When making a feature-length film for the first time, most directors encounter at least one unanticipated obstacle. But Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, director of Second Skin, a documentary about online gamers, has one particular complaint that may be a first.
"When you're getting trounced by monsters, it's actually very hard to get the right kind of shot," he says laughing.
Piñeiro Escoriaza also fell off cliffs and died repeatedly in order to capture footage for his innovative film. Or, at least his borrowed avatar did. To allow audiences to seemingly climb inside the video games his subjects played, he entered their virtual worlds as one of the characters and used a software program to capture the action so it could be transferred to the big screen.
"It was really difficult," he explains, "because if the monster knows that you're there and you're not fighting or doing anything, it'll run after you."
The result is a film that not only gives audiences a tantalizing glimpse inside the games where 50 million players inhabit virtual lives as their computer-generated alter egos, but also contrasts it with the real-world lives of the people who feel compelled to play the games for hours on end.
Piñeiro Escoriaza uses a visually stunning trick to make the comparisons, jumping from bland landscapes of Indiana with browning lawns and crackerbox houses to vivid cartoon-like computer worlds featuring shimmering mountaintops, castles and soaring dragons. He uses the technique for the film's humans as well, allowing us to meet them in real life and then morphing them into their animated avatars.
These humans include three sets of gamers: four buddies from Fort Wayne, Ind., who work together, share a house, and play World of Warcraft en masse; a couple who live in separate cities and fall in love via Everquest II; and a man who ends up at a center for on-line gaming addiction after losing his relationships, his business and his house.
Outside the box
So maybe you're thinking, "What? A film about geeks?" And, sure, the film may have a few, but it also raises intriguing questions about the ways we all use technology, and the ways technology impacts the world we share.
"I think it's a misnomer when you hear 'How can they do that for so long?'" says Piñeiro Escoriaza. "Being a gamer isn't so different from using Facebook or Twitter ... Whether I'm gaming or not, I'm always in front of a screen of some kind ... working on a project or just e-mailing or chatting with someone."
In some instances, the games seem to reach beyond individual lives into the larger world.
One interesting side trip brings the film crew to China, where rows of young people spend long hours in front of computer screens working as "gold farmers" so that less industrious gamers don't have to. The virtual gold they earn playing online games is then purchased by U.S. players for real cash, who use it, in turn, to buy things in synthetic environments. Chinese officials, concerned that gold farming could affect the value of the yuan, recently banned the practice.
"There were a lot of surprising moments in making the film," says Piñeiro Escoriaza, "and I think there was a lot of... back and forth between saying. 'Oh wow, this is incredibly empowering and these communities are thriving in such a beautiful way,' to saying 'Wait a minute, how bad is this for society as a whole? How much are we doing inside these boxes?'"
The film does bring forth the darker side of gaming, including the potential for addiction, but the filmmaker gives equal time to pointing the camera at positive aspects as well — especially the strength of communities that form online.
Couples meet and marry, friendships begin and cross into real life: "There is so much to be said for the online community," says Piñeiro Escoriaza. "In fact, almost all of our relationships with our subjects in the film began online as well."
Beyond friendships, the film points out some less obvious benefits to gaming. Piñeiro Escoriaza says many players value the opportunity to create lives from scratch, beginning on equal footing. All gamers start with nothing and build their characters over time, an experience some describe as a "true meritocracy," says the filmmaker.
"When you get online you don't have a class, you don't have a race, you're not stereotyped because of the way you look or what you're wearing," he insists.
And online worlds can add excitement to gamers' lives, he says.
"It's very hard not to live a mundane life right now. Everything around us is like the bowling alley, where we have those bars that keep us from going into the gutters. We live in this world that has a lot of safety ... So to get out there into a virtual space, you're able to release some of that need for danger and adventure that we all have."