects were portrayed than many of the audience members who, I surmised, were largely new to this topic.

Kicking the addiction
I could have that totally backwards, of course. Perhaps they were mostly hard-core WoW players who saw themselves in the film's subjects. I'm not sure.

But I guess I was a little upset because I think many people are looking at this film as a definitive view on what online games and virtual worlds are, and I simply felt it was far too narrow a view.

So let's examine this.

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.

But Dan can't hack it there and leaves to head back home to Philadelphia where, he tells us, he quickly falls back into his old habits, playing too much WoW at the expense of the rest of his life.

Over the course of the film, however, he kicks his addition, loses many dozens of pounds, gets a job and rediscovers his life. And, he tells us, he likes life way too much to want to play WoW anymore.

The message here? The only way this figure of redemption can get his life back is to quit playing games altogether.

Okay, fine.

Fortress of Dorkitude
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.

The town "is home to a thriving MMO community that lives, works and games together," the film's Web site tell us. "Andy is a seasoned MMO gamer who currently raids nightly in WoW along with his wife, Karalee. Their neighbors, Anthony, Chris and Matt, converted their living room into the Fortress of Dorkitude, where they also play MMOs for 40+ hours a week."

During the film, we see Andy and Karalee get pregnant and have twins. But it seems that it's all Andy can do to drag himself away from his gaming to deal with, first his pregnant wife, and later his newborns. The looks on his face are so telling during the movie: He wishes he could just find a way to make his life fit his WoW schedule a little more, even after his babies are born.

"We're gamers," says Andy. "It's what we do. It's how we choose to live our life."

Or, as he puts it at some point earlier in the film when talking about his wife, "Before I met Karalee, I'd never met a woman worth giving up gaming for. And if she asked me to, I probably would. But I know she wouldn't."

I just squirmed in my seat when he said that.

As for Karalee, as the film progresses, we see her become increasingly uncomfortable with Andy's Wow devotion, especially after their kids are born.

And Andy is seemingly the highly functional member of the Ft. Wayne boys.

Love in the virtual world
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.

For his part, Kevin says he's had online relationships going all the way back to the '80s, and now just wants to make sure his new flame isn't "attached in any way...and that she didn't have a violent history."

He's been burned before, you see.

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.

Hardly great role models for love found in virtual worlds.

Of course, this was just my cynical take on it. Perhaps they're living happily ever after. But I really don't think so, particularly because we see them bickering constantly over little things once they've moved in together.

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.

I know that the filmmakers had to go with the subjects they chose and followed for a year. So they got what they got. But they stood up after the film and talked glowingly about how lucky they were with these people.

Tellingly, I talked to Andy--many of the subjects were in the audience--afterwards and told him I thought the film was bleak. And he told me that, well, he had actually found a new, better, way of separating his game playing from his responsibilities as a father. And that at least a couple of his buddies had recently gotten promotions at their jobs, and so obviously weren't the dysfunctional types society wants to think gamers are.

But those facts weren't in the film, and I think they absolutely should have been. Of course, film production processes being what they are, the filmmakers just ran out of time and weren't able to add that material to what we saw.

It is true that Anthony, one of the Ft. Wayne boys, does come across as stable, building a house and getting married to a young attractive non-gamer woman who seems to help him find life balance. I do applaud that portrayal.

But aside from that, it was galling to me that the filmmakers didn't really seem to give us any other pictures of gamers who are able to play their games while still quite successfully living their lives, working their jobs and having their relationships. And I know they exist, because I know some of them.

What I'm saying, I guess, is that I think this film simply focused too much on presenting us with images of gamers who can't indulge their hobby while still being normal, productive adults.

To paraphrase what a video games writer I know said to me after the film, there really aren't any "normal" people, and that everyone has problems. Fair enough. But I just think that Second Skin painted too negative a picture of these people with no room for interpretation that someone who plays a video game a lot can, at the same time, be someone society would like to hold out as an example of a success.

To me, that's a shame.

See more stories in CNET News.com's coverage of SXSWi (click here).