Getting Under My Second Skin

This morning I finally got around to watching the much vaunted Second Skin trailer about MMORPGs.

I feel that the framing of the whole thing is wrong. Though virtual worlds have objective dimensions (the code, the UI, the subscribers, the paratext–by which I mean forums, blogs, guild sites, etc.), “virtual world” is also an intellectual construct, a label for an understanding of a phenomenon. This trailer constructs this concept in a way that I think is counterproductive.

To see what I mean, let me first lay out the statements offered by the trailer in the sequence they are offered; no statement is omitted, though some are edited down, and critical commentary from yours truly is offered in parentheses. Let me be clear: I don’t have access to what the speakers intended or their actual beliefs. I have only access to how their statements were cut up and edited. So my critique here is the way that the trailer editor is constructing the discursive space of “virtual worlds.”

  • “We are in a world that is increasingly becoming atomized. We’re all isolated.” (This connects to the virtual worlds as anti-social meme, already prevalent in society and about to be reinforced by a title. It also explicitly undercuts the positive aspect of virtual worlds as bringing people out of isolation and together. I know Ted Castronova–the person quoted here–and I’m pretty sure his take on MMOs is not oriented around the concept of anti-social isolation.)
  • [Titles + music] “A new world awaits … inside your computer.” (That is, it exists as code on your individual machine. Now, the virtual world could have been described as existing in the shared experiences of users, but instead it is described as existing on an individual machine. This follows and reinforces the first point: we are alone/isolated. It also stresses the mechanical aspect of online games. It would be like saying “A new world awaits … on a giant white board in a large and crowded room” to describe film.)
  • “There’s so many people involved in this. Your brother might be a gamer. Your mom might be a gamer.” Graphic: “Over 50 million people play an MMORPG” (I think this is overall a positive statement. Everyone plays, not just weirdos, and I think it de-marginalizes online games)
  • “The syndicate started as a guild. It has developed into a virtual community.” (To me, this is a positive statement about community and undercuts the solitary (and even loser) myth. The problem is unless you know what a “guild” is, this positive line doesn’t mean anything!)
  • “People are driven to be more than what they are.” (Virtual worlds satisfy self-aggrandizing fantasies. So here is not a full blown psychosis [but that’s coming, so be patient], but humans have a reality problem that games are poised to exploit.)
  • “A lot of players have what they perceive as dead-end jobs. They log onto these worlds and suddenly they are someone with power.” (So gamers are real-life power-craving losers and games offer escape from their crappy reality and the masturbatory fantasy that they really are something, when in fact they are not)
  • MMO players have “an obsessive drive” that is “a strange phenomenon” shared by “semi- to truly hardcore” players (i.e., MMO play is a psychosis for anyone serious or even halfway serious about participating. This psychosis moreover is “strange” so apparently it differs from addiction to television or novels.)
  • “We all have our demons” … “If I had the day off, I would just play all day” (in case you missed that gameplay was dysfunctional, here is more, more, more evidence for you! We want to make very sure that you know these people are warped!)
  • “My priority is her [husband points to pregnant wife]” (here is a positive example of someone with his priorities where they ought to be. That’s good. But it clearly is the exception in this reel of dysfunctional screw-ups and one can only wonder what will happen next…)
  • BAM! “I knew I was sick from playing, and I knew I had to stop. 14. 16 hours a day, easily. I would fall asleep in front of the computer. Wake up. Keep going… My whole life just fell apart. So I wanted to just kill myself.” (hope you enjoyed the non-dysfunctional soundbite just before this, because here is someone who is f#@ked up and he’ll get what seems to be the longest quote of the trailer)
  • Onto online romance: a woman describes how an online flirtation became the real thing. “I’m in love, definitely.” Then she smiles and says that they “still have to meet in reality” in a few days. (I interpret this segment overall as a positive, you know, since love in general is a good thing! Other elements of the video undercut the possibility of true love though, including (a) this segment’s juxtaposition with addiction-suicide man just before her; her own claim that they will meet “in reality” suggesting that their love is not yet based in reality, and finally by later claims about virtual worlds “not existing”–which I’ll rant about soon. In this way, a positive element can be perverted into a negative one based on its position within a chain of other elements.)
  • [Title + music] “Seven gamers’ lives are changed forever” (Here the uniquely transformative dimension of MMOs is emphasized. This picks up on the earlier suggestion that there is something new about online games that we haven’t seen before. Reading, TV, movies, rock music, and Internet porn didn’t change these 7 people, but games did. I wonder how 18th Century Second Skin: The Trailer looked, with clips of Jane Austen discussing her troubling addiction to reading and how it prevented her from finding a husband)
  • [Silent montage of people sitting in front of their computers with headphones on.] (The imagery here emphasizes what is going on in physical reality but does so at the expense of any phenomenological understanding of the experiential reality of gameplay. The effect is to emphasize solitary inactivity, rather than the phenomenological fulfillment of the activity. Don’t believe me? How many movie trailers show a bunch of fat people sitting in the theater not talking to each other? The theater experience isn’t about sitting in a chair with plastic arms; it is about the immersive illusion of being in the film.)
  • [Final titles montage + music]: “Identity, community, economy, love, addiction, redemption, achievement, suicide, griefing, gold farming, twinking, grinding, raiding, immersion, society … All in a world … that doesn’t exist” (In an obvious, meat-headed sense, virtual worlds do not exist. In every other sense, including every sense that matters, they very obviously do exist. We don’t turn off our lives to be in virtual worlds. They are a part of our real lives, and by that I mean both (1) activity in games is a part of our non-game real lives, and I also mean that (2) we bring real life into games. First: game activity exists in real life, just like a conversation during dinner or a game of Frisbee or bowling or whatever with friends is a part of our real life. When I travel, do my phone calls to my wife exist? When my accountant does my taxes “online” in Excel, does that mean my taxes no longer exist? Is the teller at Calvin Kline delusional when he lets me walk out of the store with real clothes after handing him a piece of plastic and making him give it back? Second, we bring our real lives into virtual worlds, which is why virtual worlds replicate gender, race, and sexuality issues that in theory shouldn’t even be able to be relevant in virtual worlds. But they are. Now, let me say something about that list of nouns. It is filled with both positive and negative words, which in itself seems fair enough. But which of these got the majority of the juicy cuts in this trailer? I mean, 50 million players–for how many of them is suicide relevant? But identity, which is relevant for just about all players, was just left out of this trailer except its appearance as a title at the end. Yet, speaking personally, my identity play in Second Life and WoW is one of the most creatively fulfilling activities I’ve ever done.)

