A still frame from Second Skin (2008) showing a man playing World of Warcraft at his desk

Cinema Quickie: Second Skin (2008)

My nostalgic thirst for all things World of Warcraft has hit hard this year. It’s a pattern that’s repeated nearly every autumn since 2010, wherein the colder weather and dreary days send me spiraling in search of fond memories. And Blizzard’s decade-and-a-half-old MMORPG must be something special because my mind seems to pull me towards my WoW memories above all other sources of nostalgia.

It’s a peculiar impulse, though. I’m not particularly ecstatic about WoW’s systems or minute-to-minute gameplay: I actually prefer WoW’s current iteration to the game that spurred all these fond memories in the first place. In that sense, my positive associations with the game seem… misplaced.

But this year’s COVID-19 pandemic put a different spin on things. Social distancing and quarantining measures are in full effect in the real world. But WoW’s online realm is free of biological threats, affording players a safe place to bridge the social quagmires of a real-world pandemic. And this utility has made me realize that my nostalgic lust for WoW might be less about the game and more about the alternate plane of existence it offers players.

It took one watch of Second Skin, an MMORPG documentary from 2008, to clarify these feelings for me. Set during the heyday of the MMORPG genre, it captures how engrossing these digital worlds can be and (expectedly) the associated risks of addiction. But it also showcases how players can coexist in both the corporeal and digital dimensions and how that coexistence can be complementary.

Back in the 2000s, there was a growing media frenzy surrounding the risks and ramifications of games like WoW. The genre had been around for some time, but when WoW found success outside of the niche market, it elevated the conversation. Suddenly, everyone from news reporters to dedicated gamers and psychologists wanted to understand the consequences and merit of these games. Were they harmless fun or insidiously designed to rob players of their lives and real-world potential?

By surveying all kinds of respondents, Second Skin succeeds at illuminating some modicum of truth about the genre. Among the cast are Heather and Kevin, two EverQuest II players that develop an in-game romance and successfully transition their relationship to the physical world. States away, the film showcases the changing friendship dynamic of four roommates and devoted WoW players as one of them prepares to become a father and another gets married. Second Skin also features a mother who demonizes the MMORPG genre and its developers after her son became addicted to EverQuest and eventually committed suicide.

The resulting pastiche of interviews and confessions from varying perspectives makes Second Skin a candid and insightful investigation into the real-world implications of MMORPGs. And although society doesn’t seem as interested in an indictment of the genre twelve years later, the questions that Second Skin poses still feel relevant.

2020’s COVID-19 pandemic may have been the impetus for more migration to digital worlds. But many players have desired to live with one foot in the real world and another in an alternate reality for some time now. And as digital worlds become all the more alluring and inviting, can you really blame them?

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