Much press has been given to Second Life, the virtual world/social network "game" in which participants can live out their fantasies in a polygonal wonderland, free of the restrictions that come with real life. Imagine a perfectly visualized chat room, only with its own user-created socio-economic structure. Companies have found clever ways to monetize the free experience, while over 15 million users work virtual jobs, buy virtual items, have virtual sex, and dance the night away in virtual nightclubs.
Life 2.0, a new documentary by Jason Spingarn-Koff, finds a human story within the world of Second Life, by focusing his attention on the experiences of four of its users. One is a young woman working from her basement, making a six-figure salary designing clothing and houses for sale in Second Life. A male Second Life addict tries to make sense out of his relationship with his created avatar, an eleven-year old girl that he feels controls him through the game, not vice versa. In another thread, a couple tries to bring their Second Life romance into the real world, despite being committed to other partners.
By putting a human face on the participants, Spingarn-Koff is able to help us understand the society of Second Life, while creating an incredibly compelling human drama. I don't have an addictive personality, so it's hard for me to relate to the desire to spend countless hours living out a fantasy in a "fake" world. Spingarn-Koff makes it real to me, by making the people real to me.
I was frustrated that some of these people couldn't just turn it off and go get real jobs, go forge real relationships. It's a knee-jerk reaction on my part. Their argument would be that they are participating in real jobs and relationships -- they're interacting with real people on the other end of their computers, despite their digital avatars. I can't argue that, but the film makes the strong case that the casualty ends up being the lack of flash-and-blood connections in real life.
Fantasy is fantasy for a reason, and when you try to make things too-good-to-be-true manifest themselves in reality, the results can be heartbreaking. Life 2.0 doesn't do Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, any favors in making their world seem appealing. Here, it's a life-consuming facade of flickery, floaty graphics that wrecks people's actual lives.
Expertly edited, Life 2.0 mixes human interviews with their interactions in Second Life. The film never intentionally passes judgment on its subjects, but it would be hard for most audiences not to do it themselves, especially those that don't play Second Life. The couple in the film carry out a startlingly superficial romance for two grown adults, a digital fantasy of moonlight walks on the beach and tantric virtual boffing under a waterfall. When they start having real life rendezvous, and their marriages fall apart, it's no surprise that the thrill of their perfect, false relationship is troubled the very minute they have to deal with things like divorce, kids, or household chores. It even looks difficult for them to hold a conversation that goes beyond sweet nothings.
There are a lot of deep psychological issues at work within Life 2.0, and while each issue is specific to the participants, they're also blanketed with a universal desire to escape real life. Spingarn-Koff has found the perfect characters for his absorbing documentary. Life 2.0 cuts deep into its subject of with laser precision, getting right to the emotional heart of the matter, exploring a problem no one had to deal with even ten years ago, in a fascinating and very human way. I still may not understand the desire to immerse one's self in a fantasy alter-ego, but I fully understand now how deeply it can affect someone's actual life.