It is obviously not my position that this trailer presents virtual worlds in an extremely negative way. It offers some balance. But there is a discourse in mainstream society that the major issues surrounding virtual worlds involve addiction, isolation, losers engaging in pointless fantasies, and so on. My friend Intellagirl was recently invited to be on a daytime TV show to talk about how Second Life ruins real life relationships (if I am remember this correctly; if not, I’m in the ballpark). Then we have politicians like Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton talking about games as addictive and violence-inducing. So there is a broad cultural construction of online games that those of us who know about the games immediately understand is fundamentally distorted and preemptive of serious discourse about them.

A documentary like this should be careful not to reinforce this counterproductive cultural construction of online games. But it emphasizes the sensational and negative aspects of online games (I’m not denying that they are there), choosing precisely the ones that reinforce the common narrative about online games. (Example: one negative aspect of online games is griefing, but griefing does not appear in this video beyond a split-second title, whereas there is this focus on 16-hours a day addiction and suicide guy.) So not only is negative content featured more strongly than positive content, but more importantly the negative content that is featured is exactly the same negative content that drives stereotypes about online games: they are for loners, they separate people from “real” life, online games are not real, online games represent the kind of threat to society we’ve never seen before, and holy shit there’s 50 million of them! That’s a lot of people with crappy jobs on the verge of suicide.

If we want to change the stereotypes and produce a more constructive discourse about online games, in which there is a broad understanding of the beauty, enlightenment, joy, sociability, and intimacy of games alongside an awareness of harassment, bigotry, and addiction, then we need to challenge not reinforce the prevailing construction of online games and use the power of film to show people how it is otherwise.


Second Skin responds, sort of, with a short post about this very long post! They don’t even seem to be too mad about it, which is nice. I expect their fans will descend on me frost-enchanted 2H maces soon, though! (You thought I was going to say “pitchforks” didn’t you? Ha! I play games, too.)


