Second Skin

So I just watched Second Skin, a documentary — as far as I know, the only documentary — which focuses squarely on the lives of on-line game players. As someone who is writing now on World Of Warcraft I’m always interested to find videos and films about MMOGs which I can teach and which convey to students, who often have not played these games, what life as a gamer is like both in- and out- of game (you can only show Make Love Not Warcraft so many times). Second Skin succeeds admirably, is put out by an Extremely Indy Company (the envelope containing my copy had my address hand-written on it. There is some guy hand mailing these. That is indy), inexpensive (US$18), and true-to-life — I’d really recommend it to anyone who wants to get a picture of these worlds.

At root, the movie follows the stories of three groups of gamers: a group of friends in Fort Wayne who try to manage the transition from slackerdom to being married parents with real lives while also managing the transition from World of Warcraft 1.0 to Burning Crusade; a man who became addicted to the Internet and his relationship with the woman who runs the Internet Addiction Recovery Group he joined and later left (and that woman’s own troubled relationship to her son — transference much?); and a couple who met online, fell in love, and spend the movie trying to keep their real-life relationship going.

Most of the gamers involved play World of Warcraft of Everquest II, and their stories ring very true to anyone who has extensive experience playing these kinds of game. The film makers do an excellent job of demonstrating how meaningful life on line is for people, especially people with sucky real life jobs. At the same time, they show how unfulfilling life on-line can be compared to the actual world. Walking this fine line without demonizing or glorifying the lives of hard-core game players is probably the finest achievement of the film. The portrayal is so true: the rooms strewn with empty soda bottles, people explaining how the ennui of their jobs makes raiding seem better than real life, and of course the numerous protestations that people would stop playing the game is their girlfriend/spouse/job asked them to. Finally, someone who understands the interesting story about MMOGs is not RMT and gold farming, but overweight Americans eating cheese spray and falling asleep at their keyboards trying to level to 70.

The movie has its flaws as well — in an attempt to be scarily complete, it has segments on disabled people who play video games, Chinese gold farmers, game conventions and cosplay, and real life guild meetings. I appreciate just how much was fit into the film, but at times I felt that we lost focus of the main thread of the exposition. This is a particularly big deal for me, because I need a 50 minute cut of this movie to show in class (or even 60 minutes). Remix, anyone?

The film also spends a lot of time flipping back and forth between people and their avatars — which is fun at first, even if it is a pretty established thing to do (‘get it? he’s a Night Elf!’). However after a while one tires of shots of two people walking hand and hand down a beach, and then their two avatars walking hand and hand down an avatar beach. Also, although many of the visuals in the film really help convey the complexities of game mechanics, at times they look strangely fakey to people who really do play a lot of WoW. In the battle of the Machinima, I think the South Park guys win over the Second Skin guys.

These quibbles aside, however, there is no doubt that Second Skin is well worth your time. I’m not a visual anthropology person or a film scholar, but as far as I can tell the movie is not just ethnographically true, but pretty well made — in particular, the Internet Addict and the woman who seek to save him are given plenty of screen time, and as we learn more about each of them we are able to understand the complexity of their relationship, and the ambiguities of ‘Internet Addiction’ (is the Internet addictive or is the guy an addict?) and all with a relatively light authorial hand. In particular at the end the guy looks like Brando in profile. Like the young Brando.

So if it is out in Netflix, or if you have a couple of bucks to spare, or if you have ILL powers, I’d highly recommend this film — if you are looking to learn more about MMOGs, this is the way to do it. If you are an educator looking for something to show students, its also great. Hats off to the guys at Pure West — here’s hoping they’re getting ready to do a sequel on Cataclysm!


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

4 thoughts on “Second Skin

  1. Interesting review, I’ll have to check this “Second Skin” out. I annoyed me a little that the writer kept mentioning MMOGs. It’s no real big deal, but with “MMOs” the G is implied. I’m just nit picking though, I guess.

  2. Yeah, i watched this movie on Netflix and it blew me away. As a gamer, i found it surprising that a movie had so much to say on subjects i thought i knew about.

    Kudos to the filmmakers indeed.

  3. Thanks for the review, Rex! I just watched the trailer and I definitely plan to check out the movie.
    Another documentary that might be of interest to anyone studying virtual worlds is “Avatars Offline” – the DVD is discontinued and fairly hard to find, but it’s an interesting film anyway.

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