Judge Erich Asperschlager is a level 30 Blood Elf. Online, he's an Orc Mage.
Our review of Second Skin (2000), published June 5th, 2003, is also available.
Reality is only skin deep.
The independent documentary Second Skin is an eye-opening look at the worldwide Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) phenomenon. What drives more than 50 million people to spend a large part of their lives in a virtual world? For some, it's the game itself—building a character and going on quests to fell mythical beasts and collect gold. For others, it's a social environment—a place to meet like-minded people. For many, the appeal is in the anonymity. No matter how awkward, overweight, or isolated in "real" life, a player can be as powerful and attractive as they want to be online. Second Skin follows seven gamers as they find love, deal with life changes, and even fight addiction.
Facts of the Case
Second Skin introduces viewers to the world of MMORPGs by way of players, their significant others, game developers, and experts. It mixes talking head segments with real-life stories and in-game footage created especially for the film to cover topics ranging from MMO basics to the morally and legally ambiguous practice of "gold farming"—hiring low-wage workers to earn in-game gold to sell to other players for real money.
This documentary was a labor of love for director Juan Carlos Piñiero Escoriaza, and co-producers Victor Piñiero Escoriaza and Peter Brauer, who found their core group of subjects by putting the word out on the Internet for gamers with interesting stories. What their film shows is that for all the warfare and sorcery of these online games, their appeal boils down to social interaction. Some players use games like World of Warcraft as a way to stay in touch with far-flung friends. Others play to make new friends, sometimes starting romantic relationships with people they've never met in real life. For an unfortunate few, the games are a dangerous form of escapism that destroys their real-world relationships. Second Skin introduces us to all these kinds of players.
Skin is built around three major stories: the so-called "Fort Wayne Boys," four friends who live, work, and game together; a budding relationship between gamers Heather and Kevin; and Dan Bustard, a Philadelphia game addict struggling to rebuild his life.
Whether or not Fort Wayne, Indiana, is the "shangri-la" of games that Matt Ellsworth says it is, it's hard to argue with the passion he shares with housemates Anthony Cronin and Chris Mitchell, and married pal Andy Belford. With its arrangement of computer desks, their house looks more like a small office than living space. The friends play World of Warcraft together, communicating in-game through headsets despite sitting right next to each other. They also work at the same cell phone company, taking the same time off to prepare for the release of the WoW game expansion Burning Crusade. Andy, in fact, sets aside four of his seven allotted sick days for a marathon gaming session, assuring his pregnant wife that he'll still have plenty of time off when she gives birth to twins. These guys are hardcore. They're also far more dimensional than the preceding paragraph makes them sound. When he's not playing WoW, Anthony prepares for his wedding to fiancée Becca. Matt gives eloquent, thoughtful interviews that show him to be more than a "destroyer of guilds." Chris quietly deals with how the changes happening in his friends' lives affect him. Despite Andy's bouts with obliviousness when it comes to how much effort it takes to raise twins—in one interview he says he'll probably have to cut down to only three six-hour weekday gaming sessions—he's a loving husband and a loyal friend.
Representing the romantic possibilities of these online worlds are Heather Cowan and Kevin Keel—EverQuest II players who met and fell in love in the game and are about to meet in real life for the first time. Their relationship has all the ups and downs you'd expect when two people who fall in love over a long distance bring their lives together. It's sweet, sometimes sad, and ultimately inspiring—whatever you think about the possibility of finding real love in a virtual world.
On the opposite end of the gamer spectrum there's Dan Bustard, who lost everything—relationship, family, business, house—because of his addiction to EverQuest II and World of Warcraft. When the filmmakers met him, he was living in a halfway house for game addicts run by Liz Woolley, founder of Online Gamers Anonymous. Dan and Liz's complicated relationship is one of the most contentious parts of the film. As the story unfolds, you learn more about what drove her to help game addicts, and what happens to Dan once he moves back to Philadelphia. His story is a powerful reminder that for many people, playing online isn't a game.
Juan Carlos, Victor, and Peter approach their subjects without any obvious bias. It would have been easy to treat the MMO subculture with either the disdain of those who don't participate in it, or as completely misunderstood. That they wanted to make this film at all shows they are sympathetic to gamers. Still, it's hard to watch the film without feeling unsettled. These games attract people who are unhappy with their real lives—with their jobs, their towns, their social status. What responsibility do game developers have to help players avoid spending unhealthy amounts of time in these worlds? Is World of Warcraft developer Blizzard the next Philip Morris, making huge profits off of addicts? Or does excessive gaming reveal a deeper problem with society? When people don't have the human interaction they crave in their day-to-day lives, it makes sense that they would look for it online.
The small number of gamers interviewed for Second Skin does not represent all 50-plus million people who engage in some sort of persistent online world. Most gamers are well-adjusted and capable of balancing the game with real life. Others, though, are not so fortunate. Not everyone who struggles with games is a Dan Bustard, though. It would be easier to deal with the problem if it was that obvious. Some people are like Andy, whose relaxed attitude towards fatherhood and stubborn refusal to change his gaming habits disturbed me far more than Dan's spiral into addiction.
You might be tempted to watch this documentary online for free instead of picking up the DVD. Its full screen, 2.0 stereo presentation doesn't necessarily require big screen viewing. But if you do that, you'll miss out on the impressive collection of extras this disc has to offer. The feature-length commentary, recorded by Juan Carlos, Victor, and Peter, is insightful and funny, with plenty of behind-the-scenes stories. They even give advice to budding documentarians, though their final thought is cut off by the end of the track. There's nearly an hour of additional material that either got cut from the film or appears in slightly different form, including 19 more minutes of the Fort Wayne Boys and a "Talking Heads" segment which was the first edited piece of the film. The disc also includes the filmmakers' video blog entries from the SXSW festival where Second Skin premiered, a seven-minute piece they created to thank "legendary gaming guild" The Syndicate for their help making the film, and a photo gallery.
What this film's creators get right that so many press outlets get wrong is that online games are about relationships. So is this movie. It is unflinching and at times disturbing, but always respectful of the people who play these games. Second Skin may not have the broad appeal of 2007's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, but considering how many people enjoy MMOs, it should have no trouble finding an audience. That's good, because this documentary deserves to be seen.
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