Life 2.0: Second Life Examined

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Today’s review highlights why Netflix streaming can be better than other options for movie watching (if it could only get and keep more movies!). I hadn’t heard of Life 2.0 (2011), or the video game experience called Second Life, which apparently got some heavy media attention around 2010, when this film was being made. I don’t think I would have found this if I only had the DVD rental option from Netflix. It’s one of those titles that you can find when aimlessly searching through the listings on my PS3, that seem interesting in the description but truly represent an unknown. You could find a hidden gem, or you could find a turd.

Luckily, I found Life 2.0 to be a very interesting, compelling, thought-provoking, and disturbing documentary. If you read the three reviews on IMDB, apparently people who play the game don’t agree. Well, you know the old saying, “opinions are like a**holes, everyone stinks except your own.” But these 3 reviewers really missed the point. One person said “it fell into the trap of featuring the “unique,” because the day to day is pretty standard.” How would the day to day be something worth watching? Once the director decided not to insert himself into the movie a la Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, the only logical choice is to focus on subjects he and his audience would find interesting. Another said “Unfortunately, Jason Spingarn-Koff followed along with past media treatments and gave us yet another ugly-side-only look at SecondLife with content that could have been fit into a 10-minute Dateline segment.” There’s a lot of ugly here, but if that’s all you see then you’re being judgmental about everyone in the film. Of the four main subjects in the film, there’s only one that I completely had no sympathy for. The third reviewer writes “They could have at least chosen someone who had a normal life and documented how it affected them, not videotape someone who clearly has a lot of problems. Not all users who play the game are like those three y’know.” Well, I think the two people in the adulterous relationship had a normal life. As did the fellow whose avatar was a little girl- he had a normal life before the game.

As someone who has not played the game, and doesn’t feel like I have to defend it, I felt the filmmaker was being fair to the people in the film. The first people introduced in the film are a couple who are both having an affair. One is a married man living in Canada, the other a married woman with a daughter in the United States. Yes, I was immediately disturbed by these two as they retreated to the virtual world of Second Life, and indulged in fantasy, escaping from their realities, which the filmmaker doesn’t really show us. We can’t judge whether or not the game caused the dysfunction in their marriages, or if there was dysfunction that led them to seek the fantasy of Second Life. One can get the feeling from the way they talk about their affair that they are defective people. Nothing throughout the course of the film changed my mind about the gentleman in this affair. He talks early on about how he is committing “emotional adultery,” a term he uses, with an awareness of how in many ways what he is doing is more harmful to his marriage than a purely physical betrayal. He is the one person in the film that I didn’t have sympathy for at any point. I don’t necessarily think he was an evil person, but he didn’t seem to be someone  capable of learning from experience like adults should. I did feel sympathy towards the woman, who for some reason really buys into the fantasy of the game and her relationship. Eventually fantasy is eclipsed by reality, although a bit too late for her. There is a brief segment of her daughter, who seems to be taking the changes in her life in stride. But she has her own kid version of Second Life that she plays. I think the filmmaker was saying in this that despite all the apparent damage her parents’ marriage suffered from this video game, these sort of games are so ingrained in our culture that there is a passive acceptance of them. Or perhaps the daughter was unaware of how her mother met her lover?

The third person the film follows is a middle aged woman who has created her own houses, outfits, and more within the game, and using the monetary system of Second Life, has created a business that makes money for her in real life. All while living in her parents’ basement. She sleeps during the day and is online for 15 hours during the night and morning. Although this may seem pathetic, the viewer quickly recognizes that she is a creative person with a good eye for design. You sense that if things happened differently in her “first” life, she could have had a successful line of clothing or something. But then you question whether or not the virtual world is diverting her creativity from real life, and keeping her from really taking risks to become successful in a more traditional first life sense. But according to her, she made a lot of money for a time from her virtual creations. But the economic downturn and a hacker threaten her ability to maintain her success. This portion of the film highlights how intellectual property in a virtual world is creating new legal implications. What is property in a virtual world? How is that protected by our current laws? While these questions and more are raised in an interesting way, it also was frustrating to know that this documentary is dated by now, and you don’t know from the film how the legal system’s handling of Second Life and other virtual worlds has evolved. I also wonder if my ignorance of the existence of Second Life means that its popularity has reached a plateau, or if I am just ignorant.

The last person followed by the documentary I found to be the most disturbing initially, but at the end of the film you understand why a grown man would use an 11yr old girl as an avatar. You will recognize that while his real life fell apart as his Second Life obsession grows, he discovers something about himself that will actually help him heal himself and move forward in his life. Or apparently if you have played Second Life and feel you have to defend it, you won’t.

So, yes, you may ultimately have to view Second Life negatively on some level after viewing this film. The capability to lose oneself in a game with fairly crappy graphics is a bit scary on some level. Losing hours of your life to something that is really not life is scary, but also something that we all do on some level (fidget much with your cellphone, anyone?). As someone who has played more traditional video games, I can relate to a game’s escapist charm, or it letting you live a fantasy life for a few hours. Where else can I be a world class soccer player? But there is at least some cognitive distance (for the average adult at least) inherent in these games, because I know am not Lionel Messi, or a Call of Duty soldier. I believe Second Life can still be a game for many people, but it also allows people to become their avatar. This dynamic is what makes Life 2.0 an interesting film worth your time and consideration.

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