  1. jim

    “We are in a world that is increasingly becoming atomized. We’re all isolated.”

    I think you misunderstand the very opening of this trailer..

    I have 2 questions for you…

    1 – is the “we” referring to gamers (“we gamers are in a world..”) or is it referring to people in general (“we, society, are in a world..”).

    2 – Is the world mentioned in the opening quote the virtual world or the real world?

    You seem to assume that the “world” is virtual with the line, “This connects to the virtual worlds as anti-social meme”, but does that make sense in the context of the trailer? Why would he be talking about virtual worlds and then be followed by the text “a new world awaits…”? It seems to me that opening quote is referring to society and their increasingly anti-social habits, leading to the pursuit of a new social virtual world.

    Your foundation is flawed. You got a bit ahead of yourself before really taking in what you were seeing as a whole, you can’t analyze bits and pieces without seeing how they link up. Think you need to try again, look at this in a new light, an open mind.

  2. jeffreybardzell

    Dear Jim,

    Thank you for writing.

    Your position appears to be that I did not watch the trailer closely enough, since on your account I didn’t even understand that Ted was talking about the real world (even though the images accompanying his words were of the real world). You can accuse me of a lot of things, but not watching this trailer closely is rather self-evidently not one of them. Of course I know he was talking about the real world. Since my argument on that point was evidently elusive for you, let me restate it:

    You know before you start watching this trailer that it is about virtual worlds. It opens with a claim that we are all increasingly solitary. (Incidentally, and no disrespect to Ted, I absolutely dispute this claim, but that’s not the point here.) My point was that opening a trailer about video games with the meme that we are increasingly isolated joins together two ideas “virtual worlds” and “isolation” that are often juxtaposed to suggest that games cause people to be loners, or are only played by loners. I do not believe that is what Ted meant (as I say in the post) but it is a claim that is out there in the popular media about games and the opening of the video (presumably inadvertently) reinforces this false understanding. I stand by that point.

    I wrote this blog post (and, for the record, it is a blog post, not a “paper”–I am not normally this casual or tongue-in-cheek in my research), because I care about the ways that games are represented in serious discourses about games. I consider this trailer to be a very important document, and I suspect the documentary makers are sympathetic, not hostile, to games and gamers. I hope that by writing a careful critique of the framing of this content that I can help people understand that the ways that we frame these conversations (including films and trailers) have consequences. I want serious documentaries on games to succeed, and one definition of that is to do so by elevating the discourse around games beyond the stereotypes peddled by the mainstream media. I doubt those who made this documentary really care about my opinion, and I don’t expect them to, but I do hope that readers of this blog come away more sensitive to the subtle ways that stereotypes enter the conversation–even when the good guys are speaking. And if the filmmakers are reading this blog, I assume they are serious and responsible enough to appreciate my efforts and my voice, even if they don’t agree with every single thing I write. That’s good enough for me. And if I displease Anonymous Jim, well, I can live with that as well.

  3. jim

    “My point was that opening a trailer about video games with the meme that we are increasingly isolated joins together two ideas “virtual worlds” and “isolation” that are often juxtaposed to suggest that games cause people to be loners, or are only played by loners.”

    Again, no it does not. You are putting his quote in a context that does not exist.

    The trailer is about a documentary concerning MMORPG players’ lives, not really about video games themselves. The quote is about real life, the fact that the trailer is related to MMORPGs does not instantly connect the comment about isolation to the virtual worlds as you think it does. I believe that most people who see this trailer do not know who Ted is, perhaps by name but probably not by face. They will not make a video game connection that you are making, they will most likely take his comment for what it is and take the “we” as society itself, not any one specific group..when you say “we are all” I wonder if you extend that to all people or just gamers. The trailer needs to start somewhere, by showcasing a line about real life isolation it sets up the desire for virtual world interaction quite nicely.

  4. laurabrunetti

    I got to see an exhibit called the WoW Pod at the MIT Museum when we were out in Boston. It came to mind when the trailer talked about becoming increasingly isolated and that folks played “for 14-16 hours a day.. easily.”

    The exhibit’s specs:

    Click to access WOW.pdf


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