On the eve of the grand premiere of his documentary Second Skin, director Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza was kind enough to speak with me about the making of the film and what he had learned over the three or so years it had been his life.
The first question that came to mind, of course, was, why make this film? That is, what made Escoriaza think that it was time for the world to have a proper documentary about MMORPGs and virtual worlds? Well, it all started with Star Wars Galaxies, said Escoriaza – after being a console gamer for most of his life, a friend had introduced him and his brother to SoE’s MMOG set in George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away.
Though Escoriaza ended up quitting the game out of a reluctance to spend the amount of time necessary to become a Jedi, his friend remained – as the mayor of a virtual town, no less, which meant he was responsible for virtual people. “At lunch, he would go home to check on Star Wars Galaxies,” says Escoriaza, “And I said ‘Wait a minute,’ this is a fascinating experience to have with the game … the whole universe, creating communities within these virtual spaces.”
Beyond that, though, Escoriaza realized how relevant these worlds were becoming – or as he puts it, he saw them as little “microcosms of the universe.” Nor was it just limited to games or worlds like WoW and Second Life, as Escoriaza specifically pointed to social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter as virtual lives and virtual selves that need just as much managing and consume just as much time as EverQuest might have.
“The more we grow our online personas and need to update every single piece of our lives,” says Escoriaza, “this engagement in media creation and social activities in these spaces … becomes more relevant to us as a whole. Virtual spaces in terms of online games? Those are really just the edge of where we’re all going to be in a couple of years.
“What is it about these spaces that are beautiful and incredible? What of these universes should we take and scrutinize – is it a good thing or a bad thing?”
That was the question Escoriaza was determined to ask, though he was determined to do his best not to go in with a preconceived answer in mind. He, too, was a lifelong gamer, after all. “I wanted to find out what was going on in this space, to find real people that were going through significant events at this time … someone who was engaging both online and real space in an interesting or vibrant way that wouldn’t relate just to us the gamers, but to an audience that might never have played a game before.”
Even if he hadn’t gone into Second Skin with the intent to prove a point, that doesn’t mean that the experience wouldn’t end up changing prior-held thoughts and beliefs, though. “It made me question a lot of things,” he admits, “I was thinking a lot more about the future, and what is happening within our world today that is the future, and how to look at it and use it to our benefit.”
As the stories in the documentary vary wildly in tone, so did his point of view. Over the years making the film, he says that there was lots of oscillation between “This is really good, the most empowering and incredible thing I’ve ever seen,” and “This is the worst thing to happen to humanity.” On the one hand, he’d seen how people with real-world disabilities could spread their wings and thrive in the online space. On the other, he had seen how crippling an addiction to MMOGs could truly be.
Even so, says Escoriaza, that isn’t just a problem of online games. Everyone has their vices, whether drugs, shopping, chocolate or gambling, and if someone hits a rough patch – a dark period – in their life, “something that is benign to begin with becomes a problem.”
But are MMOGs and online worlds ultimately positive or negative things for people? That’s a question that Escoriaza says he desperately wanted to avoid in Second Skin – because it simply isn’t as clear. “Personally, I think that virtual space IS the real world in a way, and the real world is virtual space. Very few things in my real life are real – I live in a house with air conditioning, I never walk on grass, I go from my home, to my car, to work, to my car, to home. Everything is inside this little virtual space I’ve created. It might be real life, but it isn’t nature.”
“We’ve all created all of these different spaces that we feel comfortable in. Is it good or bad? Well, is life good or bad? I believe life is good, so then I believe virtual spaces are good – and they are good, they do things that are good. A small section of the populace finds something detrimental, but we focus on that small section … but we do that with everything. If you watch the news, it’s all negative – who died, what horrible things happened in our real life, and we look at the online space and scrutinize it.”
“Most of the stories that come out of the online space are about love and community and finding good things. Though there are very negative aspects to it, overall it is very positive.”
Positive or negative, many of the stories in Second Skin are intensely personal and intimate, which Escoriaza admits he had trouble with. After spending years filming these gamers and chronicling their stories, there was a trust there that had evolved, and he “felt like part of their lives – we all did … there’s a very close bond created with all of the subjects, and going into the editing room I was, many times, terrified, trying to understand what this story was and how to tell it best.” Some footage was left on the editing room floor, of course. “In the end, it was to be brutally honest and let the voices speak for themselves. The hope and the intent all along was to say ‘Here is what each person said, and why they did, or reacted, or acted in the ways that they did.'”
When asked about which of the stories resonated the most with people, Escoriaza says that it naturally depends on the viewing audience. Gamer audiences tend to relate to the story about the four gamers living together in Fort Wayne, Indiana. On the other hand, the love story tends to appeal to older audiences and women. In a more academic group, the addiction story would generate a lot of discussion – but overall, they found that the single story that hit home for the most people was the short segment about Andrew Monkelban, a disabled gamer who found that he could thrive in an online environment. (An opinion which this particular writer agrees with wholeheartedly)
With all the stories and messages found in Second Skin, the final question I had for its director was a tough one: “If you had to pick one message – one lesson – that you wanted people to take away from the film, what would it be?”
A difficult summation given the breadth and complexity of the issue, to be sure. “Coming from the fact that I feel really embedded in online culture in general, where my fingers are glued to the keyboard,” Escoriaza muses, “I feel we need to talk about it. We need to discuss how we’re going to keep on going.”
“I might want to be embedded online for the rest of my life, but I feel that my eyes don’t look at things normally anymore. I’m so used to this constant flow of information from me to the computer and back. The message should be education and awareness of where we are today.”
So yes, if he hopes Second Skin does anything, it’s simply to get people talking as “a precaution as we move into the next stage of our evolution … we need to ask ourselves: ‘Should we be farther in, or should be wary of how far in we are today?'”
Of course, it isn’t all virtual worlds. Lately, Escoriaza admits that he’s spent most of his gaming time playing the recent XBLA title, ‘Splosion Man. “I keep playing it because it’s so addictive,” he laughs.
Believe me, we know the feeling – and as Second Skin shows, so does he.