I attended an early screening of the feature film, Life 2.0, at MIT this week. There were about 75 people there, in a large lecture classroom of the Stada Center (always a treat to visit in and of itself), along with the director, Jason Spingarn-Koff, and MIT professor, Sherry Turkle.
The movie is very well done. An artistic and well accomplished mix of real life footage and machinima (filming in the virtual world). Spingarn-Koff interweaves three stories of Second Life residents whose lives have been dramatically changed by their experiences in the virtual world. It’s a documentary, in that he is following real people, reporting on what he discovers, but it is not an attempt to document what Second Life and virtual worlds are all about. It’s really a character study and a social commentary on internet culture and the immersiveness of virtual worlds/online gaming.
One of the stories is a classic emotional infidelity story – a couple (man/woman) who meet in Second Life, f all in love, and end up separating from their real life spouses. Another is a 30-something man who spends six months in Second Life as a teenage girl avatar. It turns out that his fascination (his fiance, and he, later term it his addiction) with living life as a teenage girl stems from childhood emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. His extremely intense SL experience winds up destroying his real life as he embarks on a psychological journey that he should have been making with a trained therapist in the room. Another is a designer (Asri Falcone) from Detroit who makes a very good living designing houses, clothes, and shoes for Second Life residents. She works full time in-world and, despite her initial success, she runs afoul of copyright theft for which she pursues her case legally. I found her story the most interesting of the three (I loved her spunk and creativity) but couldn’t help but sense the judgment that would be rained down upon her. The movie depicted her life – living with her parents, eating gobs of fried food, extremely overweight in her jammies, chain-smoking cigarettes in her dark, sunless basement – on the computer all night and sleeping all day. I can just imagine what my mother (or anyone’s mother) would say about that. Sigh. Brilliant though she might be, her real life wasn’t drawn as something to aspire to.
After the movie, Jason Spingarn-Koff and Sherry Turkle, got up to make a few comments and take questions from the audience. It was all pretty casual, and nothing particularly profound, but Turkle said that she liked the movie and found it a fascinating commentary on the human condition. She talked about what a boon a virtual world, like Second Life, could be to someone with mental health issues, if it was used as a tool under the guidance of a professional. Spingarn-Koff talked about how he made the film and chose those particular stories to feature.
The movie wasn’t what I expected. I was hoping for a documentary about the whole story of Second Life – the history of its development, what it is, and what it could be. I think what I was looking for was a PBS-style documentary to speak to the story in a more professional reporting fashion. While the director claims to not have a point of view here – he is just documenting his observations – the movie most definitely has a point of view. And it’s not a pretty one. The lives of the people he elects to follow are extremely sad and, quite frankly, more than a little creepy. By choosing to tell those particular tales, Spingarn-Koff is making a strong statement about internet addiction and the fine line of mental health. My concern is that if someone who has never been in a virtual world saw this movie, they would run screaming, filled with fear and apprehension about the dangers. They would firmly place virtual worlds on their forbidden list without ever knowing anything about the millions of solid professional connections that happen everyday in-world, the profound leaps in educational applications, the non-profits that do their work in Second Life, the breakthrough that the virtual world has been for the handicapped, the music, the artistry, or the medical applications. While I know that telling that more fulsome story is not what this director set out to do, I suppose, what I’m saying is, that it needs to be done.