I recently caught a 2008 documentary about MMORPGs called Second Skin. They focused on seven individuals (most of whom played World of Warcraft) and what kind of lives they led. Two of the people had met through EverQuest, and started a relationship that, within the course of the movie, progressed to them living together. Four of the guys were housemates until, again within the course of the movie, one of them got married and another had twins. The last individual became addicted to WoW and ran into a number of significant life issues because of it.
I had missed hearing about the movie when it first came out, and seeing it now struck me as an interesting way to see how both the gaming culture itself and how it was portrayed had changed over the course of eight years. My wife and I discussed the movie afterwards, and we both felt it was pretty superficial, not only in largely depicting gamers in a stereotypical light, but also largely not addressing any issues with sexism. Some racism was shown, but not really addressed as such. They did at least bring up some issues regarding how disabled individuals can use these types of games to escape some of their physical limitations.
Now some of the overall direction here is probably owing to when it was made. While Neverwinter Nights was first released in 1991 and EverQuest debuted in 1999, World of Warcraft wasn’t released until late 2004 so not much formal writing and/or critical thought had focused on it yet. That said, the social issues in MMORPGs aren’t exactly new. They could have been covered in 2008, but the broader gaming discussion would largely sweep such discussions under the rug, and it was clear the director didn’t want to pursue that lead. The games were still used as a scapegoat for many of people’s problems, including a suicide that was mentioned.
At the end, as I said, I found it to be a fairly superficial and at times misleading documentary that did nothing but propagate existing negative stereotypes. It seemed like the directions came to the table with a very specific point of view, and crafted their film to showcase that, instead of coming with an open mind and letting the events of the documentary drive the narrative. So imagine my surprise when a quick Wikipedia search shows that, in 2008, it was very positively received with some absolutely glowing reviews.
This tells me two things. First, it says that the broader conversation has clearly shifted. More people are now exposed to some of the realities faced even in idealized worlds, and so the social issues that were frequently ignored are closer to the surface. Second, it says that the people who have been very vocal about gaming issues are having their voices heard. People like Zoë Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian are getting their messages across and, even if some hard-headed groups deny any problems exist, there’s enough progress being made that the issues are just being ignored altogether.
I’d like to think a movie like Second Skin couldn’t get made today. Not that I wish ill against anyone involved with it, but I’d like to think that anyone who, in 2017, specifically avoided some of these major issues would simply have their film tossed aside for being irrelevant. Art is a reflection of life, and neither the gaming industry nor this documentary did a good job at that back in 2008. I’d like to think both have matured a bit since then.