BioWare, being the awesome, nerd-friendly company that it is, has treated us to private showings of Second Skin. The documentary on the lives of a few MMORPG hardcore players has received positive reviews from the MMO community, so I was eager to take a look at it.
I have to admit I’m disappointed in Second Skin. It purports to present an unbiased view of the subject, and while the lack of preaching on the dangers of game addiction was refreshing, I felt neither side had a coherent argument to present. As a result, I didn’t feel the movie offered any insight on why MMO players play the game and build relationships with fellow players.
It got me thinking, though.
I’ve known a fair share of hardcore players addicted to the online gaming lifestyle, both in my MUSH days in University, and more recently while playing WoW. While Second Skin didn’t offer any outrageous tale I hadn’t heard before, it got me thinking on how close I’ve flirted with online gaming addiction myself.
You see, I did do the online dating thing myself, way back when. I’ve flown to a few cities in the US in the hopes of transforming an online romance into something tangible. These attempts never imploded violently as much as they fizzled out; online gives you the illusion of proximity for a while, and then you meet face-to-face and realize there’s still a chasm to cross to truly be close. Online worlds aren’t so much alternate realities, as much as a refuge from the one reality we all live in. It’s not to say I haven’t made dear friends over the Internet (some of my longest-lasting friends I met through social gaming), but these friendships grew into something concrete once pulled out of their gaming context, instead of existing solely through online.
Ultimately, that’s the lesson I took away from online social relationships. They are real, and sometimes very significant, but they exist in a space that’s a refuge from the real world. And when a relationship exists in a place of comfort away from the rigors of the real world, it’s hard for that relationship to exist in the real world you’re trying to escape in the first place. I’m glad to say online dating is something I moved away from quite a few years ago.
I don’t know what prevented me from truly falling into online addiction myself. I mean; I did, for a while at least. Helene would surely agree that she had to put with some grief during those times when I was obsessed with World of Warcraft. But somehow, these things passed, perhaps because I never tolerated that they would put real elements of my life at risk. Somehow, this has prevented me from falling down the cliff, where my real life would have slowly eroded around me. Something inside me forced me to keep my life and play in balance.
That’s the kind of reflection I would have liked to see in Second Skin, I think. Not some self-professed expert exhalting the values of “synthetic worlds”. Not a Dolores Umbridge-like videogame addiction “expert” still seeking revenge on games for the death of her son. (Although the tragedy of that story – of how a geek seeking solace in videogames was persecuted by a concerned mother – was pretty haunting.) I would have liked Second Skin to truly take a hard look at online worlds, and understand its illusory promises and limitations all at once.
Because beyond all that, there is a reason why we game. It is neither a simple addiction nor a utopia of acceptance, but a social phenomenon all in itself, a symptom of an information age where, as Gordon Walton of BioWare Austin puts it, we are estranged from our neighbors against all conventions of human social instincts. Online worlds are the new tribes of the Information Age. They exist in World of Warcraft and Second Life, but they took root way before them, in BBSes and newsgroups.
And, I’m afraid, the exploration of this reality by traditional media has been merely skin-deep.